John Stewart Mill defines Utility as pleasure itself, and the absence of pain. Utility can also be defined by the Greatest Happiness Principle. This principle is defined as “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mill 365).
By this definition, pleasure and the absence of pain are the only desirable ends, and the only things that are good. This concludes that actions are only good when they result in a higher level of general happiness for the majority of people, and bad when the action decreases that level of happiness. Actions are determined right or wrong in Utilitarianism by what action produces the greatest overall happiness for the greatest number.A distinguishing characteristic of Utilitarianism is that it is impartiality and agent-neutrality. Impartiality and agent-neutrality meaning everyone must be consider equal and everyone’s happiness is equally important. Utilitarianism relies on the idea that consequences of actions determines whether something is right or wrong, or just or unjust. Everyone affected by an action is taken into account, and the action is then determined good or bad based on the consequences of that action. Utilitarianism can be broken down into two types; act and rule. Act utilitarians determine an action is good or bad based on the consequences of that action alone and varies circumstance to circumstance. In contrast, rule utilitarians believe that actions are morally correct only if the rules put in place lead to the greatest happiness.
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An argument against act utilitarianism is that it does not possess a fundamental moral significance on justice. Justice can be defined as, giving a person what he or she deserves, in more traditional terms, giving each person his or her due (Velasquez et al. 1). To know what is just and unjust we must know and understand our human and legal rights, have equality, and fairness. Those who understand and know their rights knows an action is unjust if that action violates their human or legal rights.. For example, being convicted for a crime and put in prison without being found guilty of a crime would violate our legal rights and would be easily deemed as unjust. Similarly, if two different people committed the same exact crime but one was allowed to go home without punishment, and other goes to prison would be deemed as unjust because the lack of equality, and fairness. Act utilitarians can determine the correctness of an action by one simple question, Does this particular action maximize happiness? Yes? Then the actions is considered morally correct. There are many circumstances when just actions do lead to optimum happiness. However, there are many situation when unjust actions could lead to most happiness. According to act utilitarianism, it would be permissible for Americans to kill all Japanese people living in America if there are more Americans and if they would all be extremely happy if all Japanese people were dead. This is an action that we as humans would normally say is morally impermissible, but can be deemed permissible by the reasoning of act utilitarianism. If act utilitarianism is a correct moral theory then it must also mean that it is acceptable to violate someone’s legal and human rights in various circumstances.
This argument can be illustrated by the following scenario. Suppose a healthy young pizza delivery girl walks into a hospital to deliver a pizza to a patient’s family. At the same hospital there are five patients all in need of different organ transplants. If the five patients do not receive the organ transplants within the next day they will all die. The doctor of these five patients comes in contact with this pizza delivery girl and realizes shes a match for all five of his patients and decides to kill her for her organs in order to save the lives of his five sick patients. Act utilitarians would deem this permissible and the morally correct thing to do. Although the doctor killed a healthy innocent person, the majority of people would be happier and benefit from this action. If these types of scenarios occured in a universal world, nobody would ever go near a hospital ever again. In addition, people would constantly be living in fear of being killed off for the benefit of others happiness. These type of unjust actions are sanctioned by the beliefs of act utilitarianism, even though they violate basic human rights. Similar to the hospital scenario example, similar concepts can applied with personal possessions, property, school systems, government, and the list goes on.
Act utilitarianism implies that a certain action is morally right or wrong if it simply promotes more happiness for the greatest number of people. Act Utilitarianism favors happiness over justice, and in a universal world the beliefs and concepts of act utilitarianism could never be possible. Because act utilitarianism permits unjust actions that conflict with deeply held moral beliefs, act utilitarianism can deemed as a flawed moral theory. Act utilitarian reasoning is consequence based, but we must also think about other moral principles. Moral principles such as human rights, and how our choices and judgments reflects on us. Consequences matter and are a large part of morality, but morality is much more then only the consequences of our actions.
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