Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-19, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 15 June, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2019.

 

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Utilitarianism


core definition

Utilitarianism is the view that actions are right because they are useful.


explanatory context

This sometimes takes the less oppressive form that conduct should be guided by the principle of bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

 

Utlitarianism is sometimes referred to as Benthamism, a reference to Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher (d. 1832) who advocated this political doctrine.


analytical review

Ethics Unwrapped (Univerity of Texas at Austin) (2019) states:

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. It is a form of consequentialism.

Utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It is the only moral framework that can be used to justify military force or war. It is also the most common approach to moral reasoning used in business because of the way in which it accounts for costs and benefits.

However, because we cannot predict the future, it's difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad. This is one of the limitations of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism also has trouble accounting for values such as justice and individual rights.  For example, assume a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. If a healthy person wanders into the hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of one life. This would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider it an acceptable course of action, let alone the most ethical one.

So, although utilitarianism is arguably the most reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations.

 

Nathanson (undated) states:

Utilitarianism is one of the best known and most influential moral theories. Like other forms of consequentialism, its core idea is that whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects. More specifically, the only effects of actions that are relevant are the good and bad results that they produce. A key point in this article concerns the distinction between individual actions and types of actions. Act utilitarians focus on the effects of individual actions (such as John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln) while rule utilitarians focus on the effects of types of actions (such as killing or stealing).

Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness). They reject moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions, or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarians think that what makes a morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human) beings.

The most important classical utilitarians are Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill(1806-1873). Bentham and Mill were both important theorists and social reformers. Their theory has had a major impact both on philosophical work in moral theory and on approaches to economic, political, and social policy. Although utilitarianism has always had many critics,  there are many 21st century thinkers that support it.

The task of determining whether utilitarianism is the correct moral theory is complicated because there are different versions of the theory, and its supporters disagree about which version is correct.... The most important dividing line among utilitarians [is] the clash between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. [to see this discussion go to the article]


associated issues

 


related areas

See also

arts and crafts movment

socialism

capitalism


Sources

Ethics Unwrapped (Univerity of Texas at Austin), 2019, 'Utilitarianism', available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism, accessed 15 June 2019.

Nathanson, S., nd, 'Act and Rule Utilitarianism', Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at https://www.iep.utm.edu/util-a-r/, accessed 15 June 2019.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2019


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