When first introduced to Utilitarianism one would think that it is pretty straightforward and easy to swallow. Utilitarianism relates to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Although there are some problems with this theory. In the paragraphs to follow I will illustrate what Utilitarianism is, discuss why it is important to society, and discuss some of the problems related to Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is what one ought to do, or what one should do to promote happiness without the presence of pain. Since it is always in everyone s interest you must account for all of the people effected directly or indirectly by the action.
Although there are different levels of pain and pleasure. One way to measure the values is by Utilitarianism calculus. Based on the action you assign a number say 1-10 in increasing value of pain or pleasure. You assign the numbers to several categories such as: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent. Then you add up the pleasure side and the pain side, and which ever one is greater, that is what the action will cause. Based on this you should choose the action, which will promote the most pleasure.
There is a downside to this. When a person is thinking about what levels to rate each factor, the person is otherwise stating what they prefer on the pleasure and pain. The problem is that different people have different values, thus different people would then rate the factors differently. This would cause different outcomes to an action by different people.
I will illustrate a personal example. Say it is Wednesday and you and your girlfriend are making plans for the weekend. Finally you decide that you will go see a new movie at the theater. Well your friend comes in from out of state and asks you to do something that weekend. Considering that Friday is your only day off from work that weekend, and you won t be able to see your friend till the next time when he comes in. Dealing with this matter on past experience I chose to break the news to my girlfriend and tell her that I am going out with my friend. Now I know in the past that she got mad when I did this before, but she got over it. Sure she was mad this time, but once again I made it up to her. In relation to utilitarianism, some other people would have dealt with this matter differently. They might have kept the commitment with their girlfriend, and just see there friends another time. Just for the fact that they have different values, thus choose different actions that bring out the greatest utility. Luckily I figured what the outcome would be and therefore went ahead with my decision to go out with my friend. In other cases it is often hard to tell the outcome of an action and who will be effected by it. From the example in class, the guy in the suit is walking past the boy drowning. Now how is he going to calculate this one? Is he going to go on the park bench and take a pencil and paper out of his briefcase and tally up the pains and pleasures? Come on, this way of calculating pains and pleasures is often hard to do considering on the spot decisions.
Another problem is that you have to account for everyone effected by the outcome. This is hard to do because people are not always directly effected by the action. This can include people watching the evening news and see some crime committed. Therefore you would not be able to calculate and compare the pains. In my case with deciding to go out with my buddy instead of my girlfriend, it was evaluated by past experience on how she reacted. Saying all of this, experience sometimes helps, but does not always determine the effect of the action. Also, with the calculation, the time is not always there to do it in many situations. Nor is it possible to determine which action to do based on all of the people effected. It may be easier to account for all the people directly effected by the action, but to account for all of the indirectly effected people are often a hard task in any situation.
Utilitarianism states that everyone is effected equally by an outcome of an action. Back to my case, say if I went out with my girlfriend instead. Then just to say pretty much all of the night I would be wishing I were out with my friend. So I would be unhappy. My level of unhappiness might be greater than the level of unhappiness my girlfriend would go through if I did not go out with her. Just because weighing the fact that my friend might not come back for years is a long-term situation, while the effect of my girlfriends unhappiness is a short-term situation considering that I am making it up to her. Should the individual making the decision act out of his or her self-interest or not? In Utilitarianism you are to create the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In some cases either action would cause pain, but it is the level of pain that should be taken into account.
One problem that I think is the matter with the greatest happiness principle is that it is totally focused on happiness with the absence of pain. What if I told you that you sometimes need pain to bring you happiness? For example if you never experience pain throughout your life, when will you know when pleasure comes along? Say for instance if a young boy always gets beat up after school by bullies, obviously he feels pain (not only physical but also mental), and failure. Just to say what if one day the bullies start picking on him and the young boy ended up beating them up. Point being the boy was always getting beat, so how would he feel pleasure? By one day beating them at there own game and winning.
In conclusion, overall there are some problems with the Utilitarianism theory, but it does pose well for how people should make decisions. In a society like ours it is important to generate happiness with the minimum amount of pain. There is too much hatred and violence in the world, if people would follow the Utilitarianism theory for the most part they sure would benefit from it.