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Utilitarianism

The meaning of «utilitarianism»

Utilitarianism is a family of normative ethical theories that prescribe actions that maximize happiness and well-being for all affected individuals.[1][2] Although different varieties of utilitarianism admit different characterizations, the basic idea behind all of them is to in some sense maximize utility, which is often defined in terms of well-being or related concepts. For instance, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as "that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness...[or] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered."

Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. Unlike other forms of consequentialism, such as egoism and altruism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans equally. Proponents of utilitarianism have disagreed on a number of points, such as whether actions should be chosen based on their likely results (act utilitarianism), or whether agents should conform to rules that maximize utility (rule utilitarianism). There is also disagreement as to whether total (total utilitarianism), average (average utilitarianism) or minimum utility[3] should be maximized.

Though the seeds of the theory can be found in the hedonists Aristippus and Epicurus, who viewed happiness as the only good, and in the work of the medieval Indian philosopher Śāntideva, the tradition of modern utilitarianism began with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and continued with such philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, and Peter Singer. The concept has been applied towards social welfare economics, the dropping of the atomic bombs in World War II, the crisis of global poverty, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the importance of avoiding existential risks to humanity.

Benthamism, the utilitarian philosophy founded by Jeremy Bentham, was substantially modified by his successor John Stuart Mill, who popularized the term utilitarianism.[4] In 1861, Mill acknowledged in a footnote that, though Bentham believed "himself to be the first person who brought the word 'utilitarian' into use, he did not invent it. Rather, he adopted it from a passing expression" in John Galt's 1821 novel Annals of the Parish.[5] However, Mill seems to have been unaware that Bentham had used the term utilitarian in his 1781 letter to George Wilson and his 1802 letter to Étienne Dumont.[4]

The importance of happiness as an end for humans has long been recognized. Forms of hedonism were put forward by Aristippus and Epicurus; Aristotle argued that eudaimonia is the highest human good; and Augustine wrote that "all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness." Happiness was also explored in depth by Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica.[6][7][8][9][10] Meanwhile, in medieval India, the 8th Century Indian philosopher Śāntideva was one of the earliest proponents of utilitarianism, writing that we ought "to stop all the present and future pain and suffering of all sentient beings, and to bring about all present and future pleasure and happiness."[11]

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