The idea of utilitarianism has been advocated by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Both thinkers base their theories of morality upon the Greatest Happiness Principle, or the principle of Utility. This principle is one that views actions as right and moral to the extent that they promote pleasure and exclude pain. It sees rightness and wrongness as existing on a continuum, upon which neither is necessarily exclusive of the other.
Therefore, society’s maximization of utility consists in the achievement of the highest possible concentration of pleasure while minimizing the amount of pain deriving from any action or law. Jeremy Bentham described the total pleasure to be derived from an action as something that could be computed through tallying its intensity, duration, and the speed with which the pleasure occurs after the act is performed. This computation would also include the likelihood of the pleasure to avoid harm or pain.
Bentham also advocated a principle of utility that presents a balance between self interest (or enlightened self interest) and altruism. In contrast to this, John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism introduced methods that would make altruism more likely to produce the greatest good than Bentham’s self-interested utilitarianism. As demonstrated earlier, Mill’s own version of utilitarianism is very similar to that of Jeremy Bentham. Yet, it does offer some very significant differences. One of the problems that utilitarianism faces is based on one of its minor premises.
While it might be possible to agree that actions should be performed based on their ability to secure the greatest happiness for the largest number of people, uncertainty often arises when one attempts to locate the action that actually contains this merit. This is where Mill’s principle of utility deviates from Bentham’s. While Bentham, as stated above, advocated the idea of the quantification of happiness, Mill’s theory operates under the explicit assumption that quantification of pleasures is not always possible.
According to Mill, the differences between some pleasures are differences in kind and not of degree. Therefore, in several cases, qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) judgments have to be made between and among different pleasures. In such cases, Mill argues that only a person familiar with both types of pleasures would be qualified to pass judgment and declare one of higher value than another. This deviation from Bentham’s basic theory of utilitarianism allows Mill further leeway to introduce a major difference between the base pleasures of the body and the higher intellectual pleasures of the mind.
These intellectual pleasures are ones that will allow for an altruistic type of utilitarianism. This type of utilitarianism has the ability to sacrifice the pleasure of the primary individual, when it has been determined that the sacrifice will lead to pleasure for a larger group of persons. In slight contrast to this, Bentham’s utilitarianism espouses the theory of enlightened self interest, which places the primary individual on the same level as all other individuals.
While Bentham’s theory is not a completely self-interested theory, the theory of utility proposed by Mill gives the individual more freedom and opportunity to make choices that are of benefit to others rather than himself. Primarily, Mill distinguishes between the types of behaviors that would promote such actions and actually gives more weight to the type of intellectual pleasure that may be derived from them. Therefore, the total happiness gained from self-sacrifice according to Bentham would amount to the aggregation of the bodily pleasures given to others by the primary person’s sacrifice.
According to Mill, however, the pleasure gained from that scenario would be even greater than computed by Bentham, as it would also consist of the greater intellectual pleasure gained by the person who acts sacrificially. It can therefore be concluded that Mill’s version of utilitarianism presents altruism as a method of accruing more happiness than that presented by Bentham’s version—which advocates enlightened self interest. Reference Author’s Last Name. First Initial. (Year of publication). Morality and the human predicament. City of Publication: Publisher.
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