Utilitarianism: a philosophy centered on happiness

Philosophers are sometimes criticized for over-theorizing the curb of reality and the ideas we use to define them and for not being interested in the nature of what makes us truly happy.

This is a false accusation for two reasons. The first is that it is not for philosophers to study the habits which can help to make large groups of people happy; it is a function of scientists. The second is that there is at least one philosophical current that places happiness at the center of their field of interest. Its name is utilitarianism.

What is utilitarianism?

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

This latter property means that, unlike with certain philosophical doctrines which identify good with someone’s good intentions when it comes to taking action, utilitarianism identifies the consequences of actions as the aspect to be examined in judging whether an action is good or bad.

Bentham’s calculation of happiness

Examining the goodness or evil of actions by focusing on the intentions we have can seem easy when it comes to assessing how morally good we are or not. After all, we just have to ask ourselves whether, by our actions, we were seeking to harm someone or rather to profit from them.

From the point of view of utilitarianism, however, seeing whether we stick to good or bad is not so easy, as we lose the clear benchmark of our intentions, an area in which each of us is our only one. judge. We come to the need to develop a way to “measure” the happiness that our actions generate. 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 could be quantitatively assessed as it does for anything identifiable 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 result in, and therefore fully consistent with utilitarian philosophy. It included certain measures to weigh the duration and intensity of the positive and pleasant sensations felt and to do the same with painful experiences. However, claims to objectify the happiness level of an action can be easily questioned. After all, there is no single, compelling criterion for how much importance to place on each “variable” in the level of happiness; some people will be more interested in their duration, others in their intensity, others in the degree of probability with which it will lead to 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 a strong advocate of utilitarianism. Stuart Mill was concerned with solving a specific problem: how the interests of the individual can conflict with those of others in the pursuit of happiness. Such conflicts can arise very easily because 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 connects the concept of happiness to that of justice. It makes sense to do it 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 (turned into offenses) while benefiting from the freedom to pursue own goals.

Types of happiness

If for Bentham happiness was essentially a question of quantity, John Stuart Mill drew a qualitative difference between different types of happiness.

Thus, according to him, happiness of an intellectual nature is better than that which is based on the satisfaction produced by the stimulation of the senses. However, as psychologists and neuroscientists will see years later, it is not easy to define these two classes of pleasure.

The principle of greatest happiness

John Stuart Mill did something more for the utilitarianism he had come into contact with through Bentham: he added a definition to the kind of happiness that must be pursued from this ethical approach. So, if until then we had understood that utilitarianism was the pursuit of happiness which is the result of the consequences of actions, Stuart Mill clarified the theme of who to experience this happiness: as many people as possible.

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

Utilitarianism as a philosophy of life

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

However, there is something that can be attributed to utilitarianism as a generalizable philosophy; today there are a greater number of researchers keen to conduct studies on the lifestyle habits associated with happiness, which means that this philosophical theory may offer somewhat clearer patterns of behavior than there are 100 years.

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