Utilitarianism is a teleological theory, meaning that it looks at the consequences of an action to decide whether that action is right or wrong. It generally relies on the principle of utility, which is a measure of how useful an action is. Utilitarianism is a relativist system as it does not provide fixed moral rules however, is flexible in a given situation.
Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism in 1789 and he stated that the principle of utility will help a person to decide whether an action is good or bad. He believed in quantitative utilitarianism which is “the greatest good for the greatest number”. In other words, an action is right if it brings about the greatest good for the majority of people. Bentham was a psychological hedonist; he was concerned with the role of pleasure and pain in decision making. He used the hedonic calculus to measure pleasure in terms of intensity, duration, certainty and extent. Bentham also said that every situation is judged individually and every action is judged on its own merits (act utilitarianism).
John Stuart Mill developed Bentham’s theory and thought that searching for basic pleasure was an animal instinct, and that humans are capable of more than this. He believed in higher and lower pleasures; the higher pleasures, pleasures of the mind, being things such as education and the lower pleasures, pleasures of the body, being things such as food (qualitative utilitarianism). Mill had respect for rules that are formed to benefit society (rule utilitarianism).
The principle of hedonism (happiness) is very important and both Bentham and Mill argue that intrinsic good (the only thing that is good in itself) is happiness or pleasure. This supports the fact that utilitarianism is relevant in the 21st century because it is echoed in the current educational climate, where “happiness” has been taught subject in many schools. Schools are encouraging their students to fulfil their higher pleasures (pleasures of the mind) in hobbies they offer to them such as different kinds of sport and art. Bentham is careful to balance out pleasure with pain when referring to the quantity of happiness that we achieve through our actions. His utilitarianism promotes selfless acts which discourage selfish acts such as lying or stealing, therefore it is showing that by choosing to act more morally with selfless acts we will be creating a better and happier environment for everyone. What brings humans happiness should be decided by looking at the consequences of our actions because it keeps everyone in touch with the day to day matters which is why utilitarianism is relevant in the 21st century.
The principle of hedonism is a timeless principle as it reminds us that we should strive to achieve happiness whilst avoiding pain. We should work towards the greater good and overlook our individual differences. Bentham said, “The greatest good for the greatest number”. This could be put into action in governments of the 21st century as it will always help to satisfy the needs of the majority which is the best thing a government can hope for in its country. Although this may seem unfair as the minority is being “forgotten” it is, however, fairer long-term. If governments strive to make everyone happy all the time, it will become more likely that no one will end up happy. Utilitarianism brings about more happiness which is relevant in today’s society. Therefore, Utilitarianism is the only practical ethical system for governing large groups of people and it provides us with the most simple, yet powerful, ethical guideline which is to strive for happiness but only at the same time as minimising pain.
However, utilitarianism can also be seen as not being relevant to the 21st century because by promoting happiness over other goods, it reduces morality to being simple. Morality is complex, challenging and torn between conflicting duties and interests that often bring about equal amounts of pleasure and pain. This means that there must be some other way of differentiating between what is considered right and wrong.
Some people may argue that happiness isn’t powerful enough to make people act in the 21st century. People continue to carry out actions that cause more overall pain than happiness such as forcing sex on a person or the abuse and neglect of children. There needs to be punishments in place to discourage these kinds of actions. Therefore, many would say that Utilitarianism supports evil by placing the emphasis on the outcomes of an action rather than the action itself. Also, there must be more to life than achieving happiness and avoiding pain which therefore must mean that hedonism seems to go against our common sense.
Overall, I think that utilitarianism is relevant in the 21st century because it is the only practical ethical system for governing large groups of people and it provides us with the most simple, yet powerful, ethical guideline which is to strive for happiness but only at the same time as minimising pain.