Advantages claimed for utilitarianism, History

Advantages Claimed For Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism claims to overcome four major disadvantages of what I have called deontological moral theories. These are:

 (1) The reliance on moral intuitions to identify moral principles notwithstanding the variability and unreliability of such intuitions. (For thousands of years intuition led people to accept slavery as being morally defensible.)

(2) The pluralism of many deontological theories, whose moral principles may conflict.

(3) The absolutism of more than one principle in some pluralist theories. If these principles apply without exception any conflict between them must be irreconcilable.

(4) Typically, the lack of a consistent and reliable decision procedure for choosing the right course of action in particular circumstances. Utilitarianism purports to overcome these major defects in deontological theories in the following ways. So far as unreliable and variable intuition is concerned, Bentham believed that two moral intuitions were self evidently true and moreover accepted as true by everyone-namely, that suffering is an evil and happiness a good. He believed that from these two indisputable and undisputed facts the theory of utilitarianism could be derived. Moreover, as happiness and suffering can be understood to be poles of a continuum utilitarianism is in effect monist (based on a single moral intuition rather than two) and thus no pluralist potential for conflict arises.

Obviously there can be no problems of fundamental moral conflict in any monist theory, and in cases of apparent conflict (should one obey the law or steal to save the starving child ?) the quandary can and should be resolved by calculating the net effects of the alternatives on overall happiness and choosing the course that produces most happiness or least suffering (the so called hedonic calculus from the Greek word for pleasure). The problem that arises when pluralist moral theories contain more than one absolute moral principle is also overcome for, although utilitarianism is strictly speaking both deontological (a duty based theory; one of Bentham's books is actually called Deontology) and absolutist, as it is monist there are no problems of moral conflict and, a fortiori, no problems of fundamental or irreconcilable moral conflict. Finally, utilitarianism claims to provide a consistent and reliable procedure for making decisions in one or other variant of the hedonic calculus. If these claims could be sustained and criticisms countered utilitarianism would undoubtedly be an extremely attractive moral theory offering considerable advantages over pluralist deontological moral theories, but obviously there are important objections, and these can conveniently be considered in terms of the theory's coherence, its justification, and its results (see Bibliography).

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