Utilitarianism in Government

1653 WordsJun 20, 20187 Pages
In its political philosophy utilitarianism provides an alternative to theories of natural law and the social contract by basing the authority of government and the sanctity of individual rights upon their utility, or measure of happiness gained. As an egalitarian doctrine, where everyone’s happiness counts equally, the rational, relatively straightforward nature of utilitarianism offers an attractive model for democratic government. It offers practical methods for deciding the morally right course of action - “...an action is right as it tends to promote happiness, wrong as it tends to diminish it, for the party whose interests are in question” (Bentham, 1780). To discover what we should do in a given situation, we identify the various…show more content…
One major point of contention, however, is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain benefits and costs. How does one assign value to human life, or time, or artistic pleasures such as literature and music? Mill's response was to introduce variables to pleasure. While Bentham concentrated on quantity (the pleasure's duration, intensity, etc), Mill stressed quality. Adding the feature of quality to pleasure differentiates “ higher”, intellectual pleasures from common, physical ones. He argues in his famous quote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question”. This reasoning is not very satisfactory if we consider how subjective (and elitist) it can be. Who is to determine which activities are more high-brow or low-brow, and what makes a competent judge? Mill states it should be person who has experience of the activities in question, but a key aspect of utilitarianism it the requirement of making these judgements impartially and impersonally. With the diversity of this world it is highly unlikely that the tastes and preferences will all align in accord. Even if we attempt to make our decisions based on how others would be affected, it is impossible for us to know or measure the
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