What is Utilitarianism? The Utilitarian Approach
Utilitarianism is a teleologial ethical approach, which supports the consequences of an ethical decision, rather than the actions. According to Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian principle is the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number‘. Utilitarianism could, therefore, allow killing if it lead to the best possible outcome for the most people.
Was Robin Hood a Utilitarian?
Robin Hood’s basic ethical principle, to steal from the rich and give to the poor, appears to be the utilitarian approach. This is because he is doing an action that may not be intrinsically a ‘right’ action. However, the result of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor does create the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is because in Robin Hood’s time and place, there would have been many more peasants benefitting from Robin Hood’s acrtions than rich people suffering from it. In this sense, yes, Robin Hood was a utilitarian!
Robin Hood Memorial (Nottingham)
What are the Criticisms of the Utilitarian Approach?
Utilitarianism is a strong ethical theory, but is more difficult to apply in practice. Jeremy Bentham developed the Hedonic Calculus to try to measure pleasure and pain on several different levels. However, this still proves difficult to put in place, as it is subjective (based on opinion). The main problem with utilitarianism, is that any action under this approach, including stealing and killing, could be permitted.
What is the difference between Act and Rule Utilitarianism?
Act Utilitarianism is the first type of utilitarianism, and this fits in with Jeremy Bentham’s approach. In Act utilitarianism, the principle should be applied, without rules, to any given situation, ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number. Again, this poses the problem that it allows any ‘wrong’ action to take place.
John Stuart Mill developed Rule Utilitarianism, which aimed to overcome the problem of Act utilitarianism. It meant that you could apply the utilitarian principle whilst still following a certain rule.