The most basic axiom of utilitarianism holds happiness as measure of the greatest good. As a moral theory, utilitarianism is considered a form of consequentialism and, thus, focuses on the results of actions to determine whether they are, or are not, moral. Utilitarianism aims to define the good or the moral as that which causes the most beneficial outcome for an individual, or group of individuals and which simultaneously leads to the least amount of suffering. As stated by Jeremy Bentham in A Fragment on Government, It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong (Burns and Hart, 393). What is considered the most beneficial is measured by the level of happiness an action causes, and what is meant by happiness is examined further by Bentham's contemporary, John Stuart Mill. In Utilitarianism, Mill intended to defend the greatest happiness principle endorsed by Bentham.
The greatest happiness principle suggests that any act which results in happiness, and does so for the greatest number of people, is morally obligatory to perform. Mill went on to suggest that each person's happiness is equally measured and so, no one person's happiness is intrinsically more important or more valuable than another's. As a consequence of this, Mill's brand of utilitarianism is not a form of ethical egoism as it does not require a person to pursue their own happiness over the happiness of others. Mill also espoused the principle of utility wherein he stated that an action is permissible if and only if there is no other alternative act that would lead to a better consequence.
[...] Utilitarianism. In: Gray editor. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1998. Print. Thompson, Judith Jarvis. The Trolley Problem. Yale Law Journal (1985): 1395-1415. Electronic. [...]
[...] Again, this is a matter of practicality and application of the theoretical. Mill himself admits that it is difficult and not entirely practical to fully integrate and consider all the requisite information to make a proper judgment about the consequences of certain actions; however, he asserts that nearly all moral theories are subject to this feature. He states, “There is no ethical creed which does not temper the rigidity of its laws by giving a certain latitude, under the moral responsibility of the agent, for accommodation to peculiarities of circumstances and, under every creed, at the opening thus made, self-deception and dishonest casuistry get in. [...]
[...] how does one account for instances of injustice when applying the “greatest happiness principle”? how can one foresee and consider all possible consequences of an action when determining the best way to act? Considering the first criticism, we must first identify those acts that go “beyond the call of duty” or which are technically termed “supererogatory.” An illustration best describes such an act: consider a person who is faced with the unfortunate decision of saving individuals in only one of two sinking boats. [...]
[...] The impracticality of utilitarianism does not invalidate it as a moral theory outright. Similarly, when we consider the second criticism, we recognize that utilitarianism may allow for actions which are morally obligatory, but may also be considered unjust. To illustrate the point, let us consider a scenario put forth by Judith Jarvis Thompson in The Trolley Problem: suppose a surgeon has five patients, each of whom need five different organs and each of whom will die without the respective organs. [...]
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