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Utilitarianism: a philosophy centered on happiness

Utilitarianism: a philosophy centered on happiness

May 6, 2021

Sometimes philosophers are criticized for theorizing too much about reality and the ideas we use to define them and pay little attention to investigate the nature of what makes us really happy.

This is an unfortunate accusation for two reasons. The first is that it is not the task of the philosophers to study the habits that can contribute to making large groups of people happy; That is the function of scientists. The second is that there is at least a philosophical current that places happiness at the center of its sphere of interest. His name is utilitarianism .

What is utilitarianism?

Closely related to hedonism, utilitarianism is a theory of the ethical branch of philosophy according to which morally good behaviors are those whose consequences produce happiness. In this way, there are two basic elements that define utilitarianism: its way of relating the good with the happiness of the individuals and their consequentialism.


This last property means that, contrary to what happens with some philosophical doctrines that identify the good with the good intentions that someone has when acting, utilitarianism identifies the consequences of actions as the aspect that must be examined when judging whether an action is good or bad .

The calculation of Bentham's happiness

Examining the goodness or badness of the acts by focusing on the intentions we have may seem easy when evaluating the degree to which we are morally good or not. At the end of the day, we just have to ask ourselves if with our actions we were looking to harm someone or rather benefit someone.


From the perspective of utilitarianism, however, seeing whether we stick to good or evil is not so easy, because we lose the clear reference that are our intentions, an area in which each of us are our only judges. We have the need to develop a way of "measuring" the happiness generated by our actions. This enterprise was undertaken in its most literal form by one of the fathers of utilitarianism, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham , who believed that utility can be evaluated quantitatively just as it is done with any element that can be identified in time and space.

This hedonistic calculation was an effort to create a systematic way of objectively establishing the level of happiness that our actions have as a consequence, and therefore it was fully consistent with the utilitarian philosophy. It included certain measures to weigh the duration and intensity of the positive and pleasurable sensations that are experienced and to do the same with painful experiences. However, the pretensions of objectifying the level of happiness of an action can easily be questioned. At the end of the day, there is no single and unquestionable criterion about the degree of importance that must be given to each "variable" of the level of happiness; some people will be more interested in the duration of these, others in its intensity, others in the degree of probability with which it will bring more pleasant consequences, etc.


John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill He is considered one of the most influential thinkers in the theoretical development of liberalism, and was also an enthusiastic advocate of utilitarianism. Stuart Mill was concerned with solving a specific problem: the way in which the interests of the individual can clash with those of other people in the pursuit of happiness. This type of conflicts can appear very easily due to the fact that the happiness and pleasure associated with it can only be experienced individually, and not socially, but at the same time human beings need to live in society to have certain guarantees of survival.

That's why Stuart Mill relates the concept of happiness with justice . It makes sense that he did it in this way, because justice can be understood as a system of maintaining a framework of healthy relationships in which each individual is guaranteed protection against certain attacks (converted into infractions) while still enjoying freedom to pursue your own objectives.

The types of happiness

If for Bentham happiness was basically a matter of quantity, John Stuart Mill established a qualitative difference between different types of happiness .

Thus, according to him, happiness of an intellectual nature is better than that based on satisfaction produced by the stimulation of the senses. However, as psychologists and neuroscientists would later prove, it is not easy to delimit these two kinds of pleasure.

The principle of the greatest happiness

John Stuart Mill did more for the utilitarianism with which he had come into contact through Bentham: he added definition to the kind of happiness that should be pursued from this ethical approach. In this way, if until then it was understood that utilitarianism was the pursuit of happiness that is the result of the consequences of actions, Stuart Mill concretized the theme of who to experience that happiness: the largest possible number of people .

This idea is what is called the principle of the greatest happiness: we must act in such a way that our actions produce the greatest amount of happiness in as many people as possible, an idea that looks a bit like the moral model proposed decades before by the philosopher Immanuel Kant .

Utilitarianism as a philosophy of life

Is utilitarianism useful as a philosophical reference through which to structure our way of life? The easy answer to this question is that discovering this depends on oneself and the degree of happiness that the implementation of this form of ethics generates in us.

However, there is something that can be granted to utilitarianism as a generalizable philosophy; Nowadays, there are a greater number of researchers willing to carry out studies about the habits of life that are associated with happiness, which means that this philosophical theory can offer behavior patterns somewhat clearer than 100 years ago.


The Fundamentals of Ethics - Chapter 1: Hedonism (May 2021).


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