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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Is utilitarianism relevant in the 21st century?

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. 

H.D

18 comments:

  1. A great post looking at a few different angles on this - well done! I think there must be some Greek roots to this... anyone who has been in my General RE may be able to contribute?

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  2. (I'm not an ethics expert I'm afraid!)

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  3. This is a very interesting post. How does Preference Utiliarianism compare in terms of relevance? There are also strong and weak versions of Mill's Rule Utilitarianism - do you think one is more relevan than the other?

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  4. awesome insight to utilitarianism and the 21St century!

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  5. Interesting post. Many would argue that Utilitarianism is outdated however your contextual analysis of how it can be applied to the 21st century proves the theory can still be utilised. Is it the best ethical system however? Many would argue that religion offers the best ethical system.

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  6. This is a very well reasoned argument, I am very surprised in how UT can be applied to the 21st century as I did not think it could be justified however you have changed my mind! excellent response to the question.

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  7. Well written and Interesting post. It would be good if you mention Act, Rule and Preference UT.

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  8. This has really helped to conclude all of my knowledge on Utilitarianism.

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  9. Well written, good detail and interesting to read.

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  10. Very interesting and really helped my knowledge of utilitarianism

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  11. Annaleigh Richards12 December 2013 at 09:39

    This is a very well thought out post with lots of information that has helped me revise my knowladge and conclude my opinion of UT. To add, Bentham once said, "Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin (a simple children's game) is as good as poetry." Although he then contradicted himself by saying, "What is good and bad for each person is upto each person to decide." There Bentham will take personal preference into account when making a moral decision through Act UT. (According to my notes).

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  12. this post was very useful and expanded my knowledge in utilitarianism and helped me to understand it more

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  13. this helped me put together all th ideas on utilitarianism and helped me summaries what it was all about

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  14. An interesting area for utilitarianism in the 21st century is health economics. As a health economist myself, we are charged with maximising the return on health care investments, which means we want to maximise health and use NHS resources as efficiently as possible. We have a framework (delivered by NICE) where 'health' is measured using a metric called the Quality Adjusted Life Year - QALY. If we want to maximise QALYs given a fixed budget, then it's argued by some that we're working within a utilitarian philosophy.

    You can find an interesting paper here:
    http://pauldolan.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/utilitarianism-and-the-measurement.pdf

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  15. I do agree with the writer of this blog because they have put across a very strong analysis which is supported by factual evidence of how utilitarianism can still apply to the 21st century and this therefore proves to the reader that utilitarianism is still relevant to the 21st century. However some readers may believe the writer is wrong because utilitarianism is outdated due to being used for many many years and that the 21st century doesn't need utilitarianism anymore. This has help me understand that whole aspect of utilitarianism and this links into medical ethics that i am currently studying at A/S. E.BA

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  18. Very helpful post. Thanks a lot. Helps me understand more about Utilitarianism.

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