Happiness: Utilitarianism

Happiness is hard to define. Moreover, there are many different definitions and opinions of what happiness is, and many believe happiness to be a totally subjective state, and that each person’s definition of happiness is different to the next person. Over the next few posts I will be looking at different philosophical views on happiness and pondering on what is, if there is one, the ‘best’ definition of happiness. This post will deal with the philosophy of utilitarianism.

To the utilitarian, happiness is, fundamentally, the maximization of pleasure and the minimisation of pain. Furthermore, the goal is life, says the utilitarian, is happiness, which is reached, as the founder of utilitarian thought Jeremy Bentham put it, by using your means to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create’ and to ‘remove all the misery you are able to remove.’ Pleasure is good, pain is bad. A happy life is full of pleasure, whereas a miserable one is full of pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is called Act Utilitarianism, since each individual act is scrutinised on the basis of pleasure and pain to decide whether the act is right or wrong-the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what makes an act right. However, this process can lead to disastrous consequences.

John Stuart Mill built upon Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism by creating a Rule Utilitarianism which bases the rules of a society on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This way, Mill thought, there could be trust present in society. Moreover, Mill. unlike Bentham, distinguished between types of pleasures, arguing that there are higher (exempla gratia-reading) and lower pleasures (e.g. alcohol). Mill has received criticism for this distinction because this difference makes his theory an elitist theory, rather than a universal one. As well as this, Nietzsche attacked Mill by saying that people have different needs to be happy, and called him a ‘blockhead’ for such an ignorant generalisation.

Peter Singer, a notorious contemporary utilitarian, argued in favour of negative  preference utilitarianism, a form of utilitarianism which holds that pleasure is the absence of pain, and that happiness comes from having one’s preferences satisfied. Again, however, his views have been met with controversy and a questioning as to the genuine moral nature of his and all utilitarian thought.

Utilitarianism bases happiness on pleasure and pain. Bentham’s utilitarianism is itself generally rejected, yet Mill’s Rule utilitarianism has influenced our society to some extent, and his view that our own happiness stems from seeking the happiness of others is worth keeping in mind, since it may be that if we want to be happy, we must first want the happiness of others to occur. In this way, parts of Mill’s philosophy are selfless and Mill’s ideas of cultivating good human beings is an idea which has influenced different schools of thought and society up to the present. Singer said that ‘my interests cannot, simply because they are my own, count more than the interests of anyone else’ implying that the interests of all those concerned in a situation should be taken into account. It is difficult, however, to always know what the ‘best’ interest is in such situations. Singer has had profound effects on the idea of wealth and poverty and his book ‘Practical Ethics’ is one of the highest selling ethics books of all time. There is, though, another form of utilitarianism, that of G.E. Moore, which is ideal utilitarianism, and this denies that the goal of life is to maximise pleasure. Rather, Moore said that it is friendship and beauty that should be pursued since they are intrinsically good.

The question we must ask ourselves, it seems, is whether our goal is to maximise pleasure and minimize pain, or whether there is something else about life which is worth attaining. Yet, what is it if such a thing exists? And is it a universal goal, or do we each have our own, individual and subjective path to happiness? Is happiness even attainable? These questions will be deliberated upon in further posts.


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