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MORAL THEORIES 3 UTILITARIANISM
MORAL THEORIES 3: UTILITARIANISM Hedonism: Hedon is Greek for 'pleasure'. Callicles in Plato's Gorgias is a spokesman for it (492c), and Aristotle says it is the aim of uneducated people (Ethics 1095b15). Modern advertising frequently promotes it as the main aim of life. Objections to pleasure: The Greeks debated the merits of pleasure. Plato said it was not the good for man, simply because there are bad pleasures (Republic 505c; sadism is the obvious example). In Gorgias he has Socrates argue that pleasure enslaves people as addicts, that the pleasure of an action is separate from its benefit, and that pleasure-seeking is animal and humiliating. The Cyrenaic and Epicurean schools of Greek philosophy thought that pleasure is the good, though its pursuit should be very restrained. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): He introduced the crucial distinction between our own pleasure, and that of other people. While selfish pursuit of pleasure at the expense of others is wicked, the aim of achieving pleasure for everybody is the aim of morality. This combines hedonism with altruism, to produce a much more plausible theory. As an empiricist, Bentham based his theory on the unavoidable experience that we all like pleasure and hate pain. He saw his theory as highly practical, because we can actually assess the pleasure and pain likely to result from actions, thus helping with difficult decisions. All pleasures have equal value, and all feeling creatures (including animals) have equal rights to their share of the available pleasure. Opponents of the theory are simply seen as liking pain, which is wicked. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): Critics of Bentham saw his theory as degrading, as it just pursued animal pleasures. Mill therefore tried to identify 'higher' pleasures as the aim for humans, thus complicating the calculations. He also tried to analyse rival concepts such as virtue, duty and justice, showing that they are merely good strategies for increasing universal pleasure in a social situation. Consequentialism: Modern versions of the theory emphasise that it judges actions entirely by consequences, so that an action can be good even if it has nasty intentions. This moves morality away from traditional concerns with lofty motives, good will and virtues. It means that only actions matter, and the worth of the person doing them (their 'character') has no moral significance. Punishment, for example, (in which Bentham had a great interest) should be decided entirely by whether it leads to an improved situation. Modern versions of the theory usually propose maximising 'benefit', which seems broader and less physical than mere 'pleasure'. 'Ideal utilitarianism' aims to maximise ideal goods (such as beauty or equality) even if no one actually appreciates them. Calculation Problems: Although Bentham only said that calculations should be 'kept in view' when making decisions, critics have noted the difficulties of assessing consequences: • Delay - it may be many years before an action has bad consequences (e.g. dumping nuclear waste) • Undecided - we may never finally know whether an action has good consequences (e.g. bombing Hiroshima) • Moral Luck - this means we may judge a casual action as very evil because it has unlucky bad consequences (e.g. a child having an accident during a brief moment of parental inattention) • Chaos Theory - this has shown how tiny actions can lead to hugely chaotic results beyond our control • The total - the theory says actions should aim at a big total of pleasure, but no one actually experiences this total • Death - it is hard to assign any score to painless death, and yet it seems a major evil • The unborn - what value should be given to the pleasure of future generations as yet unborn? • Others' pleasure - we enjoy other people's pleasure (e.g. our children), and may even prefer it to our own Other Values: Because the theory is so simple, it seems to trample on other values which have traditionally been praised: • Truth - this has no value in itself, and lies seem occasionally good if they increase happiness • Promises - there seems absolutely no reason to keep every promise, if breaking one makes everyone happy • Merit - whether everyone deserves their pleasure seems irrelevant, and criminals count as much as the virtuous • Fairness - unfair actions (such as torturing one person to entertain a large crowd) seem to be justified • Freedom - the theory encourages paternalism (making other people's decisions for them), if happiness results • Inanimate things - though animals are important if they feel, inanimate things such as flowers have no innate value • Loyalty - there seems no reason to be loyal to anyone (e.g. family), if an act of disloyalty increases the total of happiness • Warmth - the theory encourages cold calculation, and places no innate value on having warm feelings about others • Sanctity - nothing is holy or simply off-limits for the theory The Hedon Machine: If we ask what ideal utilitarianism aims at, it seems to be a world of permanent bliss for all, which suggests that we should all be plugged into a pleasure machine and never do anything again (especially if robots can do the menial jobs). A legal drug with no bad side-effects seems to be morally good. Rule Utilitarianism: Because of disturbing consequences, such as loyalty and promises seeming to have no intrinsic value, a modification to the theory was proposed. Although occasionally it may seem good to break a promise, we should stick to the rule of keeping our word, because the rule itself brings more long-term happiness than this one incident of promise-breaking. Preference Utilitarianism: Because the theory seems to justify removing people's freedom (if they are bad at pursuing happiness), and could even justify the painless murder of someone who was unhappy, a different modification has been suggested. Instead of maximising people's pleasure, we should maximise their preferences. People want freedom and life, even if they lead to unhappiness, so let them have them, and morality aims at maximising the preferences of as many people as possible. 'Negative utilitarianism' has also been proposed, which simply aims at minimising pain (since that is a much stronger motivation than pleasure-seeking). Other theories: It seems to be crucial whether Mill is right that other theories can be explained in utilitarian terms: • Kant's Categorical Imperative may only makes sense if the universal rule involves maximising happiness. • Aristotle's virtuous and eudaimon person is one who feels happiness themselves, and also spreads it around as a good citizen. The virtues are desirable precisely because they increase happiness. • Although a social contract could work towards any end through negotiated agreements, we would only think those ends good if they increased happiness rather than suffering, and didn't give pain to third parties. Strengths: Despite many well-known problems, the theory does focus on what people actually want, it is altruistic, it does give value to animals and downtrodden people, and it does give some practical guidance on decision-making (e.g. genetic engineering).
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