Utilitarianism

Article byKhalid Ahmed
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

Utilitarianism Meaning

Utilitarianism theory (or universal hedonism) refers to an ethical theory that determines the morality of the actions of an individual based on their outcome. If the outcome of any action is positive for everyone in society, then it’s morally correct; otherwise, it is wrong. Therefore, it is necessary to advocate actions for collective happiness and prohibit actions promoting unhappiness in society.

Utilitarianism

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This concept is the basis of moral actions ensuring collective social welfare. It judges actions by utilizing the rationally-based approach. However, its application is limited in terms of taking into account the human feelings and emotional, cultural, and judicial aspects of human beings while deciding on the morals of the action.

Key Takeaways

  • Utilitarianism refers to a theory of morality that determines the outcomes of action as right or wrong based on the larger good it causes.
  • It is the basis of most of the actions organizations take across the globe to benefit the whole world.
  • The most important aspect of this theory is that all actions must create happiness for all without considering justice, integrity, political impact, and social change.
  • This concept takes ethics to a practical level that one can apply in real-life situations to decide the ethical nature of the work.

Utilitarianism Theory Explained

Utilitarianism is an ethical school of thought that advocates that only those economic, social, and political actions are morally correct and whose outcome makes everyone happy. Jeremy Botham (1748-1832), a British philosopher and thinker, propounded the utilitarian theory to combine legal reforms, social improvements, and political change into a rational systemic process for ethical judgments.

Economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) extensively wrote about this traditional theory and advanced Botham’s theory into a utility-based ethical theory. His principle says that only the outcome decides the overall usefulness of the action and forms the basis of morality.

Society gets happiest when people experience less agony and extreme happiness. As a result, it does not matter if the outcome is just in nature, gives emotional well-being to others, or upholds the human culture of the society. In a way, this theory is the standard for modern-day ethical actions that promote the common wellness of society, nation, and the world.

Moreover, this theory can get subdivided into two types:

  1. First, rule utilitarianism promulgates that one can accept social good as morally correct if one takes action within a set rule.
  2. Act utilitarianism states that any act of a single person that brings happiness to a large number of people get deemed to be a morally correct act.

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3 Axioms Of Utilitarianism

According to the theory, actions that make people happy are ethically correct. Therefore, any action that leads to more people being happy and few people sad is ethical. Finally, only those actions get liked by society, corporates, community institutions, and individuals whose outcome creates happiness for many people. So, in short, the three basic axioms of this influential moral theory are the following-

  1. The only things having intrinsic value are pleasure and happiness.
  2. Actions are correct only if they ensure happiness and wrong or bad if they produce unhappiness.
  3. Everyone’s pleasure or happiness counts equally.

Utilitarianism Uses

1 – Political Economy

Throughout the centuries, researchers of this theory extended its core principles in liberal democracies. Moreover, they improved the application of this concept in political economy by constant questioning.

In western democracies today, bureaucrats and policymakers are promoters of the free market based on the supply and demand components with minimum governmental control to ensure profit maximization. However, according to this theory, some government interference is required in the personal lives of the citizens to make them avail of safe & secure services that they need but which private institutions do not provide cheaply. An example may include transportation services like buses, trains, and defense services. So, the discussed theory aims at society’s greater political and economic well-being.

Another example includes the government collecting taxes from the rich and distributing the money to the poor through schemes and employment opportunities to ensure equal income distribution.

2 – Business & Commerce

In the market, producers display utilitarianism when they decide to produce goods and services, ensuring that their products maximize profits and benefit everyone, including the workers and the customers. So, the best choice is that which produces the greatest goods and services for the greatest number.

3 – Corporate Workplace

Nowadays, companies/firms aim at being socially responsible and improving their reputation. So, they ensure that employers follow a formal or informal code of ethics. These codes reflect the company’s values and culture. Moreover, firms make them in a way that benefits the owners, workers, and consumers equally.

Examples

Let us cite some utilitarianism examples to understand the application and working of the concept.

Example #1

Let us assume four people suffer from kidney damage, liver damage, brain hemorrhage, and heart disease. All of them need urgent organ transplants for their survival. Incidentally, another person named Hayden has been in a coma for the last five years. Doctors have expressed less hope for the survival of the person. The family of Hayden has appealed for mercy killing for the person in the court.

However, per the utilitarian theory, the greater good lies in helping the four patients needing organ transplants after the mercy killing is approved. Hence Hayden’s organs would be utilized to help the other four people to survive, which is the best outcome of the action.

Example #2

In another example, the scenario of war comes to foresight. Whenever a country decides to go to war with any country, its outcome decides the right or wrong of the action. For example, let there be a small country that is defenseless and fears losing its territory to a powerful nation if it doesn’t fight the war. However, if it goes to war, the outcomes would be large-scale destruction of property and huge losses of life.

Therefore, it has to choose based on the universal hedonism concept regarding going to war. If the defenseless country can avoid the war and maintain its sovereignty, then not going to war is a good decision. In contrast, if avoiding war results in losing huge lives, sovereignty, and dignity of the nation, then fighting war becomes a good decision.

Utilitarianism In Ethics

In ethics, the utilitarianism approach is a combination of multiple theories. It advocates for determining the wrong apart from right using the outcome of the action by an individual. So, in a way, it takes the form of consequentialism. However, all these theories have one major focus: to contribute to the betterment of the world through the outcome of their activities. It means considering the goodness of all the living beings on earth while enacting any work. In other words, universal hedonism is a part of ethics that focuses on outcomes to judge the morality of an activity.

In practicing ethics, the most demanding form of ethics is universal hedonism. Utilitarianism ethics make everyone help others and do good in society. It has transformed into a more usable form that can be widely applied in the daily lives of individuals, society, and nations. Although ethics may encompass other moral values like – integrity, justice, trust, and law-abiding, it cannot be put into use every time in every situation uniformly. Hence, universal hedonism ethics has expanded the scope of its application in the real world.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is utilitarianism consequentialist?

One can consider utilitarianism as a form of consequentialism. The latter emphasizes that the judgment of good and bad depends on the outcomes. It is the opposite of deontology. The former expects a good outcome, while the latter does not.

What are the principles of utilitarianism?

The concept emphasizes improving one’s life by maximizing good actions and reducing the bad ones. It aims to strive for pleasure and avoid pain. Its four principles include the following –
– Consequentialism
– Impartiality
– Welfarism and
– Aggregation

Who created utilitarianism?

Jeremy Bentham, also known as the father of utilitarianism, was a great legal reformer, philosopher, economist, and jurist who gave this theory. He propounded the ethical theory that only the outcomes of action can judge whether the action was morally correct or wrong.

What is a weakness of utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism’s prime weakness is justifiable judgments. It requires us to violate the standards of justice as a legal obligation for its implication.

This has been a guide to Utilitarianism and its meaning. Here, we explain Utilitarianism in ethics, its three axioms, uses, and examples. You may also find some useful articles here:

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Abinel Mataga says

    Well presented and understandable in simple terms.

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