Utilitarianism is the first theory you’ll consider in the course — and, for the most part, it’s pretty straight-forward, at least to start.
The basic idea is that you can figure out what is morally the best possible thing to do by considering all the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative and doing that thing which brings the greatest increase in advantage or decrease in disadvantage. Often — this is discussed broadly in terms of pleasure and pain. SO, once ALL the pleasures and ALL the pains of each alternative action is considered, you ought to do the thing which brings the greatest increase in pleasure/decrease in pain.
There are a few things to consider, of course — and that’s where it gets complicated… thus the need for ninjas..
- ALL persons pleasures and pains must be considered equally. What this means is that you’re not allowed to give more or less weight to your pains or those of your family.
- Pleasures and pains must be assessed before the action, BUT — the morality of your action is only considered after the action is complete, so you could easily end up trying to do a good thing and actually completing a bad thing.
- Calculating pleasures and pains for others is a requirement of the theory, BUT — people’s individual experiences of pleasure and pain may vary widely — so you need to make your best guess.
- There is no morally acceptable reason NOT to follow utilitarianism, even when it’s very difficult..
The upshot of all of this is that persons could be required, morally, to make sacrifices on behalf of others — they may be morally required to help strangers when their family/friends could also benefit from their help — and that persons trying to calculate pleasures and pains may guess wrong about what hurts or helps other persons — and it’s going to get old making these calculations all the time, concerning every single decision.
big 0l fat hint: these are the basis of decent objections to utilitarianism, pay attention :).
Please note: This theory is a bit different than a common summary of utilitarianism — which usually says, “utilitarianism advocates the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. This is different from requiring that you do the greatest overall good — because, that good may NOT be to the benefit of the larger group of people. Pay attention to this.. it’s a huge pet-peeve of mine.
Also, pay attention to when you write the main author’s last name.. it’s “Mill”, IT IS NOT “Mills” — don’t look like a dumb-ass and write it as “Mills” — if you’d like to write about the theory Mill advocates, you should write “Mill’s (note the ‘s ) theory advocates the greatest overall good, all persons considered.”