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Bentham's Utilitarianism Applied to Ethical Issues Essay AS

Updated on June 7, 2013
A young Bentham modelling for the greater good, maximising visual pleasure for the ladies worldwide.
A young Bentham modelling for the greater good, maximising visual pleasure for the ladies worldwide. | Source

Apply Jeremy Bentham's Act Utilitarianism to a complicated real life problem (such as whether or not the UK should legalise the death penalty) and many problems arise that need to be resolved.
The crux of the issue revolves around using the hedonic calculus effectively, which is made difficult by the inherently subjective and unreliable nature of the criteria the calculus uses. Taking 'intensity of pleasure' as an example, much difficulty is found in measuring and predicting the total amount of pleasure that would result from the death penalty: the victims, family & friends of those victims, as well as the general public, would gain a great amount of pleasure from knowing that 'justice' has been served to their culprit. At the same time however, many people (especially the strongly religious) would object to the death of another human being, even if their lives have been negatively affected by that human being, and so no pleasure would arise for those people. Without knowing for sure how many people would actually be happy with the death penalty being put in place and how many people it would affect, it is impossible to make an accurate decision. Overall however, I can find some basis for a decision - on the assumption that because it is not currently legal in the UK it is not currently supported by the majority of the country (taking a very optimistic view on the level of representation in the UK), most people would not gain pleasure from the death of a criminal who would violate their rights. Therefore, the intensity of pleasure gained from the death penalty would be quite low, around 3-5 out of 10. It should be noted though, that I cannot justify putting the number 3 over the number 5 in the calculus, because I am working off very vague ideas. Furthermore, since there is no way of measuring 'pleasure' it is very difficult (impossible) to actually convert thatsubjectivity into a number for the calculus that would result in an objective result.
Another huge problem that arises when using the calculus on the topic of capital punishment would be the inability to accurately consider its positive or negative repercussions (fecundity and purity respectively). Understanding how 60 million people would react to such a drastic change would be very difficult and require hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of research as well as great financial expenditure to even come close to an accurate answer. How society will change and unfold in 10, 50, 100 or 1000 years because of that initial decision to legalise or not legalise capital punishment is a question that may not be possible to answer. A slippery slope may occur due to the devolution of respect for human life, with minor crimes resulting in death. Equally, the world could become crime-free with the deterrence effect preventing both severe and minor crimes - people would perceive crime to be something to be avoided at all cost and the world would be a much better place. Saving £40,000 a year per prisoner (the average cost) that is legally killed could result in a better economy that leads to more and more positive outcomes (disease research, ending of poverty etc.)
As for purity, it is difficult to measure or assess the amount of displeasure caused to the families of the criminals killed (and the suffering of knowing you are to die for the criminals themselves). As well as this, it could be argued that the 60 million citizens of the UK worrying about being killed by their very own society could be considered a kind of displeasure or pain.

For me however, I feel that since the families of criminals facing the death penalties know that the previous punishment would have been 15+ years in prison, their pain would not be much higher knowing the death penalty is going to be implemented on their family member.

If I had to put a number to each of the criteria of the calclus for legalising the death penalty it would be as follows:

Intensity: 3 - as explained above
Duration: 10 - the pleasure of knowning 'justice has been served' lasts a lifetime
Certainty: 5 - we do not know if people will view the action in a positive or negative light
Extent : 10 - it will affect everyone in the country to a certain extent (fear, sensation of justice, safety etc.) but will affect some more than others (more to people involved in a serious crime)
Fecundity: 10 - the decision would lead to a better economy and deterrence of future crime
Propinquity: 10 - the decision's effects would occur almost immediately,
Purity: 7 - the decision would cause pain to many criminals and their families, and some people will fear the government.

To sum up, I would give the decision to legalise the death penalty a calculus figure of 55 and doing the calclus for not legalising the death penalty a figure of 49. Therefore, my utilitarian decision would be to legalise the death penalty. Having examined the numbers however, I could easily have decided slightly higher numbers against legalising and slightly lower ones for legalising the death penalty, and so the decision would have been different. This shows the real problem with attempting to turn something as subjective as pleasure or happiness into something as objective as deciding if people should die or not.

(B) 'Bentham's Utilitarianism is not compatible with a religious approach to ethics.' Assess this view. (15 marks)

The question revolves around what one defines as a 'religious approach to ethics', once that is established the answer (to me at least) becomes clear.
If one were to take it to mean an Orthodox or Catholic Christian approach to ethics, then Bentham's Utilitarianism (Act Utilitarianism) would not be compatible. This is because the former base themselves around moral absolutes - actions to them are inherently right or wrong in the eyes of God, regardless of any consequences. For example, in the famous case of Dudley and Stephens vs Regina (the Queen), most Orthodox and Catholic Christians would state that the two men were immoral for eating the cabin boy, even though he was going to die anyway and it meant they could survive long enough to be rescued and contribute back to society. This sort of deontology is incompatible with Act Utilitarianism's strong consequentialism which gives full value to the consequence of an action and no value to what the action actually is i.e there is nothing inherently wrong if it does not cause harm. In the case of the eaten cabin boy, an Act Utilitarian would probably side with the two men on the basis that their cannibalism maximised the good in the world.
It should be noted however, that whilst in reality Bentham's Utilitarianism and strict forms of Christianity are not compatible, in a hypothetical world where the Christian moral absolutes always lead to the greatest good, Utilitarianism would always conclude the same decision as the absolutes and therefore be compatible. Indeed, it could be argued that in many cases even in the real world Utilitarianism would rule that the best decision is the one Catholics or Orthodox Christians would have decided using their own rules (thou shalt not murder etc.)
Taking a more liberal approach to religious ethics and you might find a lot more compatibility with Bentham's utilitarianism. Joseph Fletcher's situation ethics, which Fletcher claims to be a Christian approach to ethics (with one of the six fundamental principles being 'Christianity is lead by love'), is very similar to Bentham's Act Utilitarianism in the sense that they are both consequential (Fletcher claimed that love is the only good thing and the only rule to follow, allowing Christians to break any other) and both base themselves on relativism (one of the four working principles of Situation Ethics). Where Bentham would have argued for the maximisation of 'pleasure' or 'good', Fletcher would have argued for the maximisation of 'agape love'. One could argue that there is a difference between the two but accepting that all of the terms are subjective by nature, there is a strong overlap in their definitions where 'love' and 'good' are exactly the same. By that standard, Joseph Fletcher's situational take on ethics would be exactly the same (and therefore completely compatible) with Bentham's Utilitarianism.
Having considered the above though, it could be argued that the two approaches of ethics are still very different because Fletcher stated that ethics cannot have a system, whilst Bentham claimed he had created just that. Developing the point further, and one could argue that although Fletcher claims to not create rules in Situation Ethics, his working and foundation principles equate to the criteria of Bentham's hedonic calculus. For example: Fletcher's pragmatism equates to the calculus' certainty, and his 'justice is love distributed' is what Bentham called 'extent' in his calculations. As for the others such as intensity and fecundity, Fletcher's general rule of 'maximising love' requires any ethicists to make the same calculations. In essence, Fletcher's ethical approach can be seen as a less detailed version of Bentham's Act Utilitarianism.
To conclude, I think depending on which view of 'religious approach to ethics' you take there will be a different level of compatibility with Bentham's Utilitarianism: Catholic and Orthodox Christianity would not be very compatible in the real world but could hypothetically work, whilst Fletcher's Situation Ethics is actually almost the same as Bentham's framework and therefore very compatible.


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