Ethical Orientations: Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an ethical principle attributed to Jeremy Bentham in the 16th century, and a hundred years later to John Stuart Mill. The approach of a utilitarian is to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. In actual practice utilitarian is not a simple or trivial approach. Utilitarianists conduct research and evaluate multiple possibilities in order to make the most informed and equitable decisions. Utilitarianism, in contradistinction to deontology, always considers the consequences of decisions and would never act solely on the basis of personal opinion or preference. When decisions involving numerous stakeholders need to be made, everyone’s interests need to be considered, and then action taken that will benefit the majority of the people. From an ethical standpoint, one of the issues with utilitarianism, is that decisions are usually made by those in power, rather than those who will be impacted by a decision. Although many parties may be consulted before making any decisions, utilitarians do not make decisions democratically or by committee.

Q: Utilitarianism seems like such an ethical way of making decisions, why is it not used by more people?

Q: If utilitarianism formed the basis for decisions in the US congress, taxes on the wealthy would be higher, benefits to the needy more widely available, etc. Clearly, this is not the case. So why are so many people opposed to making decisions that serve the interests of the majority of society?

Q: Is utilitarianism something of a socialist position that punishes individuals?

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