Utilitarianism is a secular ethic; an idea that the moral worth of an action can be determined by its contribution to utility, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as agreed among all persons. The single principle of utilitarianism is “the greatest amount of good, for the greatest number of people”. It is teleological as it is based on consequences and not set rules and it relies on egality as it has adopted the principle of ” each to count for one and no more”. Utilitarianism can be contrasted with deontological ethics (which do not regard the consequences of an act as the sole determinant of its moral worth) and virtue ethics (which focuses on character).
To begin with, the theme of democracy is very central to the principal of Utilitarianism. It encourages a democratic approach to decision making, as the majority’s rights are considered. This is very much advantageous as any chance of dictatorship is decreased dramatically and more often than not, maximum utility is achieved. Utilitarianism demands consensus as it explains that an action ought only to be done if it brings maximum happiness to all parties affected. It is concerned with the majority, and the majority is usually morally just. With the majority’s rights being primary, chances of prejudice in society are unlikely. If a society were to be utilitarian then it would be a society free of prejudices, the majority would be cared for despite race, gender, age, class, ability (or disability). This is one major advantage of utilitarianism.
Secondly, Utilitarianism offers compromise and fairness as each case is to be judged on its own merit. Since the principle is based on consequences and not set rules, it can be applied where necessary. For example, utilitarianism might condone abortion in cases where a baby would be born into an ominous, unwanted lifestyle, however it might not accept abortion in another instant. Utilitarianism is not hasty in decision making and it considers the chance and the situation, it does not apply liberal, general rules.
Also, I feel that the fundamental ideas of Utilitarianism are sufficient for impartial decision- making, because they are based on consequences and not actions. I feel it is not enough to simply rely on good motives because only the consequences of an action have a real affect on human wellbeing. Utilitarianism depends upon the weighing up of happiness and pain to produce the maximum happiness. The whole principal is concerned with the product, the end result being maximum possible utility and thus happiness. An advantage of utilitarianism is therefore visible as it is an ethic which aims for moral consequences, it quotes ‘an action is only right if it brings about pleasure or prevents pain’. Unlike some ethics it doesn’t rely on judging motives but simply providing morally good consequences, and consequences are of such high importance because they impact human wellbeing.
Finally, many would feel that the close links between utilitarianism and Christianity are most positive. Utilitarianism is very much in accordance with the religion and the teachings of God and Jesus Christ, and this helps many to understand the ethic. In traditional Christian teaching one person’s satisfaction is viewed as just as valuable as another’s. We, humans, are inheritors of the kingdom, not favourites of the court. Grace is not given to the special chosen few, but a free gift given once for all. It’s not a limited product and one person’s salvation doesn’t have to be traded off against another’s. I feel that God might be in agreement with Utilitarianism as we are each his uniquely treasured child and we are all his treasured children. Even Jesus quotes “Do to others as you would have done to you” in Matthew 7:12.
However if a person were still dissatisfied with finding utilitarianism as advantageous then they should consider the other various types of utilitarianism. For example, Rule Utilitarianism is very different from the standard utilitarianism (which is otherwise known as Act Utilitarianism). Act Utilitarianism as explained previously, requires us to act with the best consequences to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. It also stresses that we should not be put off by criticisms as we should act in the confidence that the Consequential Principle is a reasonable method of deciphering between what is right or wrong. Conversely, Rule Utilitarianism considers the overall benefit that will be gained by a society if a particular rule is accepted. Rather than assessing the consequences of an action separately, rule utilitarianism adopts general rules about the types of actions which tend to produce the greatest happiness. I feel that when believing that utilitarianism is advantageous, rule utilitarianism must be considered. This is because it is easy to predict the consequences of everyone following a particular set of rules. Also it does not justify breaking promises, telling lies or more extreme sins such as murder or torture. All of which could be condoned under act utilitarianism, if the circumstance showed that it ‘had greater utility on ocassion’.
Hence I would conclude that utilitarianism possesses many advantages as a secular ethic. It is democratic (as it considers the rights of the majority), it is fair and just (as it judges each circumstance on its own merit), it is concerned with bringing about human wellbeing (as it is based on consequences and not on set rules) and finally it is strongly tied to Christianity. And if all of these clear benefits were not enough to paint utilitarianism in a strong light, then a person must consider the advantages of the varying types of utilitarianism – for example rule vs. act.
However the principal of utilitarianism also holds many disadvantages. To begin with, perhaps the most dominant weakness is the difficulty with predicting long term consequences, correctly.Although some actions can be judged and decided upon based on past experiences there is never a guarantee that circumstances will be the same every time. Utilitarianism is very hard to put into practise, Can anyone argue that one persons pleasure is more valid then anothers? Or that one person’s problem is more important than someone elses? Although some argue that quantity can be measured ( Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus) there is no clear way in which people can measure quality of emotion.
Furthermore, many would be justified in believing that the theory does not promote goodwill or the existence of good morals. This is because it has no motivation for goodwill, since good intentions may very well result in bad consequences.Utilitarianism takes no note of motivation and not all actions that are made with good intentions have good consequences, if there is a good attitude behind an action it is not credited by Utilitarianism.
Expanding on the point of the rejection of morality within the principal of Utilitarianism, consider the bad affects of a majority ruling. With the idea of majority rules one can never assume that the majority want good. Nor that the majority is always morally right, there must be room for minority rights as well. Because minorities are disregarded where Utilitarianism is present, so values such as justice have no place if not respected by the majority. Many feel that Utilitarianism might be a dangerous concept because if the majority felt that something immoral was acceptable, it could be passed as a law in a utilitarian society. And before long, a utilitarian government might see the passing of laws which please the majority only and which a minority of people feel hugely betrayed by. Therefore here Utilitarianism becomes unacceptable as it could justify acts of sadism and torture if they were desired and/or carried out by the majority.
Another moral problem which the theory poses, is that question of obligation and personal relationships with family and friends versus the moral obligation which every person should have to society. Utilitarianism makes no allowances for personal relationships. Although a mother would be drawn to save her own child from a burning building, if there was also a scientist amongst the fire with the cure for cancer, Utilitarian theory would insist that the woman save the scientist as opposed to her own child. For many this is a huge obstacle, making Utilitarianism unacceptable.
Contrary to the link that I earlier made between Utilitarianism and religion, many feel that they theory is very secular. This is because many religious believers would argue that humans have been motivated to endure pain and suffering for something they believe to be right. They might think it is an offence to simply opt for an easy road to happiness and self fulfilment. This theme seems to be consistent throughout the bible: for example Jesus Christ himself endured much pain and sacrifice for his people, the Book of Job shows an innocent man enduring suffering and the case of Joan of Arc demonstrates an experience of pain for the purpose of something more valuable than pleasure. Many believe it is up to God to bring about the best possible outcomes of situations, not humans. And so Utilitarianism would be acceptable to many very religious people.
To finally identify the problems of Utilitarianism, many feel that it is an unacceptable theory as: it is very difficult to carry out practically, the theory does not promote goodwill or the actions of morally acceptable intentions, it makes no allowances for personal relationships, it is anti-religious and in a sense taking God’s role into human hands. And finally and most dominantly, it is unacceptable as the ideals of a majority ruling could promote acts of sadism and torture, suppressing the rights of a minority. Therefore ultimately, it could see the prevention of justice in society.