UNDERSTANDING AI MICROCOURSE
ETHICS AND UTILITARIANISM
Learn more about ethics and about one approach to working out what is right and wrong called utilitarianism - the idea that what is morally right to do is what maximises happiness.
In this microcourse you'll learn about utilitarianism, one approach to morality.
In this microcourse you'll learn about utilitarianism - the idea that we are acting morally if the decisions we make, and what we do, bring the most happiness and least suffering to the most people.
In this version of the microcourse you'll learn about utilitarianism by reading text and watching videos.
There's also another version of the microcourse where you can learn about utilitarianism by talking to our Soul MachinesTM digital person, Hailey. You can take the other version of the microcourse if you'd like to see the difference between them.
When you've finished we'd like to you to complete a quick quiz about what you learned.
Introduction to utilitarianism
One of the main branches of philosophy is ethics. Ethics looks at questions of morality. In ethics, philosophers try to work out what is right and what is wrong and what human beings should do.
One approach to morality is called consequentialism. This is the view that right and wrong is based entirely on the consequences of our actions. A non-consequentialist view of morality might say, for example, that the right thing to do is obey God or respect the rights of others no matter what the consequences are of those actions.
Watch the next video for more about consequentialism. If you'd like to learn more, you can read a detailed explanation here.
One of the most important consequentialist theories is called utilitarianism. According to utilitarianism, an action is morally right if it maximises happiness and minimises suffering.
Watch the next video for more about utilitarianism. If you'd like to learn more, you can read a detailed explanation here.
This is an idea that ancient philosophers thought about but the theory of utilitarianism was most fully developed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).
Bentham proposed what is known as either the ‘greatest happiness principle’ or the ‘principle of utility’. He wrote that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. ‘Happiness’ or ‘utility’ in this context means the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.
Bentham believed that the happiness of all men, women, children and animals should be considered. He also believed that the kind of pleasure was not important – physical and intellectual pleasures were equally valid as long as they produced happiness.
In Bentham’s utilitarianism, what defines a good action is the amount of happiness it generates. Bentham even created the ‘felicific calculus’ (which means the ‘happy-making formula’) which is a method to calculate how much pleasure an action would produce. Criteria for this formula included asking how strong is the pleasure, how long will the pleasure last, how much more pleasure will it produce later, how likely is it that there will also be pain and how many people will be affected by this pleasure.
Watch the next video for more about Jeremy Bentham. If you'd like to learn more, you can read more here.
Some of the problems with utilitarianism is that it might encourage a ‘swine morality’; this means that people can act like pigs, doing whatever they want to get pleasure, and this would be considered good. Bentham argued, however, that if you applied his felicific calculus properly, you would realise that pleasure that just makes you happy would be short-term and not benefit others so it would not produce very much happiness overall.
Bentham’s work is also often criticised for not taking into account principles of fairness or justice. This is because you could come up with a way to excuse any action if you can say it would be for the greater good and produce more happiness overall in the long-term.
Another criticism is that it can be difficult to predict what the consequences of our actions are going to be or even how to measure the consequences of our actions. We might be intending to cause harm but we end up causing happiness, or the reverse could happen. For example, we might kill someone because we dislike them but it turns out that that person was going to kill a whole lot of other people so we accidentally caused more happiness. In this situation, our action of killing someone would be considered good according to utilitarianism because of the actual consequences, not the intended consequences.
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