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University of Ottawa
Mark Brown

Introduction Moral Philosophy: A branch of philosophy that asks basic questions about the good life, about what is better and worse, about whether there is any objective right and wrong. Specifically, it attempts to determine what actions are right and what are wrong. Two moral theories: Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics One is consequential in nature and the other deontological. Deontological ethics holds the view that results or consequences of actions are morally irrelevant. Instead, deontological theories pertain to duty or obligation. A deontological ethics is typically contrasted with consequential moral theories. Consequentialism: The position that people’s actions are right or wrong because of their consequences (their results). 1. Introduction Utilitarianism is a highly influential moral theory that came to prominence in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 2. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Utilitarianism Typically, Jeremy Bentham, a legal commentator and radical political reformer, is cited as being the founder of the moral theory known as utilitarianism. What is valuable, in the eyes of Bentham, is producing as much pleasure or happiness as possible while at the same time, producing as little pain as possible. In his work, An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation, Bentham writes: Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as determine what we shall so. … They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. According to Bentham, what we should do is maximize pleasure in the social realm and minimize pain. To this point, Bentham introduces what is known as the utility principle, which tells us that greatest happiness of the greatest number is the correct measure of right and wrong. This is also known as the greatest happiness principle, which tells us that a morally good act is one that results in the most happiness. It is important to note that Bentham equates pleasure with happiness. As a moral theory we can say that utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize pain. Perhaps, it can be said that Bentham sees or even reduces moral theory to counting. Why can this be said about Bentham? According to Bentham, everyone affected by some action must be counted equally, and our own happiness counts no more than that of others. Imagine a scenario like this: ActAmakes me happy and two other people happy. Act B makes me unhappy but five others happy. Which act would Bentham’s utilitarianism endorse as the morally right or proper act? 1. A group of U of O students have taken to heart the teachings of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. They have decided that it is too painful to get up early every morning to go to classes that they do not enjoy. Instead, they have realized that they get more pleasure from sleeping-in, staying home to watch movies and play video games. In fact, they no longer bother to go to class at all. What would Bentham say about the actions of these students? Are they happy? 2. You are a physician who has five patients under your care. One needs a heart transplant, two need one lung each, one needs a liver, and the last needs a kidney. Now into your office comes a healthy young bachelor needing an immunization. You know that he is a loner with no family or friends. You judge that he would make a perfect sacrifice for your five patients, and contemplate injecting him with a fatal drug and then using his organs to save your five other patients. What would utilitarianism inform about being the morally good course of action in this situation? 3. John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Utilitarianism Mill was a prominent public intellectual in nineteenth century England. He wrote on a variety of topics, including liberalism, the subjection of women, logic, political economics, and of course, utilitarianism. Mill seeks to rehabilitate or improve the moral theory of utilitarianism that Jeremy Bentham puts forth. To carry out this task, Mill writes an extended essay, entitled, Utilitarianism (1861), for a magazine that has wide public readership. In this essay Mill seeks to tone down the excesses, in his eyes, of Bentham’s presentation of utilitarianism. Mill like Bentham maintains that a morally good act is one that results in or promotes happiness while a morally bad act is one that reverses or takes away happiness. Also, Mill, again like Bentham, stresses the importance of pleasure and happiness with pain for his moral theory. However, Mill distances himself from Bentham by arguing that it is just not the quantity but also the quality of pleasure that must be taken into consideration. According to Mill, it is absurd to say pleasure depends upon quantity alone. In making this claim, Mill distinguishes between pleasures of the intellect and pleasures of sensation. The former, pleasures of the intellect, are of a higher rank or of more importance than the latter, pleasures of sensation. Essentially, Mill makes a hierarchy of pleasures, with higher pleasures (those of the intellect) being more important than lower pleasures (those of sensation). Perhaps, Mill would elaborate that playing video games and reading Shakespeare both provide pleasure. But, at the same time, he would argue that reading Shakespeare would be a superior form of pleasure since it engages our intellect, imagination, and so on. Mill would argue that those who have enjoyed both higher and lower pleasures will admit that higher pleasures are better as they exercise our faculties and, in doing so, makes us better humans. The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893 1. Kant Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a German philosopher who is probably one of the most important philosophers of the Modern Period.
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