Philosophy is an integral part of every person’s worldview and outlook on life which they espouse and through which they interpret various phenomena. Ethics is inherent to any philosophical perspective since it constitutes an element which guides people in their actions and interactions with others. Utilitarianism and deontology are two influential schools of thought in the field of ethics, which employ completely different approaches. Yet, despite the fact that they both have value, the utilitarian view is more important than the deontological one because it allows individuals to find a solution which is morally right by relying on the simple principle of utility.
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Before explaining the benefits of embracing utilitarianism, it is important to mention the thinkers who formulated the main principles of this philosophical theory. Utilitarianism was first introduced by Jeremy Bentham, who believed that every person who is deciding on how to act in a certain situation must focus on the potential outcome of their actions (Zinaich 82). In his view, the most appropriate action which every individual has to take implies maximizing the best consequences. Bentham contended that the mental state of happiness and pleasure ultimately constituted the good which was universal in all circumstances. Therefore, the action which made it possible to achieve the good had to be considered morally right, while the action which did not allow an individual to attain the good had to be deemed wrong. Yet, the main issue with Bentham’s version of utilitarianism concerned the fact he did not draw any distinctions between types of pleasure. In other words, in Bentham’s philosophy, the feeling of pleasure murderer experiences when killing their victim would be the same as the pleasure of listening to a beautiful melody.
The problem of the equal normative status of pleasures inherent to Bentham’s utilitarianism was resolved by John Stuart Mill, whose ideas still constitute the core of this philosophical perspective. Mill introduced a differentiation between utilitarianism and hedonism, which was embraced by Bentham. He declared that certain kinds of pleasure had more value to them than other ones. This distinction becomes a premise of the principle of utility which Mill (10) promotes as the essential element of utilitarianism, which means that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.” Moreover, the pleasure which implies engaging “higher faculties” would be considered more valuable and beneficial than the one which implied mere bodily satisfaction (Mill 12). Mill’s (15) Greatest Happiness principle postulates that individuals have to act to produce the maximum happiness for every being on the planet. Yet, this does not mean that they should sacrifice themselves but rather understand that their personal happiness contributes to the good of the world.
The notion of pain is also extremely significant in Mill’s perspective since it constitutes the opposite of happiness. According to Mill (10), “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain.” Thus, if a person indulges in excessive consumption of alcohol, they do not attain happiness and the greater good since this action has a negative consequence for their health. Moreover, Mill recognized the role of society as a force which can produce a moral code consistent with the principle of utility.
Thus, Mill’s version of utilitarianism constituted a departure from Bentham’s ideas towards a more humanistic perspective which acknowledged the value of general happiness as a result of individual actions. Mill’s utilitarianism provides a variety of benefits for people who choose to employ it as their primary philosophical worldview. Specifically, it recognizes the importance of personal happiness for the general good of society and the world. It also presents a simple principle of utility which lets people choose the right action based on the idea of how much happiness it will bring them. Moreover, it is inherently anti-totalitarian since utilitarianism values every individual and their particular needs and desires, which implies that societal norms should not be the law if they are intended to harm others. Mill’s utilitarianism is the epitome of common sense because it guides people to opt for pleasure instead of pain. Finally, most importantly, utilitarianism is extremely flexible since it recognizes the fact that actions have different degrees of being right or wrong and therefore can be adapted to any situation.
The philosophical perspective, which is opposite to utilitarianism, is deontology which promotes the idea that decisions on how to act in certain situations must be based on universal rules and not an analysis of the potential outcomes. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, is considered to be the original author of the deontological view. Deontology postulates that one has to act according to laws they espouse and which are obligatory for them to fall to act morally (Wood 43). Therefore, a person who embraces the deontological outlook has to strive to take actions which are right and not good. Kant introduced the concept of the categorical imperative, a rule which has a universal nature and can be self-imposed by a person (“Ethics Script” 2). For instance, a person may commit themselves to following the categorical imperative of not lying. On the one hand, it can be beneficial since deception usually is harmful to any person’s reputation and society in general. Yet, in situations when lying can save some person’s life, upholding the categorical imperative of not deceiving can lead to negative consequences.
An individual with a utilitarian worldview, when faced with a situation where his lie would save somebody’s life, would, without any hesitation, choose to deceive as to the action which would bring the most good and happiness. In other words, utilitarianism is superior to deontology because by focusing on what provides the most utility, it allows people to avoid inflicting harm on others with their actions. Moreover, deontology implies creating principles which are rigid and cannot be changed depending on the circumstance, while utilitarianism presents people with different options in a certain context. Additionally, deontology often contradicts the laws of societies because each one has its own set of standards. If people globally were to embrace the same deontological perspective and principles, the world would not be as diverse as today. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, does not reject the power of the norms and traditions existing in societies. For example, Mill (27) claimed that the principle of utility has to be used only when there is a conflict between the established societal principles.
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Utilitarianism and deontology are two important philosophical perspectives on ethics, yet the former is more beneficial for people and society than the latter. Utilitarianism was first introduced by Bentham, who claimed that the ultimate goal all individuals have to seek is a pleasure. Mill added new elements to the philosophy by introducing the idea of the difference between various types of pleasures, but he also supported the notion of happiness as the ultimate good. Deontology was developed by Kant, and according to it, the only morally right behavior for a person is following the self-imposed universal laws, called categorical imperatives. Utilitarianism is superior to deontology because it reduces the risk of harming others, constitutes a more flexible approach, and promotes general well-being and happiness rather than personal adherence to doing what is right.
“Ethics Script: Deontology.” CHDS, Web.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Batoche Books, 2001.
Wood, Nathan. Virtue Rediscovered: Deontology, Consequentialism, and Virtue Ethics in the Contemporary Moral Landscape. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
Zinaich, Samuel. Analytical Legal Naturalism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.