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Carter Walker
Carter Walker

Persuasive Essay Utilitarianism

Greatest Balance of Goods Over Harms If you answered yes, you were probably using a form of moral reasoning called "utilitarianism." Stripped down to its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. So long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or coercion.

persuasive essay utilitarianism


The principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis that would provide a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England should enact. He believed that the most promising way of reaching such an agreement was to choose that policy that would bring about the greatest net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into account. His motto, a familiar one now, was "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been expanded and refined so that today there are many variations of the principle. For example, Bentham defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure and pain. John Stuart Mill, a great 19th century utilitarian figure, spoke of benefits and harms not in terms of pleasure and pain alone but in terms of the quality or intensity of such pleasure and pain. Today utilitarians often describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfaction of personal preferences or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits over monetary costs.

Problems With Utilitarianism While utilitarianism is currently a very popular ethical theory, there are some difficulties in relying on it as a sole method for moral decision-making. First, the utilitarian calculation requires that we assign values to the benefits and harms resulting from our actions and compare them with the benefits and harms that might result from other actions. But it's often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain benefits and costs. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to art? And how do we go about comparing the value of money with, for example, the value of life, the value of time, or the value of human dignity? Moreover, can we ever be really certain about all of the consequences of our actions? Our ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting from a course of action or a moral rule is dubious, to say the least.

If our moral decisions are to take into account considerations of justice, then apparently utilitarianism cannot be the sole principle guiding our decisions. It can, however, play a role in these decisions. The principle of utilitarianism invites us to consider the immediate and the less immediate consequences of our actions. Given its insistence on summing the benefits and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us to look beyond self-interest to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions. As John Stuart Mill once wrote:

The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not...(one's) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

MacAskill, W., Meissner, D., and Chappell, R.Y. (2022). The Demandingness Objection. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism.document.write(" -to-utilitarianism/demandingness, accessed " + (new Date()).toLocaleDateString('en-US') + ".");

Mill stated that utilitarianism is hand in hand with the natural sentiments that originate from the social nature of people. Therefore, people would view these standards as morally binding if the society were to embrace utilitarianism. According to John the main base of morality is happiness and people always desire happiness. He supported this statement through proving that other objects of desires of people were either means to achieve happiness or include the definition of happiness. He further states that the sentiment of justice is based on utility and human rights exists solely because they are necessary for human happiness.

However, the theory of utilitarianism has been criticized for many reasons. Some of the reasons being that: the theory does not provide adequate protection for individual rights; happiness is more complex than it is depicted in the theory and not everything can be measured by the same standard. Mill stated that there is very minimal progress made in developing a set of standards of judging moral right and wrong. People have always tried to find the basis of morality but have not been successful. He agreed that it is common to have disagreement about such bases in the field of science.

Despite of this, he states that in the field of science certain truths still have meaning even if the principle behind them is not understood. However, in other fields such as ethics such truths or statements has very little validity. Unlike in science, all actions exists so as to achieve a certain end, hence, actions are determined by the ends being pursued. Basing on this statement Mill argues that one has to have a clear understating of the standard the human actions should be judged in order to understand what morality entails. Mill has argued a lot about utilitarianism with the aim of making people to better understand and appreciate the theory of utilitarianism and also prove it is a moral theory. However, according to him utilitarianism cannot be proven.

As we will see, the arguments in favor of utilitarianism rest overwhelmingly on general theoretical considerations. Challenges to the view can take either form, but many of the most pressing objections involve thought experiments in which utilitarianism is held to yield counterintuitive verdicts.

There is no neutral, non-question-begging answer to how one ought to resolve such conflicts.2 It takes judgment, and different people may be disposed to react in different ways depending on their philosophical temperament. As a general rule, those of a temperament that favors systematic theorizing are more likely to be drawn to utilitarianism (and related views), whereas those who hew close to common sense intuitions are less likely to be swayed by its theoretical virtues. Considering the arguments below may thus do more than just illuminate utilitarianism; it may also help you to discern your own philosophical temperament!

While our presentation focuses on utilitarianism, it is worth noting that many of the arguments below could also be taken to support other forms of welfarist consequentialism (just as many of the objections to utilitarianism also apply to these related views). This chapter explores arguments for utilitarianism and closely related views over non-consequentialist approaches to ethics.

Almost anyone would agree with utilitarianism that suffering is bad, and happiness is good. What could be more obvious? If anything matters morally, human well-being surely does. And it would be arbitrary to limit moral concern to our own species, so we should instead conclude that well-being generally is what matters. That is, we ought to want the lives of sentient beings to go as well as possible (whether that ultimately comes down to maximizing happiness, desire satisfaction, or other welfare goods).

Similar judgments apply to hypothetical cases in which you somehow know for sure that a typically reliable rule is, in this particular instance, counterproductive. In the extreme case, we all recognize that you ought to lie or break a promise if lives are on the line. In practice, of course, the best way to achieve good results over the long run is to respect commonsense moral rules and virtues while seeking opportunities to help others. (It is important not to mistake the hypothetical verdicts utilitarianism offers in stylized thought experiments with the practical guidance it offers in real life.) The key point is that utilitarianism offers a seemingly unbeatable answer to the question of what fundamentally matters: protecting and promoting the interests of all sentient beings to make the world as good as it can be.

One vivid way to do this is to imagine yourself in the position of each affected person, one after the other, living each of their lives (with their tastes and preferences) in sequence. If you were, in effect, everybody, what would it be rational for you to choose? R. M. Hare argued that the answer was preference utilitarianism: to best satisfy everyone's overall preferences, counting everyone equally.

Of course, if you accept a different theory of well-being,8 then you might think it worth overriding misguided or irrational preferences for the sake of greater happiness or other forms of flourishing. But it remains the case that some form of utilitarianism seems likely to follow from such a procedure of putting yourself into every person's shoes.

Similar results may be obtained by instead imagining that you are looking down on the world from behind a "veil of ignorance" that reveals the facts about each person's circumstances in society, while hiding from you the knowledge of which of these individuals you are.9 Imagine you were trying to decide on the best structure for society from behind this veil of ignorance. If you view yourself as equally likely to end up being anyone in the world, it would seem prudent to maximize overall well-being, just as utilitarianism prescribes.10

While this conclusion is not yet all the way to full-blown utilitarianism, since it is compatible with, for example, holding that there are side-constraints limiting one's pursuit of the good, it is likely sufficient to secure agreement with the most important practical implications of utilitarianism (stemming from cosmopolitanism, anti-speciesism, and long-termism).


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