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 ethics holds the view that results or
consequences of actions are morally irrelevant.
Instead, deontological theories pertain to duty or
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
Utilitarianism is a highly influential moral theory that
came to prominence in Britain in the eighteenth and
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
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
3. John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Utilitarianism Mill was a prominent public intellectual in nineteenth
He wrote on a variety of topics, including liberalism, the
subjection of women, logic, political economics, and of
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
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.