What’s Utilitarianism?

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Utilitarianism is an ethical framework that quantifies good in terms of utility and aims to maximize it. It is often associated with achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There are various sub-threads of utilitarianism, including act and rule utilitarianism, and negative utilitarianism. Its origins can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but it was developed in modern times by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Mill argued that cultural, intellectual, or spiritual pleasures had a deeper meaning than mere physical pleasure.

Utilitarianism is an ethical framework for effective moral action. Basically, it is based on quantifying the good in terms of its utility and trying to maximize that quantity. Utility is often defined as happiness or pleasure, although there are other variants, such as preference satisfaction or preference utilitarianism. This framework is often defined as an effort to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There are also numerous sub-threads of utilitarianism with various caveats and footnotes on the underlying theme. It is a form of consequentialism, where the ends justify the means: if an intermediate valley of negative utility must be traversed to reach a peak of greater utility, then this doctrine supports it.

Utilitarianism has been used as a framework for arguing for the value of different actions or political philosophies since it was first formulated. People have probably had utilitarian thoughts for a long time, but in written records it originates from the Greek philosopher Epicurus. The origins of modern utilitarianism can be traced to the 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He called his formulation of it “the greatest principle of happiness.” After Bentham was John Stuart Mill, who greatly admired Bentham, and released the famous short film Utilitarianism. Today, John Stuart Mill is the name most often associated with this doctrine.

In his writings, Mill argued that cultural, intellectual, or spiritual pleasures had a deeper meaning than mere physical pleasure, because someone who experienced both would appreciate the former more highly. In his other works, such as the essay On Liberty, Mill used utilitarianism to support his “principle of liberty,” which states that “the only purpose for which power may lawfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community , against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

There have been multiple variants of utilitarianism developed since Mill’s day. The general picture is compatible with a number of different philosophies. The first notable division is that between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Under act utilitarianism, each action is examined on a case-by-case basis and selected based on which one is expected to lead to the greatest utility. Under rule utilitarianism, the moral agent seeks to formulate and act under the guidance of rules that maximize utility if they are to be followed consistently.

In negative utilitarianism, the goal is to minimize negative utility – pain and suffering – rather than maximize positive utility, since it is argued that the negativity of negative utility is greater than the positivity of positive utility. However, it has been pointed out that one implication of this is that we should act to radically reduce population or even eliminate it altogether, as a secondary goal of eliminating negative utility. For this reason, this variation is controversial.

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