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Utilitarianism What It Is Founders and Main Principles

Utilitarianism What It Is Founders and Main Principles

Utilitarianism: What It Is, Founders, and Main Principles

Carla Tardi is a technical editor and digital content producer with over 25 years of experience at top-tier investment banks and money-management firms.

What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that advocates actions that foster happiness or pleasure and oppose actions that cause unhappiness or harm. When making social, economic, or political decisions, utilitarian philosophy aims to better society as a whole.

Utilitarianism states that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group.

Key Takeaways

  • Utilitarianism advocates actions that foster happiness and oppose actions that cause unhappiness.
  • Utilitarianism promotes "the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people."
  • Utilitarian ethics aim for the betterment of society as a whole.
  • Utilitarianism is a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, but it has limitations.
  • Utilitarianism does not account for feelings, emotions, culture, or justice.

Understanding Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a tradition of ethical philosophy associated with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, two British philosophers, economists, and political thinkers in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Utilitarianism holds that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce sadness.

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Utilitarianism is displayed in the workplace when actions are taken to create a positive environment for co-workers and oneself.

"The greatest good for the greatest number" is a maxim of utilitarianism.

The 3 Generally Accepted Principles of Utilitarianism State That

  • Pleasure or happiness is the only thing with intrinsic value. Something has instrumental value when it is a means to an end.
  • Actions are right if they promote happiness and wrong if they promote unhappiness. The moral quality of an action should not depend on the size of its consequences, but on the motive or intention behind it.
  • Everyone’s happiness counts equally. This principle of equality challenges the belief that some lives and people’s happiness are more important or valuable than others. Government policies should benefit all equally, not just the elite.

From the Founders of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham describes his "greatest happiness principle" in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, a 1789 publication. He writes: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do."

John Stuart Mill expands on Jeremy Bentham’s thoughts on utilitarianism in his own work, Utilitarianism, published in 1863. The key passage from this book:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

Utilitarianism’s Relevance in a Political Economy

In today’s Western democracies, politicians generally strive to create policies that foster well-being for as many people as possible. However, utilitarianism can lead to debates regarding what constitutes "the greatest amount of good," defining happiness, and accommodating justice.

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In Business and Commerce

Utilitarianism states that the most ethical choice is the one that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It is commonly employed within business ethics due to its consideration of costs and benefits.

There are two types of utilitarian ethics in the business world: "rule" utilitarianism and "act" utilitarianism.

  • Rule utilitarianism prioritizes fairness and helping the largest number of people.
  • Act utilitarianism focuses on the most ethical action for the benefit of people.

In the Corporate Workplace

Today, companies find it essential to have a formalized code of ethics that values social responsibility in addition to increasing profits. Companies that prioritize ethics build trust with consumers and create a positive work environment for employees.

On an individual level, making morally correct decisions at work increases overall happiness. Conversely, engaging in morally wrong actions, even if legal, decreases happiness for oneself and colleagues.

Utilitarian Ethics

"Rule" Utilitarian Ethics

An example of rule utilitarianism in business is tiered pricing, such as different rates for first-, business-, and economy-class seats on airlines. This benefits a larger number of people and helps balance the financial burden for the airline.

"Act" Utilitarian Ethics

An example of act utilitarianism is when pharmaceutical companies release drugs with known minor side effects that still help more people than they bother. This illustrates the concept that "the end justifies the means".

Quantitative Utilitarianism vs. Qualitative Utilitarianism

Quantitative utilitarianism focuses on utility maximization and uses a hedonic approach to determine the morality of actions. It aims to maximize overall happiness and relies on monetary costs and benefits rather than subjective notions of happiness and pleasure.

Qualitative utilitarianism categorizes pleasures and pains based on their consequences and disregards quantifiable proof of importance. It examines the quality and level of pleasure and pain, rather than just quantities.

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Quantitative vs. Qualitative

Quantitative utilitarianism considers mental pleasures and pains to be similar to physical ones but varies in quantity. Qualitative utilitarianism asserts that mental pleasures and pains are different in kind and superior in quality to purely physical ones.

The Limitations of Utilitarianism

Utilitarian ethics can be challenging to achieve and maintain in the workplace and business culture, where self-interest and competition are often prioritized. It creates a black-and-white construct of morality and cannot predict future consequences. Additionally, utilitarianism struggles to account for values like justice and individual rights.

What Are the Principles of Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism encourages improving one’s life by increasing the good and minimizing the bad. This includes seeking pleasure and happiness while avoiding discomfort and unhappiness.

What Is a Utilitarian?

A utilitarian is someone who follows the beliefs of utilitarianism. They may be seen as practical and self-interested since they prioritize their own pleasure at times.

What Is Rule Utilitarianism?

Rule utilitarians focus on the effects of actions that follow certain rules or moral guidelines. An action is deemed moral if it conforms to a moral rule.

What Is Utilitarian Value in Consumer Behavior?

If a consumer values a product or service solely for its practical use-value, without considering emotions or biases, it has utilitarian value.

The Role of Utilitarianism in Today’s Business Environment

While utilitarianism advocates for the greatest good for the greatest number, its practical application can lead to greed and cut-throat competition that undermines the social good.

The Bottom Line

Utilitarianism provides a simple method for deciding the morally right course of action. It has been refined and expanded over the years, with benefits and harms often described in economic terms rather than happiness and pleasure.

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