Philosophers have used many different approaches towards a logic based ethical system. One of the most common approaches used by philosophers is the utilitarian approach.
According to the Utilitarian philosophers, the ethical value of an action can be determined by its utility to the doer of the action or to his family, his country or the human species as a whole. The Utilitarians differ upon what means to use to determine the utility of an action (MacIntyre, 1998).
Aristotle defines the concept of eudaemonia, which is a general concept comprising wellbeing, prosperity or happiness, as the highest good. In Aristotle’s moral philosophy, actions that promote eudaemonia are morally sound actions while those that lead away from eudaemonia are immoral actions.
Other Utilitarian philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, have classified pleasure as the highest good which all actions should promote and pain as the greatest evil. According to this conception of good an evil, an individual’s primary responsibility is to increase everyone else’s and his own pleasure and try to minimize his own and everyone else’s pain (MacIntyre, 1998).
This definition raises an interesting conundrum regarding the man whose pleasure consists in torturing others. In case the man experiences a great amount of pleasure by causing a small amount of pain to others, according to this ‘hedonistic calculus’, the moral act for him would be to continue torturing others.
Another conundrum arises regarding a person that is so widely hated and despised that the greatest amount of pleasure in the greatest number of individuals could be obtained by humiliating or destroying that person. According to some branches of utilitarianism, the right and proper course for the members of the society would be to work together in opposition to that person, seeking to destroy him.
Some Utilitarian philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill answer this idea saying, that this attitude of malevolence towards someone could only arise in a person who valued their own pleasure over the pleasure of others (MacIntyre, 1998).
Utilitarian approaches towards ethical standards often fall short of the dictates of conventional morality. For example, many human cultures speak of an individual’s responsibility towards his parents. In a situation, where one has to choose between either of their parents and an unrelated person, many cultures would regard preferring the parent to be correct moral behaviour. Not so some of the Utilitarians. Utilitarian philosopher William Godwin theorized that if in a fire a person had a choice to save either one of his parents or the Archbishop Fenelon a benefactor of mankind, they should save Archbishop Fenelon and let their own parent burn to death (Vasquez-Dennis, 1995).
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