February 24 Reading Notes

Chapter 6 of Ethical Insights discusses act and rule utilitarianism. In this chapter, we learn about the two most important utilitarian thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The principal theory behind utilitarianism is that an action is morally bad if it harms someone whereas it is morally good if it helps or benefits someone. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory which means it is a theory that claims that good and evil are related to consequences or results.

Jeremy Bentham illustrates the theory of act utilitarianism and believes that people are governed by two masters, pain and pleasure. He asserts that pain and pleasure or happiness and unhappiness are the only concepts that can give meaning to moral good and bad. Actions are good and bad according to the tendency they have to augment or diminish the pleasure or happiness of the parties whose interests are in question. He also focuses on individual actions. An action is good if it produces more happiness or pleasure than unhappiness or pain for everyone affected by it. All that matters is the amount of pleasure and pain produced by the action. The essential elements for Bentham are the focus on specific actions and the contrasting quantities of pleasure and pain to those affected.

Bentham also claimed that people ought to maximize pleasure, happiness, and benefit and minimize pain, unhappiness, and harm for as many morally significant beings as possible. A complete utilitarian analysis would have to look beyond the obvious harms or benefits. There are seven aspects of an evaluation that Bentham follows; intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. This is often referred to as the utilitarian calculus or the hedonistic calculus.

There are four basic ethical themes that act utilitarianism fills in on. The four themes, or questions, are; What kind of moral guidelines makes something good or bad: subjective, relative, or objective ones? What makes something good or evil; is it the consequences that are produced or the reasoning that led up to it? Should we faithfully follow general rules of behavior, or should we separately evaluate each action and belief? Should the group, community, or majority of persons be the focus of ethics or should the focus be on the individual?

There are some issues with act utilitarianism. There is a difficulty with with identifying every consequence of an action. It is difficult to weigh pleasures and pains, unhappiness and happiness, or harms and benefits when they are different kinds of things. Act utilitarianism produces a different variety of results that are contrary to many people's moral intuitions.

Mill's formulation of the utilitarian ethical standard is that actions are good in proportion to which they tend to promote happiness and bad as they tend to produce unhappiness. Mill argues that all action is undertaken for the sake of some end. For him, the source of moral goodness is not connected with what people ought to desire but simply to what they do desire. He thinks we can use human preferences to distinguish the quality of pleasures. In summary, Mill's view is that actions are good in proportion to the extent to which they tend to produce more happiness than unhappiness for the persons affected.

Rule utilitarianism is the last thing mentioned in the book. The idea behind rule utilitarianism is that it is good for persons to act from those moral rules, the general following of which would promote the greatest net benefit for the morally significant beings affected; it is bad for persons to act from rules, the general following of which would promote the greatest net harm for the morally significant beings affected. Rule utilitarians claim that we have to identify a rule to guide any morally significant action and they have to follow legitimate moral rules without exceptions or they would become act utilitarians.

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