Model Essay – Utilitarianism

August 14, 2018
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To what extent, if any, is Utilitarianism a good theory for approaching moral decisions in life? (30/40 Grade B)

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Arguably, the use of utilitarianism for the making of moral decisions is more detrimental to a society than it is beneficial. Indeed the very basis on which utilitarianism is founded, ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’, proves to be the first stumbling block. The ‘paradox of hedonism’ suggests that pleasure itself cannot be directly obtained. Instead, we must aim for more substantial conclusions, such as wealth or power – pleasure is merely a symptom that follows. This idea is most acutely explained by politician William Bennett: ‘Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.’

Good. Excellent summary of the utilitarian problem that once you pursue happiness or pleasure as an end in itself it tends to elude you.

Therefore, to base one’s entire ethical approach to life on happiness, something which is so fleeting and indistinct, suddenly seems irrational. You need to mention a philosopher here such as Mill and ground the argument in what he says. If we cannot amass pleasure within ourselves, how can we be so vain as to assume we can recognise its form in others, particularly those we don’t know (e.g. in the case of a politician forming their policies on utilitarian principles.) That is not to say that the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in a wider sense will always be futile, but that one should make decisions independently, on grounds other than those utilitarian, and allow happiness to follow.

Is it not true to say we can assess polices looking backwards with hindsight because all the consequences are known, but not forwards when there are often unintended consequences? This paragraph is too general to be of much analytical quality – make sure you go straight into a philosophical theory.

On the other hand, rule utilitarianism appears to offer a resolution. If one chooses to implement a pre-determined set of rules (e.g. to avoid lying, to be pacifistic, to be modest,) which predominantly bring about the most ‘pleasure’/good for society, then focus can be diverted away from pursuing you mean personal happiness here happiness, and instead towards living a righteous life.

Yes, but again, you need to give this a theoretical grounding in Mill’s so-called ‘weak rule utilitarianism’ – Mill’s point is we are foolish to ignore the experience of people who have gone before us in terms of general rules or guidelines for creating the happy society. But when moral dilemmas occur we revert to being act utilitarians.

Jeremy Bentham (the father of modern utilitarianism) was somewhat of a polymath – to suggest that he was solely a ‘philosopher’ would be a vast understatement. This kind of comment is irrelevant to the question and a waste of time.Undoubtedly, he was also a great social reformer, basing his beliefs on the underlying principle of egalitarianism (i.e. equality for all.) However, in many ways, utilitarianism innately contradicts ‘egalité.

This paragraph is a good example of the kind of paragraph a highly analytical essay never contains because you are merely describing the life and times of Mr Bentham and not adding anything to the argument.

Initially a thought experiment experiment devised by the American philosopher Robert Nozick, ‘the utility monster,’ undermines the very equality for which Bentham’s philosophy once fought. Visualise a situation in which the hedonic calculus is being employed. In such a case, the intensity (quality) of the perceived happiness must be acknowledged. For illustration’s sake, imagine rations are being distributed amongst a group of isolated individuals. However, one of these individuals appears to gain a disproportionately high intensity of pleasure on receiving food, despite all other individuals being of an equally critical state of health (e.g. starvation.) To apply the hedonic calculus would not only (unfairly) favour the minority, but also pose a great risk to the majority (assuming that the individual’s pleasure is greater than the collective pleasure of the majority.)

Yes this is a good point but it wouldn’t apply to Mill’s theory because social utility would mean we need principles of justice, otherwise any of us would be permanently miserable at just the thought of a utility monster.

The most valid counterargument to which is proposed by the British philosopher Derek Parfit, arguing that the scale of happiness should be seen as asymptotic rather than linear. That is, the happiness of a utility monster cannot perpetually increase, but will eventually reach a point near enough to ‘complete’ happiness. Hence, such a being is not conceivable. This argument bears a strong resemblance to prioritarianism, which suggests that individuals on the lower end of the ‘pleasure spectrum’ will obtain a greater amount of happiness (‘per unit of utility’) than those closer to the reverse end.

Again a good point and actually illustrating what economists call the principle of diminishing marginal utility – we eventually have less and less satisfaction as an individual until at some point we experience no satisfaction at all.

Or, to some extent, the intensity of happiness could thereby be omitted from the hedonic calculus to account for the utility monster. However, there is also a troubling flaw with the seventh principle – ‘extent,’ or the amount of people that a particular moral choice may affect. Counterintuitively, the one society which utilitarianism does not appear to permit, is a microcosmic ‘utopia.’ When summating the pleasure of individuals, the greatest amount will be achieved, theoretically, by an extremely populous group with indifferent levels of happiness rather than a very small but extremely contented group. This is known as the ‘repugnant conclusion.’

Interesting and unusual point. Which philosopher talks about this problem?

In counterargument one might say, ‘the average pleasure should supersede the total amount of pleasure’ for this particular instance. Yet this line of argument spawns issues of its own. A simple average can easily be skewed by extremities. Such that one individual in a state of euphoria would significantly raise the average happiness of his miserable counterparts. Under the aforementioned, atrocities such as slavery could feasibly be justified. What’s the suffering of one thousand imprisoned subordinates if the overseer is delighted by the recent success of his cotton farm? Utilitarianism, in this context, seeks to diminish the more valuable pursuits (charity, liberal arts) over the happiness one gains through materialism (e.g. the wealth garnered from a cotton farm.)

Even if all the preceding shortcomings were to be deemed permissible, there is still a flaw which is perhaps the most pertinent of all. Humans, by their very nature, are unable to reliably predict consequence, and without consequence, the principle of utilitarianism is worthless. Given the nature of the ‘ripple effect,’ it would be naive to assume that every possible consequence of even the simplest of decisions could be accounted for. Or moreover, to predict the ways in which people would (potentially dangerously,) apply utilitarianism if it were to be adopted as a global ethic.

Yes, again a very good point.

Even attempting to apply such a primitive, nebulous philosophy to an infinite diversity of ethical decisions seems rather unrefined. Despite superficially appearing succinct and rational, the impracticalities of achieving ‘the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people’ cannot be overlooked. Indeed, utilitarianism is theoretically sound but there are far too many exceptional cases for it to be one’s ruling principle.

‘Primitive’ and ‘nebulous’ are rather emotive (rude) words to use of a philosophy that has guided Government policy for years.  Welfare is another word for happiness (just a little more neutral!).In Politics and Economics we use social welfare measures to evaluate our decisions – as it is impartial.

Overall 30/40 75% Grade B

The essay has some very interesting points to make.  However, it would not achieve an A* because the establishment of how the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill actually works is rather thin. Particularly, there is little substance about how Mill’s weak rule utilitarianism actually works, and how some argue that rule utilitarianism collapses into act utilitarianism. In terms of social benefits versus individual benefits the candidate needs to bring out how this operates in Mill’s theory, and how he grounds the final chapter of his essay on justice as a fundamental prerequisite of the happy society. Mill also moves his whole argument much closer to Aristotle as he writes his essay – leading some to call him an inconsistent utilitarian because he can’t quite decide whether to go for qualitative pleasures or another concept of long-term welfare that is closer to eudaimonia in Aristotelean thought. It is lighter on AO1 marks than AO2 but seems to miss some of the analytical steps necessary to be a really compelling argument.

AO1 Level 4 10/16

A good demonstration of knowledge and understanding. Addresses the question well. Good selection of relevant material, used appropriately on the whole. Mostly accurate knowledge which demonstrates good understanding of the material used, which should have reasonable amounts of depth or breadth. A good range of scholarly views.

It is ‘good’ because it contains a very strong critical thesis. But it is neither very good nor excellent because the precise detail of how Bentham’s and Mills theories work is lacking – it is assumed rather than stated and established and analysed. For example, there is an interesting relationship in Mill between higher and lower pleasures and act and rue utilitarianism whereby we should, Mill argues, generally follow a rule which past experience suggest will maximise social happiness but when we face a moral dilemma we revert to being an act utilitarian. There is also an ambiguity in the question which is never considered – moral decisions for whom?

AO2 level 5 20/24

A very good demonstration of analysis and evaluation in response to the question. successful and clear analysis, evaluation and argument. Views very well stated, coherently developed and justified. There is a well–developed and sustained line of reasoning which is coherent, relevant and logically structured.

It would have been excellent if there had been a little more engagement with the academic philosophers who produce the arguments, rather than just the arguments themselves.


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