Utilitarian principle

Utilitarian principle




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Utilitarian principle

Utilitarianism has been described as the greatest happiness principle that states that actions are not just wrong or right. It holds that actions can be said to be right depending with the proportion to which they promote happiness and at the same time actions can be said to be wrong depending with the proportion to which they promote unhappiness. In this case, happiness meaning pleasure and the absence of pain while on the other hand unhappiness means pain and the deprivation of pleasure.

According Mill (2010) actions, event, circumstances and experiences are only good if they lead to pleasure and a higher level of happiness and the opposite of that is also true: Actions are considered wrong and unpleasant only insofar as they lead to pain and becomes a source of depriving pleasure.

Mill also observes that there are two types of pleasures: low-level and higher level pleasures and people often choose the higher level pleasures even though this may come at a certain cost because they appeal to their faculties. However, something to keep in mind is that the pursuit of one’s own selfish happiness is not supported by this principle and it cannot be said to be moral. Moral actions should be those that support the greatest amount of utility in the world.

According to the utilitarian principle the happiness of the future people is as important as our own happiness and we need to measure our actions in terms as to what proportion can they promote pleasure now and in the future. Thus, having some knowledge of the future is important in making this determination .Utilitarianism obligates us to think about the pleasure and happiness of the future generation and it is not limited and restricted by our selfish pursuit of happiness.

For instance faced with a dilemma between two types of energy to choose from: green energy which is very expensive and cheap but risky nuclear energy. Utilitarianism will go with the green energy even though it may come at great cost because is safe and it guarantees a cleaner and better environment for posterity while on the other hand with nuclear energy an earthquake can occur causing radiation that can lead to massive loss of lives. According to Mills (2010) to understand how our actions and to determine whether they promote greatest happy for many it is imperative that we have knowledge of the future.

Having said that, it is impossible to determine and ascertain if our actions can be a source of great happiness to the greatest number of people without having knowledge of the future. The actions that we have today have ability to greatly affect posterity and thus for us to determine what kind of actions are right and moral we must sit down and ask ourselves how will this impact future generations from the pursuit and enjoyment of their happiness.

To help us come to this determination we need to look at the actions of the previous generations, lest say 20-40 years ago and find those actions that they may have done and the impact of those actions on our lives and our happiness now. A good example is how they took care of the natural resources such as forests and fossil fuels (Roberts, 2009)

Utilitarianism is concerned with the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and achieving that is a moral duty and a good thing to do. For instance slavery can’t be said to be wrong or right according to this principle on the face value of it but one needs to inquire further about how much happiness slavery is generating for the greatest number of people.

If in a given town a given percentage of people are slaves, we can say 5% and of course slaves aren’t known for leading the best lives.Thier lot is shame, misery and suffering of all kinds. But if the rest of the town (95%) are deriving pleasure and happiness from slavery then it can be called moral according to this principle because of the sheer number of people who are benefiting and getting benefits from it as contradictory as that may sound. Thus according to utilitarianism actions are judged on the basis of the number of people who are getting pleasure and enjoyment from them. In this case freeing slaves may drastically reduce the happiness of a lot more people even though it will bring happiness to freed slaves.

There are many counter examples that suggest that utilitarianism is in fact immoral and contradictory because it claim to be supporting the greatest happiness for the great majority of people even when it means sacrificing the happiness of others for the sake of the many is accepted. In my view this makes this theory unsatisfactory. Subjecting people to cruelty and inhumane treatment should not be an option even if it may benefit many others because the problem with slavery is that leaves behind painful scars that becomes very hard to recover from and this pain and suffering can have major repercussions that can stretch into the future for generations to come (Finkelman, 2010)

On the other hand the other hand having the future in mind before deciding what action to take is a positive virtue that we should out that has been supported by this principle and in my view possessing knowledge about the future doesn’t make the theory unsatisfactory.


Finkelman, P. (2010). In the shadow of freedom the politics of slavery in the national capital. Athens: Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society by Ohio University Press.

Mill, J. S. (2010). Utilitarianism. Broadview Press.

Roberts, M. (2009). Harming future persons ethics, genetics and the nonidentity problem. Dordrecht: Springer.

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