3. Non-Theists, Utilitarianism and Ethical Decision Making

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3. Non-Theists, Utilitarianism and Ethical Decision Making Open University

Utilitarianism as a theory has had many incarnations. Act vs Rule Utilitarianism are just two examples of this but all flavours of utilitarianism have at their heart the concept of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. This is, of course, a simplification but it is the working definition of utilitarianism that I shall be using.

Utilitarianism is everywhere. It is used by economists in their models of rationality, it is used by Government in cost benefit analysis and it is used by you, probably multiple times a day when you decide whether to have tea of coffee. What will make us happier? Mars or Coke, a new railway line or green fields and a tax cut? Can we justify the redistribution of wealth? What about torture?

When it comes to mundane, everyday decisions there is probably little to be criticised in the theory of utilitarianism but when it comes to major decisions, especially decisions of freedoms and morality there are some serious problems. Not only is it highly questionable that individuals can calculate all the costs of their actions but the ridged application of basic utilitarianism can lead to some highly undesirable outcomes under certain circumstances.

This lecture is not intended to be a systematic scholarly critique of utilitarianism but, simply a general introduction to the central concepts and a discussion of some of the problems non-theists must overcome if they are to defend a coherent set of ethical and moral beliefs.



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