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Utilitarianism: What is it?

Updated on February 28, 2011

Utilitarianism is the notion that the moral worth of an action should be decided by how useful that action is. The usefulness is the utility of an action, does it make people happy, and does the action produce positive results for the greatest number of people.

The two most well known advocates of the Utilitarian thought were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The idea behind Utilitarianism is, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number”  This means that an action should be thought of as good if it produces happiness for the greatest number of people. One of the things that many philosophers over the years have questioned is the definition of happiness. What is happiness? Moreover, what determines it? Utilitarianism is in favour of the idea of hedonism; it puts forward the notion that human beings are constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding anything that causes pain.

Utilitarianism is attached to some of the theories of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. These ideas were that we as human beings act in favour of happiness, therefore all human actions should have the sole purpose of producing happiness.

If we use an example and refer to Capital Punishment, Utilitarianism could be used to determine whether this was right or wrong. If a man is convicted of killing someone and he is sentenced to death, is this good? According to Utilitarianism, this is the best cause of action because the greatest number of people will be happy and safe. If we look at this from a Christian point of view Capital punishment could be considered wrong right. Because Jesus did teach that, we should turn the other cheek. Okay, so how about if the person who was convicted of killing another man was actually innocent? One example of this was the case of Jesse Tafero, in 1976; he was wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer. He was then sentenced to death and executed in 1990. Later on down the line it turned out that, he was innocent of the crime. Did killing this Jesse Tafero produce the best results? In this case, no, therefore the Utilitarian theory could be considered flawed.

Utilitarianism is a complex theory that can be used in all areas of life. Its complexities lie in the fact that every case is different. Also the theory only concentrates on the results of an action it does not concentrate on a the intention, the motive. It implies that the intention behind an action does not actually matter, it is irrelevant actually. How can this be right? When a criminal investigation is taking place, do they not always question the motive behind a crime? Yes, motive plays a huge part in determining whether an action could be considered right or wrong, or even moral or immoral. The theory of Utilitarianism could be discussed forever; there will never be a foregone conclusion. 

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      David99999 6 years ago

      Excellent essay! A++** ! As a perennial philosopher, I found this fascinating. Utilitarianism is one area of philosophy that still illudes me. Thus, you taught me something!

    • intriguewriter profile image
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      intriguewriter 5 years ago from worldwide

      Thank you so much! I did philosophy at university so I am well versed on the subject. I plan on writing more essays in the future actually on this subject. Thank you once again! Glad to meet other people who are interested in the topic.

    • intriguewriter profile image
      Author

      intriguewriter 5 years ago from worldwide

      Thank you so much! I did philosophy at university so I am well versed on the subject. I plan on writing more essays in the future actually on this subject. Thank you once again! Glad to meet other people who are interested in the topic.

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