Notes on Hedonism and Utilitarianism
Teleological (or consequentialist) theories of ethics (e.g.,
egoism, hedonism, utilitarianism) assume that the first task of ethics
is to determine that which has value (and thus defines the good) and then
to indicate how we are obligated to do what is valuable. Before we
know why we should do good, we first have to determine what the
good is. Specifically, we have to consider the consequences
of our actions, since actions in themselves are neither good nor bad.
Hedonism: every human action is motivated by the pursuit of pleasure
(psychological hedonism) or ought to be motivated by the pursuit of pleasure
(moral hedonism). (Note that moral hedonism presumes that it is possible
not to be motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, but that it is unwise to
Epicurus: one always ought to do the good, and the good is that
which is pleasurable. Some pleasures result from satisfying natural
desires--some of which are necessary (like the desires for food and sleep),
some of which are unnecessary and often have pains associated with them
(like the desire for sex). Other pleasures result from satisfying
vain desires, desires not easy to satisfy and often lead to pain.
According to Epicurus, we should pursue those things that are pleasurable
without also having pains associated with them. Thus we should try
to develop values for beauty, prudence, honor, justice, courage, and honesty
rather than so-called "epicurean" sensualism because such sensualism is
always mixed with pains. One's pleasures always should be moderated:
real pleasure is the absence of pain.
Utilitarianism: social hedonism; the good is what produces the greatest
amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (including oneself),
even if it causes unhappiness to oneself.
Jeremy Bentham: people should do what produces pleasure, considering
the intensity, duration, certainty, quickness, how many other pleasures
are produced, freedom from pains, and the number of people affected.
Every person's happiness, no matter how mundane or qualitatively inferior,
is given equal weight: democracy permits allowing standards to fall to
the lowest common denominator. Pleasure and pain dictate all human
It is simply not true that pleasure and pain dictate all human behavior
How does one make hedonistic calculations? Is there a standard that
all can agree on?
What about qualities of pleasures?
The calculation surely must not be aimed at the greatest absolute happiness,
but the greatest average happiness. Otherwise, the minority's rights
(and happiness) might be ignored
J. S. Mill: the quality of pleasures needs to be considered in addition
to the quantity of pleasure. Some kinds of pleasure are more desirable
and more valuable (for social, cultural reasons) than others. Even
though lower pleasures are often more immediate, intense, etc., they are
not as valuable as higher pleasures. The quality of pleasures is
determined by those who are familiar with both and who prefer one to the
other, regardless of any feeling of moral obligation. What makes
one pleasure more desirable is that it is in fact more desired by "competent
judges of cultivation." It is therefore better to be "Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied."
This sounds elitist.
If some pleasures should not be encouraged, not all pleasures are good
(good is thus not simply the same as pleasure or that which produces happiness).
If some pleasures are more valuable than others, there must be a criterion
for such a determination (e.g., human fulfillment or well-being) which
is pleasurable only indirectly.
Problems with Utilitarianism in general:
Injustice: if the total amount of happiness is increased by violating the
rights of a few, then utilitarianism seems to condone unjust acts (act
utilitarianism). But if such acts were to become the rule, there
would be less happiness. So, according to rule utilitarianism,
we should do only what produces the greatest amount of happiness if it
is done generally or as a rule.
But what if following the rule would yield worse consequences than violating
the rule? If we depend on consequences to make moral judgments, shouldn't
we violate the rule?--in which case, what is the point of having an ethical