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Is Utilitarianism Too Morally Demanding?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2273 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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To first attempt to find an answer as to whether ‘utilitarianism’, we must first understand what the concept of the term means. Firstly, the term is based largely upon the concept of ethics, not only that but it also focuses upon the actions that an individual may take in any given situation, however these actions may not always be those which are best in any given situation however, it may be the action that is found to show the greatest well-being in relation the greatest number of people. According to Jeremy Bentham, the man who first coined this idea, utilitarianism is the concept which entails the “maximum amount of pleasure for the maximum amount of people, without any pain coming to the people involved in the action that was taken”[1] This theory of course is in direct opposition to egoism, egoism is the theory that suggests that individuals should pursue their own self-interest, that is to say that they are not concerned with the well-being or happiness of others nor do they really consider the consequences that may come to others. One thing which must be acknowledged however, is the idea that utilitarianism is a concept which relies largely on a set of values that individuals carry throughout their lives, not only that but something is said to be good while other values are seen to be merely a means to an end for most things. Bentham believed that when it comes to these values, there should a sense of pleasure over pain and it is by these ideas that the intrinsic value comes from. Within this essay I will be exploring the concept of utilitarianism in more depth, the positive aspects of the theory and the negative aspects of the theory, furthermore I will also be exploring whether utilitarianism is a successful way of thinking or if it’s more of an extended criticism.

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Firstly, we must consider whether it would be useful as a practise which can be used as a normative system, see utilitarianism is an alternative way of living rather than the already existent code of morals that individuals are said to live by to carry out specific acts in any given situation.  The one drawback that comes with the concept of utilitarianism is that it cannot be verified or confirmed, but it can be said that interpretations of this would suggest that words such as ‘right and wrong’ do have significant meaning.

Secondarily to this, Bentham believed that, actions that are carried out by people are carried out on an impulse based largely on pleasure and pain, looking at this belief more closely, it cannot be too difficult to suggest then that man carries out their actions predicated upon the idea that the end goal for all of their actions is ‘pure happiness’ meaning that, humans conduct all of their actions based solely on the promotion of happiness. Having said that however, a leading utilitarian philosopher of the 19th century. Henry Sidgwick, believed that this theory should have been rejected, according to Sidgwick, “Bentham’s theory of the meaning of moral terms, follow a systematic reflection on morality in the ‘common sense’”[2].

Sidgwick also argued that most of the common-sense doctrines could be based mostly on utilitarianism considerations. Of course, utilitarianism does not come without its implications, for example; subjectivity, individuals live completely subjective ways of life predicated on different ideas, different religions, teachings, external influences. One cannot say that there is a universal code of ethics in which this would work, not only that but, the idea of utilitarianism is open to breaking one’s own moral code in so far as, for the largest satisfaction for the greatest number of people, you must sometimes go against things that you stand for and this could create difficult situations. Having said that, those who are defence of the utilitarian ethics agree that this way of life does not come with the implications that people relate to it, however there are those who also believe that if such implications exist in relation to this concept attempt to modify it from the inside to account for perplexities and objections. 

A Secondary criticism would be the practise of the concept, after all in any normal situation, an act of lying or stealing would be deplorable, if not morally upon yourself, it would be wrong in the eyes of others. Having said that however, it would be very difficult to suggest that a small scale lie or the theft of something small especially if it is for the greater good of other people would be something that doesn’t come with positive consequences and would be permissible especially if people wish to live the way of a utilitarian. To justify this however, it can be acknowledged that to lie and to steal would be an act that results in a loss of trust, conversely while this result would be against the code of ethics that of which a utilitarian stands, some acts are seen as a permissible rule if it so happens that a given situation requires it to be so, it is only in these situations that certain acts may be adjudged to be right or wrong, which of course suggests that there could be no universal way in which utilitarianism can be used because different people are able to respond to the same situation in different ways. A third objection to utilitarianism as a concept would be that in order for one to gain the maximum amount of pleasure with the least amount of pain, one would have to ensure that any acts that are carried out, are ones which are done so in such a way that it takes precedence over any acts that would only increase the happiness of an individual who is currently undergoing no suffering.

Alternatively, rather than focusing entirely on the criticisms of utilitarianism, it must not be discounted that it has played a significant role on the advancements in modern society, especially when in relation to law, politics and economics. For example; when an individual has committed a crime, the punishment that has been handed down onto them, is not for the purpose of solely making the offender pay for what they have done, the punishment is in fact handed to them as a way of discouraging any further crime from taking place, not only that but it is also used in a way of helping the larger population ensuring that they are protected. In addition to this, the political aspect of utilitarianism now provides an alternative theory of natural law of social contract. The question which must be asked of course is, should we continue with our current governmental standards or should we switch to the utilitarian’s way of thinking?  Furthermore, when exploring the use of utilitarian reasoning in the political system, it can be seen in many places, and yes while “consequences do matter, so to do the moral principles that make up the very thing which makes us human”[3]

Bentham was not the only individual who believed in utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, was also involved with the doctrine, however he sought to modify fit from the inside, as aforementioned Mill thought that it would be more beneficial to appropriate more of a doctrine based upon rules that are relevant in certain circumstances, he believed that “one calculates what is right by comparing the relevant agents of alternative rules for a particular circumstance”[4] The modification that was undertaken by Mill, has helped us come to terms with what the utilitarian doctrine means today, for he was the individual who had developed the doctrine for the outcome of reaching the largest amount of happiness for the largest amount of people, in addition to this it helped people set apart their own lives of “ and allows them to live a life of reason rather than living a life of divinity as this was ultimately sufficient to determine morality”[5].

There are of course multiple positives of utilitarianism just as much in fact as there are negatives. Firstly if you were to look at the subsequent aspects of the doctrine, it is in theory a simple code of ethics to apply, it can and has been used in order to influence many things in society, the reason why it is so simple is that if you were to look at it from a qualitative perspective, one could say that if the action brings a greater sense of happiness than it does a sense of pain, then the action becomes moral, in addition if one were to look upon it from a quantitative perspective, then an action would be measured as to whether or not it brings the greatest amount of happiness to the largest number of people, if that is the case then likewise the action ultimately becomes moral.

Secondly, it is a concept that remains devoid from the teachings of religion and the limitations that it brings in determining whether or not we are living a morally good life  or not, which means that it becomes an effective alternative for man to find a way in which we may look upon the actions we choose to take in life in response to different situations, again the positive is drawn from the idea that instead of using a somewhat authoritative way of measuring morality, we are given a chance to use logic and reason which acts as a more accessible and accurate way of measuring any consequences that are taken from performed actions. More importantly, Mill believes that this doctrine works alongside with our already existing moral beliefs and that incorporating it with our ways of living, we would ultimately come to accept this doctrine as one which becomes ‘morally binding’

In summary, To say that utilitarianism is too morally demanding is not an argument which should be discounted immediately, after all there are individuals who have seen problems in Bentham and Mills ideas of what utilitarianism, multiple criticisms have been produced in terms of the way in which this doctrine is introduced in modern society, for example when relating the concept to that of justice and law giving, if man were to look upon utilitarianism as a quantitative perspective, it may come to pass that an innocent man may be sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit, let’s use the analogy of an individual being a judge in a small town, if a person is standing trial after being accused of stealing, whether or not there is sufficient evidence to sentence them, the quantitative outlook would suggest that you must send that person down so that a state of happiness is reached by the majority. On the other hand, there are just as many positives that arise from a utilitarian way of life, it cannot be ignored that its ability to relate to almost anything in our society, offers an alternative way in which we choose to carry out our actions, as far as its level of demand, it is quite difficult to reach a definitive decision, especially because of the many ways it has influenced our law and political systems, however I do not think that utilitarianism is too morally demanding, I believe that while there are drawbacks from this outlook of life, I do also concede that it has its positives and that at the very least we should acknowledge it as an alternative.


[2] West.H, Utilitarianism, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at https://www.utilitarianism.com/utilitarianism.html (last accessed 07/01/2019)

[5] Mill. J “Last Stage of Education and First of Self-Education, “Autobiography, 1873 (New York: P.F Collier and Sons, 1909-1914)


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