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Utilitarianism is not terribly complicated. It only has two basic components. There is some kind of "utility" that is intrinsically worthwhile. Most forms of utilitarianism consider this happiness. Sometimes it people's preferences being fulfilled, regardless of what those preferences are.
We must optimize this utility for everyone, not just ourselves. So any time we make computations about the future ethical consequences of our actions with reference to how they will effect people we are doing utilitarian reasoning. While most people don't identify as being purely utilitarian, they use a mix of ideas from utilitarianism and other ethical philosophies in their everyday lives.
Also a note, what actions utilitarianism prescribes are depend on your knowledge of the universe. So its possible to disagree with my examples and still be a utilitarian. Criminal Justice How harshly should criminals be punished? Utilitarianism brings several ideas to the table. First, criminals are still human beings worthy of moral consideration. We should punish them as leniently as possible.
But punishing them can prevent future harm. So we consider the deterrent potential of punishment. We also consider how criminals can be rehabilitated to be functioning members of society. Finally we consider how the harms done by crime can be undone eg by paying for damages or working in community service.
Perhaps most notable from this list is what is absent, retribution. Utilitarianism rejects the traditional narrative that bad people deserve to have bad things happen to them. Instead it focuses on what future good punishment can do.
Wealth Redistribution Should wealth be redistributed? If so, to what degree? Currently most countries in the world implement some form of progressive taxation which effectively moves wealth from the wealthy to the poor. Utilitarianism says we must balance several factors. First is the utility of wealth. If your starving to death, its a huge deal. On the other hand, if your already a comfortable middle class American, its just a pleasant boon. If your a billionaire, it might not even be noticable.
Thus we have a motive to move wealth from the rich to the poor, the poor simply get more value from it. On the other hand our capitalist system of wealth creation is based on incentives. This would cause net utility to go down. There are even more factors to consider. Are unequal societies less stable,? Some evidence suggests they are. Are vast fortunes necessary for huge charitable organisations? The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation seems to be doing a lot of good in the world, maybe it could never have existed if we had strict redistributionist measures.
So there is no obvious conclusion to how much we should redistribute based on utilitarian thinking. But it gives us a set of tools and factors to consider while trying to find the right amount. Pollution Should people be allowed to pollute the environment, even though it causes harm to others?
To what extent? Our modern industrial economy is based on using techniques that hurt the environment and human health. We need to balance the economic good this creates with the harm it does to ourselves and future generations.
Once again, the exact balance depends on how damaging you think pollution is, how bad you think global warming will be, and how much you think people benefit from an industrial economy. The answer is almost certaintly not "don't pollute at all" or "pollute as much as you like". It can be found through scientific analysis and by balancing competing utilitarian factors.
Summary Utilitarian ethics can be applied to pretty much anything, and can shine when dealing with complex situations with multiple competing factors. However, it is sometimes effortful and burdensome to deploy and its results can be counter intuitive.
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