Utilitarianism: Moral Ideals and Practical Ethics

Every person regularly has to make choices of the moral character. While the law clearly defines, what is right or wrong, life does not seem to be that uniform. In fact, the laws are written as a representation of the current moral views. The easy example is slavery, which used to be an ordinary practice in the past but today is viewed as something unacceptable. The ethical choices are a part of grand philosophical studies. Utilitarianism is one of the doctrines of ethics that tries to give a recipe for all kinds of decision making.

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Utilitarianism claims that all decisions must be made about the amount of the utility they produce. The utility is defined as “welfare, well-being, or quality of life of the sentient beings” (Temkin 314). In other words, a model suggests thinking about the life benefits, which a particular decision may give or take away. Moreover, if the actions required for performing the deed are far from ideal, they should still be taken if they can result in the utility. Thus, utilitarianism is a part of the larger theory called consequentialism, which states that the consequences justify the means and should be the primary consideration, and opposes deontological ethics that see actions as more important that consequences.

The theory of utilitarianism has developed from the philosophical doctrine of hedonism, which primary value was satisfying the need for pleasure. It called for performing actions that would lead to benefits for oneself. Unlike hedonism, utilitarianism steps away from the egoistic trend and views the well-being of other people as important as of oneself. Singer proposes an idea that it is natural for humans to prefer their community over that the strangers, however, the utilitarianism must come out of the objective evaluation of who needs help the most (202). The similar ideas are shared by Harsanyi, who claimed that “in deciding what is good and what is bad for a given individual, the ultimate criterion can only be his own wants and his own preferences” (55). Thus, both philosophers agree that the greater good for the greater number of people is the main point of utilitarianism.


Although the utilitarianism philosophy clearly defines the objectives that must be considered before making the decision, the practical approach is far more complicated. The formula where a moral decision must bring virtue, which is a “proportion to the number of people a particular action brings happiness to” (Hutcheson 515), does not consider the pain brought to the minor group of participants.

One of the best subject for this theory’s application is children and their value for parents. One of the YouTube videos features an insight into the problem of premature birth (“22 Moral Dilemas Can Ethics Help”). Infants born at the age of twenty-six weeks cannot survive without the intensive therapy. Moreover, more than half of them will have health issues in the future, with six to eight percent being severely handicapped. Reports also show that there is a difference in the preterm birth numbers depending on the race, with the rate for black women forty-eight percent higher than for other nations (2016 Premature Birth Report Card). Taken the fact that parents value their children the most, the application of utilitarianism would be if families considered their child’s disability as possibly having an adverse effect on the society. For instance, the budget would be spent on their child with a disability rather than on an older adult.


Putting the greater good before the emotions is never easy. Utilitarianism implies that this is the only right way of decision making. Communities like parents with prematurely born infants are most likely to choose the egoistic path. While utilitarianism in its genuine understanding seems to be a utopia, it might give a base for the development of the new moral ethics theories.

Works Cited

2016 Premature Birth Report Card. March of Dimes, 2016, Web.

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org/materials/premature-birth-report-card-united-states.pdf. Accessed 09 December 2016.

“22 Moral Dilemas Can Ethics Help.” YouTube, uploaded by Daylen Elosegui, Web.

Harsanyi, John C. “Morality and the Theory of Rational Behavior.” Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 39–62.

Hutchenson, Francis. “The Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.” Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, edited by J. B. Schneewind, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-03.

Temkin, Larry S. Rethinking the Good: Moral Ideals and the Nature of Practical Reasoning. Oxford University Press, 2012.

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