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  Utilitarians (from Latin utilis, ‘useful’) believe that we ought to do whatever will maximize well-being. In philosophy, therefore, it is a form of consequentialism, with the desired consequence being happiness. Recently, utilitarians have divided into two camps: act utilitarians and rule utilitarians. Act utilitarians wish to maximize the happiness generated by each individual act, while rule utilitarians are concerned to choose the best pattern of action or behavioural disposition. (They often claim that they can thereby avoid the act utilitarians\' ruthless conclusion that ‘ends justify the means’.)

To illustrate, we can imagine a situation in which I promise my father on his deathbed that I will use all his money to build a mausoleum for him, even though the money is needed to educate his grandchildren. The act utilitarian would advocate breaking this promise so as to maximize happiness, especially if the promise was secret and my breaking it will go unnoticed and so won\'t undermine the system of promising. The rule utilitarian would insist that what I ought to do is to cultivate a disposition in myself to keep promises, a disposition which is, on the whole, extremely beneficial to all concerned, though it may not be so in this particular case. If I start breaking promises when I think it advantageous, this will undermine the disposition, open the way for mistakes, and remove the social benefits which derive from my automatically keeping promises.

As a form of consequentialism utilitarianism is open to the objections which face all consequentialists. However, further objections apply particularly to the utilitarian\'s moral theory. They centre on how one should construe the notion of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. First, it is difficult to see how to measure happiness or well-being. How, for example, does one weigh the pleasure derived from an hour of creative writing against the pleasure derived from an hour of television watching? Which is worse, the pain of arthritis or the pain of an unsatisfactory marriage? Secondly, even if we have some way of quantifying well-being, surely we should make an effort to ensure that it is equitably distributed. A society in which 50% of the population is in ecstasy while 50% are thoroughly miserable is less desirable than one in which none is either. But if we are simply after the greatest quantity of happiness and are unconcerned with its distribution, this kind of consideration will not matter. AJ

See also deontology.Further reading R. Hare, Utilitarianism and Beyond; , B. Williams and , J.J.C. Smart, Utilitarianism For and Against.



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