Utilitarianism was Originally formulated by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, and fully developed by John Stewart Mill in the 19th. It Asserts that we should always act so as to produce the greatest ratio of good to evil for everyone concerned with our decision and As with all moral theories, has many strengths and weaknesses.
The prominant criticism of Utilitarianism is that it is extremely hard to predict the results of an action. The outcomes of all situations are hard to predict, so how can we possibly apply the rule of the greatest happiness for the greatest number if we do not know who will benefit most? It is also difficult to decide whether an outcome is morally good or bad. People have contrasting opinions on what they think is right or wrong and it depends on the individual who is making the decision. This causes problems because a thing that is good to one person may at the same time be bad to another, “ One man’s happiness is another man’s pain.” Without an absolute definition of happiness, it is hard to arrive at a ‘ right’ decision.
Another problem of Utilitarianism is the concept of time. Is long term or short term pleasure more valuable? For example, when deciding whether to take an ecstasy tablet at a club. Taking the pill may give you a lot of short-term pleasure, but in the long term, it may cause more harm than good. Not taking the tablet would involve fewer risks and would avoid potential pain. Even here, you cannot predict the results of your decision, as there is no way of telling the effect the ecstasy has on you until you have tried it. Not only is it hard to tell what will be the consequences in the “ long run,” but it is hard to define the time period of the “ long run” to begin with.
A particular problem with Utilitarianism stands out to me – that totally immoral acts can be justified if they are seen to benefit the greatest number of people. For example In the early 1800’s in South America, slave labour took place because it was seen to produce the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Slavery was an efficient way for Southern farmers to produce goods at a cheap price and these goods brought a lot of pleasure to a great amount of people. On the other hand, the slaves suffered terribly and had to endure vast amounts of pain and torture. Nevertheless the most amount of good was produced and enjoyed by the most amount of people through slavery therefore satisfying the principle of Utility. This example clearly shows how utilitarianism can cause injustice and the denial of human rights. The theory disregards motivation and goodwill, says that the majority is always right and Does not protect the innocent minorities.
John Rawls agreed with this weakness. He argued that utilitarianism is too impersonal. In its pursuit of the ‘ greater good’, it disregards the rights of individuals. He said that Utilitarianism could therefore be used to promote a dictatorship, in which decisions were made to over-ride the interests of the individual in favour of the greater good of society.
Despite all the arguments against Utilitarianism, there are some valid points for the theory. It is widely accepted throughout the world as many countries run by means of democracy. Our political leaders are elected through the ballot box, the majority overriding the minority. This however does not automatically mean that they are the most suited people for the job. Utilitarianism also allows people to contemplate the situation before making the decision. This time prevents people from making hasty, unethical decisions, as it encourages thought before action.
The aim of the theory is to produce happiness and pleasure. These are two desirable things as Utilitarianism says that pleasure is the sole good and pain is the sole evil, “ Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters-pleasure and pain”. Supporters of the theory would argue that promoting pleasure must be a good thing as most people see pleasure as desirable over pain. They would also say that the intention of Utilitarianism was not to create immorality but to please to maximum number of people possible – Surely it is better for a hundred people to be happy than five?
Another good aspect of Utilitarianism is that it has one simple absolute, which can be applied to all situations with a positive outcome. In times of difficulty, it eases people out of difficult situations, as they cannot be blamed for making the wrong decision if they claim it was for the happiness of the majority. Any prejudices the decision maker may hold are eradicated in Utilitarianism, as they have to stick to the main rule. There is also some flexibility for emotions in moral decision making according to Rule Utilitarianism. This part of the theory allows respect for the rules that are created to better our society although even these rules do not have to be kept all the time if you are a weak utilitarian which poses problems over what the theory really is.
Utilitarianism is a theory that Christians can relate to. Mill brought it closer to the Christian church by introducing Rule Utilitarianism. This would be closer to the principals Jesus lived by. For example, it was against the Jewish law to work on the Sabbath but when people were in need, Jesus bent this rule and healed them. The largest connection Christianity has with Utilitarianism is the death of Jesus. He was crucified and died for the sins of mankind, sacrificing himself for the majority. However, Utilitarianism does accept evil where Christianity most certainly does not.
In conclusion I believe that Utilitarianism is simple and easy to apply yet this does not take away the obvious large amount of flaws concerned with the theory.