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Essay: Understanding Utilitarianism: The Philosophy of Greatest Happiness

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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The word utilitarian was termed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people." Utilitarianism, was derived by English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill the main structure of the idea is an action is considered right if it tends to promote happiness and it is wrong when it tends to produce the opposite of happiness, but not just the happiness of the initiator but including the happiness of the action itself and that of everyone affected by it. Utilitarianism differs from other ethical theories because they mostly make the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action dependent upon the motive of the agent or initiator, but according to the utilitarian way of thinking, it is possible for the right thing and outcome to be served from a bad or ulterior motive. Utilitarians recognize initiators on the basis of whether the action they performed was right. This philosophy bases the moral value of an action on the number of people it gives happiness to0. Utilitarian philosophy is used in social, economic or political decisions for the "betterment of society". The main goal of utilitarian ethics is to ensure the greatest happiness for the majority. Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher, was the founder of utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill was a staunch defender of this philosophy. The noun form of utilitarian refers to a person who adheres to this philosophy of usefulness. Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy in which the happiness of the greatest number of people in the society is considered the most profound outcome. According to this way of thinking, an action is morally right if its consequences lead to happiness (no pain), and wrong if it ends in unhappiness (pain).

According to Plato, the soul has 3 parts: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. Reason is the part capable of reasoning, and pursues truth and knowledge. It is the weakest part of the soul, but the only part capable of governing it well. Spirit is the part that is proud and concerned with one’s status. Appetite, which is the largest and most powerful part of the soul, pursues pleasure and avoids pain. This part is in control of most people’s souls, although this leads to many undesirable consequences. According to the ancient Greeks, everything has a purpose. Furthermore, an object is better if it has the characteristics that will help it fulfill its purpose well. Such characteristics are known as virtues.The purpose of the soul is to govern the body. The primary virtue (i.e., the characteristic that enable the soul to govern the body well) is what Plato calls “justice.” In this context, justice means a proper balance among the parts of the soul. Reason should be in control, with Spirit helping Reason to control Appetite.The ancient Greeks regarded agent evaluation (evaluating someone’s moral character) as more fundamental than act evaluation (evaluating particular actions). Eudaimonia is a central concept in Plato’s ethics, it means living well, or having a good soul, attaining eudaimonia is the goal of ethics. The reason we should be good people is essentially part of our self-interest: Those who do good tend to live better, more desirable lives than those who do not. Plato believed that each human being is a combination of a physical body and a non-physical soul. He believed that the physical world – including our physical bodies – is not really real or important. Therefore, his ethical theory focuses on the well-being of the soul.

When we compare utilitarianism to Plato’s ethics, despite their differing opinions Plato and Mill are both believe in the will of the majority. Plato believes that individuals are selfish and tend to pursue their own self-interests at the expense of the majority. Plato also states that fulfillment can be achieved by the contribution to the overall functioning of an community, he also respects the individuality of people and stresses equality. In Plato’s republic, we see the state limit the freedom of it’s individuals, but all the members do receive the same amount of freedom. Here we see the repression of individual freedom, or sovereignty as a result of an equal freedom for the society as a whole. However Mill views the individual’s sovereignty as sacred, he believes that individuals will be able to contribute more if they are allowed to develop their own ideals and opinions, rather than follow the majority. Mill also has concerns over the amount of power which can be exercised by society over the individual, he is afraid of the majority oppressing the minority. Plato believes that false opinions could be detrimental to society, whereas Mill opinionated that these false notions were necessary in order to search for the real truth. Plato believes that satisfying individual desires is not particularly rewarding, Mill on the other hand would encourage us to do so as long as it does not bring harm. The ability for free dialogue, in Mill’s opinion, aids in getting to the truth. Multiple views, questions and ideas are inherently better than one singular opinion. The fundamental difference between Mill and Plato is that Plato radically wanted to alter the structure of society to condition people into behaving and thinking in a certain way, Mill on the other hand wanted people to develop organically, and  equipped with all the tools need to avoid the negative outcomes. Mill has two criticisms of Plato’s ethics, that in regulating the state, we are regulating the behaviour of individuals which is not encouraging other beliefs or values to develop. The second is that the moral foundation of the society itself should not be undermined by tolerance of the majority, the majority can be wrong which would be detrimental to society.

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