U tilitarianism is a Western theory that has a history dating back to the late 1700s
(Harris, 2002; Shanahan & Wang, 2003). It has influenced the ethical decisionmaking in many facets of our lives including state and federal laws as well as professional codes of ethics. Harris stated that “utilitarianism is one of the most powerfuland persuasive traditions of moral thought in our culture” (p. 119). Quinton (1973) suggested that “Utilitarianism can be understood as a movement for legal, political and social reform that flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century” (p. 1). Rachels (1998) described utilitarian theory as based in social reform in human behavior, offering an alternative to natural law. The earliestproponent of utilitarian theory was David Hume in the mid-1700s (Rachels, 1998). Hume introduced many of the basic concepts of utilitarian theory and he believed morals guided human behavior (Quinton, 1973). Hume’s basic beliefs included a perception that humans are naturally kind (Quinton). According to Quinton, a second belief proposed by Hume was that humans sympathize with others and seek commonground. Jeremy Bentham followed Hume and was the first to formally write down ideas about utilitarian theory (Shanahan & Wang, 2003). Bentham’s original views were influenced by his background in economics and government. Several key assumptions are characteristic of Bentham’s views. First, he believed that pleasure and pain influenced human behavior and human decision-making. Consequently, whatis good or bad is related to what is pleasurable or painful, the hedonist principle (Quinton, 1973). His simple view of ethics was that good or bad is a function of
WESTERN THEORIES OF ETHICS
differences in the amount of pleasure or pain between courses of action for all individuals involved (Shanahan & Wang). Second, Benthambelieved that good or pleasure as an outcome for all affected by a circumstance could be quantified. Specific amounts of pleasure could be attached to an action for an individual affected by the decision, and a total amount of pleasure could be calculated by summing values attached to everyone affected (Shanahan & Wang). Bentham proposed the principle of utility, which states that whenever there isa choice between several options the ethical choice is the one that has the best overall outcome for all involved (Rachels, 1998). John Stuart Mill was a second proponent of utilitarian theory and studied Bentham’s views. Mill received only informal training at home but studied Greek and Latin. He additionally studied logic and read Bentham’s work at an early age. Mill wrote in the same vein asBentham on such topics as government, economics, and ethics (Shanahan & Wang, 2003).
Mill expanded Bentham’s views, going beyond the simple concept of pleasure versus pain to introduce the idea that certain pleasures are higher than others. A criticism of utilitarianism was that there was no difference morally between animals and humans if an ethical decision was based uponsimply identifying pleasure versus pain. Mill proposed that some human pleasures could be categorized as higher pleasures than others. An example of a higher pleasure is the intellect. Therefore, taking a stimulating class that benefits individuals and enlightens them, and that then may result in distribution of this new knowledge, would be more ethical than the satisfaction of sexual or physicaldesires that benefit only a few. The ultimate decision as to whether an action is ethical is determined by the outcome; this is the consequentialist principle (Quinton, 1973). Intentions are not considered important in the ethical decision-making in utilitarian theory (Knapp, 1999). Rachels (1998) noted that Bentham and Mill believed there are basic propositions in utilitarian theory. “First, actions...