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What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a system for making ethical decisions - ones that involve a question of whether something is right or wrong. Utilitarianism argues that we should make these decisions based on how useful they are (their utility, hense Utilitarianism).  Utilitarianism suggests that the use of something is based on how much happiness it brings about. 

There are three subsections of Utilitarianism, each associated with a key figure: Bentham's Act Utilitarianism, Mill's Rule Utilitarianism and Singer's Preference Utilitarianism. 

Bentham's Act Utilitarianism can be seen as a basis for Mill and Singer's work. Bentham argues that the right thing to do is that which causes the greatest good - pleasure - for the greatest number of people. There is a system for evaluating the amount of pleasure an act will cause called the Hedonic Calculus. 

Mill's Rule Utilitarianism is different from Bentham's Act Utilitarianism because while Bentham assesses the utility of each act individually, Mill uses the principle of Utility to set up several rules for a society as a whole to live by. These rules are still utilitarian because they are based on what creates the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people. 

Singer's Preference Utilitarianism is similar to Bentham and Mill's theories in that it is concerned with pleasing the most people. However, it moves away from a strict concern for the amount of pleasure an action, or rule, provides. Instead, Singer is concerned with fulfilling the interests of the people involved in the ethical decision - the right thing to do is that which fulfills the preference of most people, which may not always be what bring them pleasure and reduces pain. Can you think of an example in which you would prefer to do something that causes you more pain that it does pleasure? 

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