Utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham

Utilitarianism was introduced because of the influence of the civil and industrial revolutions which led to the emergence of a new class of citizens who had influence in freedom and equality. The revolution brought many benefits to the individuals and put them in a state of free competition. However, each individual’s interests caused not only conflicts but also conflicts between individuals and society. In the end, people demanded a reorganization of morals and laws to resolve such conflicts. Utilitarianism comes out mainly from consequentialism where the results and ends are what is based on to make a decision. In any situation with an ethical dilemma, Utilitarians must think what will produce the most happiness and have the least misery for the majority. Only by the result can they decide whether or not the action was rightful or wrongful. When determining the happiness and the unhappiness of an action, one should not put someone else’s happiness more important than that of another person.

The origin of Utilitarianism was introduced by Jeremy Bentham who tried to provide an objective standard of doing what is ‘right’. This principle, which Bentham claims, is often called the principle of maximum happiness. In fact, the principle of utilitarianism is rooted in David Hume’s philosophy. According to Hume in his book “A Treatise of Human Nature”, Hume argues that human beings are slaves of passion. Human beings are not being subject to rational reason, but are being controlled by mind or desire. According to Hume, good and evil is merely the pleasure or displeasure of our emotions, moral approval if any object is pleasurable, and denial if we are offended. Getting pleasure is useful, and being useful means satisfying my needs. Based on this, Bentham argues that the problem of right and wrong should be judged based on merit.

According to Bentham, every human being seeks pleasure and seeks to avoid suffering. ‘Nature has placed humans under the dominion of two monarchs, pain and pleasure. It is up to these two monarchs to decide not only what we will do, but also what we should do. ‘ Bentham’s claim is based on psychological hedonism. In other words, no one can escape pleasure and suffering. The focus of our actions is on promoting the happiness of everyone involved in the action. Happiness depends on usability and ultimate purpose of our actions. That is, it depends on the output of pleasure. And pleasure is inherently good, and it is measurable only quantitatively. Though the concept by Bentham was meaningful, it had many objections because it denied individual rights as well as how people will actually measure and calculate the level of happiness.

With these views, John Stuart Mill denied Bentham ‘s quantitative utilitarianism and claimed qualitative utilitarianism. Pleasure has qualitative differences as well as quantitative differences, and more importantly quality than quantity. Although Mill makes different claims to Bentham about pleasure, it does not deny the basic principle of utilitarianism. Mill adheres to pleasure and pain as the sole motive of human action. Only the difference is the qualitative difference of pleasure. For Mill, mental pleasure is more important than sensual pleasure. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied: Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” “The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals, utility or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Meaning, those who insist on low-level pleasures have not yet seen mental pleasures in their experiences.

While Mill focused on the consequences of an action, Immanuel Kant focused on the question of “What is morally right?”. For Kant, moral behavior is derived from the sense of duty and is performed. Kant had three basic claims. First, whether or not one’s action is from good or evil is determined by the act not the outcome. Second, the moral obligation itself is the unconditional purpose. Third, our will must have the universality or moral purpose for what we should follow. Kant argued that the outcome lies outside the capacity of our will and cannot be a measurement of morality because it can be influenced by so many variables and coincidences. The judgment of moral good and evil can only be made in relation to the will of a person. Only by good will is one morally good.

In Kant’s Formula of Humanity, he commands that in all man ‘s personality, humanity should be used not merely as a means, but always, for the same purpose. The definition of ‘humanity’ here means our rational nature as a rational being. And our rational nature can give purpose to itself. We have practical reason and have ability to set our own goals. And we can use something else for our purposes. This is because it is good or because we think it is good. If so, it means that we regard ourselves as the ultimate purpose. In other words, the rational being and his rational nature are ultimate purposes. Ultimately, this formula itself means to act so that all rational beings can exercise their reason freely and autonomously. Like the Formula of the Universal Law, the Formula of Humanity rejects the generalization of lying. Victims of liars will not respect the rational ability of the liar making their rational ability to perform inappropriately. And since the liar achieves his purpose only by ignoring the rational ability of the victim, he treats the rational ability of the victim as a simple tool for his purpose. For Kant, good will is at the heart of his ethics and is a moralizing element of man. For Kant, ‘good’ is ‘following the moral law’ and good will is the will to follow these moral laws.

Both Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Deontology have major problems. To start off will utilitarianism, it does not fully consider individual freedom. Also, happiness of the majority is the only important factor whereas the happiness of minority is disregarded. Not just that. Utilitarianism focuses exclusively on maximizing the total amount of social benefit which advocates the logic that purposely justifies the means. In the society that we are in, it will be quite difficult to ignore the stance of the minorities. And by justifying that doing wrong for better ends will be highly criticized today. Problems of Kant’s Deontology are quite different from Mill’s Utilitarianism. Deontology defines ethics with absolute rules based on obligation and between many obligations, it would be difficult to resolve the conflicts.

In the 21st century, I think Immanuel Kant’s Deontology provides a better guidance for doing what is right than John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. First off, I do not agree to Mill’s Utilitarianism, because it rejects the opinions of the minorities if it is for the greater good. A radical example would be if I had to kill a classmate to save the rest of the class. Utilitarian must think that it will be okay to kill the classmate and not feel guilty about it at all because he gave happiness to the majority. Though I do not fully agree with Kant’s Deontology, I agree with him is some parts and believe that among these two ethical standards, Deontology will provide a better guidance for doing what is right because of the Deontological ethical system. Deontology emphasizes the value of all human beings and believes that there is always a good behavior as well as bad behavior. No bad action should ever be taken, no matter what good outcome the bad action produces. Deontology also provides certainty. Consequential ethics leads to some degree of uncertainty about ethical decisions, and nobody can be certain of what will result from a particular act. However, ethics based on Deontology is free from this problem because it is related to the act itself. If an act is morally right, one should do it. On the other hand, if the act is morally wrong, one should not do it. Not just that, Deontology handles intent and motivation. Utilitarianism do not have a direct interest if an action has been performed with good or bad intent. 

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