Arguments on Utilitarianism sample essay
Which is more valuable: a game of push-pin or the study of Latin? Which has greater worth: the life of a single young girl or the lives of an entire community? These are the sorts of questions raised when dealing with the matter of utilitarianism. According to Jeremy Bentham, the father of the theory, the ultimate moral goal of human beings should be to increase pleasure and to decrease pain. To maximize the amount of time spent in content, and minimize the times of depression. And he has a point. Simply stated like that, everyone can agree that that is definitely something they want to achieve.
But when his theory is applied to real-life conditions, the varying answers and resulting situations aren’t always applicable with such a cut-and-dry cure-all. Contrary to Bentham’s theory, just because doing something may seem to create an overall better situation than not doing something, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be done. When he states his place, Bentham seems to have taken into account all of the variables. He affirms that the standards of right and wrong, and the chains of cause and effect, will influence what exactly promotes pleasure and prevents pain (306).
He also recognizes that the quantity of people being affected is a contributing factor as to whether something is ultimately beneficial or detrimental (311). Drawing upon these recognized facts, Bentham goes so far as to create a virtual mathematical equation for determining utility; Including intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, and purity as factors of what qualifies as happiness, and thereby, righteousness (311). But this in itself is absurd, as it is impossible to gauge the properties he proposes.
He does not, and can not, provide a scale with which to measure how certain, how intense, or how pure the “goodness” level of something is. Nor is he able to quantify the overall amount of utility one law or reason offers to an entire population under government; which is what he suggests at the end of his theory (312). It can be conceded that the utility of a rule should be considered during it’s establishment, as in general rules should be for the greater good and therefore the greater happiness. But there are other factors that come into play that Bentham neglects to recognize.
In “Ivan’s Challenge,” Fyodor Dostoevsky suggests a striking situation in which utility is obviously not the lone factor in determining it’s morality (333). He conjures up a circumstance where a small, young girl is to be sacrificed for the “edifice of human destiny, the ultimate aim of which is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last? ” (333). With her death, the salvation of the entire community is achieved. At first glance, and in Bentham’s eyes, it’s a simple equation. One is lesser than infinity.
Her death would be justified because the lives of so many others would be saved. But, he fails to consider human emotion. Living with the fact that a young child had to have died in order for themselves to live may not necessarily be a life of cheerfulness. Furthermore, by calling this a justified situation, Bentham is putting a price on human life. This action in itself is immoral. Also, it’s an example of a situation where it’s not really a matter of increasing happiness. Putting a value on a human life is an action in which no party is gaining or losing contentment directly.
It doesn’t fit into Bentham’s equation, and apart from it, is an immoral action that should not ethically be able to exist passively beside his main theory of morals by utility. In addition to this flaw, Bentham fails to acknowledge the notion that all pleasures are not created equal. In his first writing, “The Principle of Utility,” he only manages to recognize the aspect of quantity, and it is in a second, “Push-Pin and Poetry,” that he proceeds to debunk the possibility of varying qualities of pleasure. To Bentham, there are different kinds of pleasure, but one is not greater or better than another.
He breaks them down into two different categories: 1, arts and sciences of amusement and curiosity, and 2, arts and sciences of simple and immediate utility (200). Those of amusement he associates with the fine arts, such as poetry, painting, or architecture, and are generally appreciated aesthetically (200). Those of curiosity he associates with sciences and history, such as the study of foreign languages or biology (200). Those of simple utility are more basic, such as a game of push-pin (200). They are ordinary things that can be enjoyed by anyone.
He goes on to say that, “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the fine arts and sciences of music and poetry” (200). His only concession is that if music and science are placed above a game of push-pin in utility, it is only because those individuals are more difficult to please (200). Nowhere does he acknowledge that those difficult individuals are correct or justified in wanting a more stimulating source of excitement. Nowhere does he consent that the thrill of curing a disease through the study of medicine overpowers the brief amusement of a board game.
But, John Stuart Mill, a supporter of the philosophy of utilitarianism, does. He begins by citing a major criticism of utility, which is that many people feel that the idea of life having “no higher end besides pleasure? no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit” is degrading and dishonorable (201). His rebuke is that it is only degrading if the accusation “supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable” (201). This is obviously not the case. We would not be content simply rolling in mud and gorging ourselves on tangerine rinds.
Humans require more stimulation and excitement in order to achieve happiness than an animal, such as swine, with lesser faculties. It is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (Mill 203). To be able to fully appreciate and understand the higher pleasures, such as love and friendship, is so much more rewarding than the simple contentments of physical gratification. Despite the truth that a fool or a swine may lead a more content life, it is only because they require less to achieve contentment.
This supplements Bentham’s statement of a person who prefers poetry to push-pin being more difficult to please. Bentham just fails to see that human beings in their usual healthy, intelligent forms are all “difficult” to please. All in all, the philosophy of utilitarianism is an acceptable standard of morality? on most occasions. There will always be situations where what is truly moral does not fully satisfy the idea of existence exempt from pain and rich in enjoyments. And, contrary to Bentham, there are pleasures that are of higher quality than others, just as there are pains more severe than others.
Works Cited Bentham, Jeremy. “Push-Pin and Poetry. ” Ethics. Ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press: New York, 1994. 199-200. Bentham, Jeremy. “The Principle of Utility. ” Ethics. Ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press: New York, 1994. 306-312. Mill, John Stuart. “Higher and Lower Pleasures. ” Ethics. Ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press: New York, 1994. 201-205. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Ivan’s Challenge. ” Ethics. Ed. Peter Singer. Oxford University Press: New York, 1994. 332.
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