Friday, July 31, 2009


Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to happiness or pleasure among all people. This ethical doctrine is credited to Jeremy Bentham who found pain and pleasure to be the only intrinsic values in the world. Basing it’s ideals on the notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”, utilitarianism is a reductionist (oversimplifying of something complex) and quantitative (relating to the amount of something) approach to ethics.

In deriving the rule of utility, Bentham was on the right track in thinking that action should bring great happiness to a great number of people. When stated as an ideal, utilitarianism is brilliant thought, but in the context of ethical theory we always must take account of the wisdom, experience, social skills, and life skills of the person acting. When the idea of morality is at stake two people will potentially have two completely different ideas about what action will create the greatest good for whom.

Reality dictates that through action we will not be able to please everyone, which is why decisions are at times hard to make. Many times we take the utilitarian approach to a decision even when that decision hurts us in our ability to advance. While noble and moral in purpose, if the people we are benefitting are accepting the benefit to take advantage of us, we enter a lose/lose proposition.

More than just the greatest good for the greatest amount of people must be considered when deciding to act, especially when your ability to maximize your impact is dependant on the action you choose to take. By no means am I saying that utilitarianism is an incorrect principle and selfishness is the moral way to excel, but many times we do need to act with our best interest at heart now in order to make the moral decision later. Ultimately if we are not happy with ourselves first, we will not have the ability to bestow happiness on to others.

An example of this is the morbidly obese person who has a family. Their obesity is potentially cutting into their family’s happiness by cutting their lifespan short. In order to become fit, they must invest in themselves first, ignoring some of the needs of their family now, so that they can focus on themselves and become more capable to meet their families future needs. This is a selfish act in the beginning with the intent of creating greater happiness to more people once they gain control of themselves.

It is through the personal understanding that my best self has greater potential than my current self that must lead our decision making process, not utilitarianism. If our goal is to provide the greatest good to the greatest amount of people; to take the approach utilitarianism; we must first understand that our role is the most important role in the process. Simply providing good for a great number of people, therefore making them happy, does nothing internally when we do not possess the ability to harvest internal happiness.

We have the ability to provide pleasure without being internally happy, but pleasure is not the greatest good because it is a desire. The greatest good is happiness, a virtue that can only be passed to the masses once we obtain it ourselves first. Essentially, utilitarianism is a great ideal worth striving for; just not at the expense of your own personal individual need for happiness and good.

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