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The Greatest Good... Or Not

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The Greatest Good... Or Not

The Greatest Good… or not

Utilitarianism is not a new moral theory. However there is discussion and will continue to be discussion for years to come on the validity of the theory. We constantly wonder if it is truly the “right” way to live, and in the following we will discuss both the positives and negatives of utilitarianism as well as some argument for, and against such a moral code. Before we begin with the arguments surrounding utilitarianism it is important that we first understand what the theory is, and what it means. Utilitarianism is what is called a consequentiality approach to ethics. This approach argues that humans should act in ways that bring about the best possible results from their actions. This tends to be weighted in terms of happiness versus unhappiness or pleasure versus pain. It is important to differentiate between the two major types of consequentialist theory. The first is called ethical egoism in which the happiness ought to be directed at yourself, and the second, the one we will be discussing is utilitarianism. Utilitarians argue that your actions should be directed at promoting the most good for the most amount of people. It is also important to note that utilitarianism does not tend to try and test a person’s virtue instead it tries to test each course of action separately.

It does seem obvious at first glance there is a large problem with this theory. We now have the responsibility to compare happiness. There is no way to measure happiness so how do we know which actions are causing the most happiness in those around us? It is possible that it could make someone happy to hurt people, and clearly a moral code should not allow such things to happen. However there are arguments that do solve this problem to a degree. If there is a man that likes to hurt people, these desires probably actually hurt the man in the long run. For example he could be sent to prison. Therefore the pleasure of this person shouldn’t actually matter. Having the responsibly of measuring happiness for each possible outcome can be seen as both a positive and a negative part of utilitarianism. Positive because there are some outlines in place of which happiness should count for more in your eyes, but a negative as well because there are no actual rules to follow, and like in all ethical debates hard choices to make.

One of the largest positives of the utilitarianism theory is that it is obviously pointed in the right place. It seems perfectly logical that we would shift through all the possible outcomes to a problem and choose the one that benefits the most amount of people. This is great for everyone around us; we would be helping everyone, by choosing to do the most beneficial thing to those affected. It would support charity as we could help hundreds with our money not just us. It also would mean that people would be volunteering instead of sitting at home as you could help more people become happy, then just yourself. Even when making though decisions about something that hurts people both ways, you would always be doing the lesser of the two evils. It is an obvious positive to have other people being considered when you make decisions. However there are problems with such a theory.

An important line in utilitarianism forces you to predict the consequences of actions. You have to already have an idea of what will happen with each different choice of how to act in that situation. This doesn’t always seem to be able to happen. There are always things happening from events that we never thought possible. Also it is possible that we have never been through such an event in our lives so we don’t know what can happen. This could be a negative of utilitarianism because we have to make educated guesses without the education in some cases. Or there are times when we believe that we have gave happiness to the most amount of people when in fact it turns out that due to unseen circumstances we hurt a lot of people. Maybe more then we gave happiness to. As a utilitarian you simply have to make the best estimates of what the consequences of your actions will be. This doesn’t have to be a pro or a con to the moral theory necessarily, it just means that it is not an exact science and sometimes you will run into circumstances where the outcome is not clear and you make end up making a mistake.

It is important when we discuss the positives and negatives of utilitarianism to dive into the idea of intentions. Utilitarians do not make any differentiation between intentions, rather just the outcome. It is easy to think of an event where bad intentions could have lead to a good outcome, or the opposite, where good intentions lead to a bad outcome. If we are talking about a moral theory, it doesn’t seem right that bad intentions leading to positive results

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