Utilitarianism is one of the most prominent general theories of ethics. In its original, more rational, form it focused on the usefulness or utility of something—hence the name. In general (and beyond the restricted sphere of morality) something is in fact good if it is useful in meeting the needs or serving the interests of the person or people being discussed. (Thus a good knife is one that is sharp, keeps its edge well, doesn't rust, etc., because those are our usual interests in knives. A good car is one that is reliable, comfortable, safe, inexpensive to operate, and so forth, because those are the interests most people have in cars. But a good race car is a bit different, with great speed being by far the most important consideration, because auto racers have a somewhat different set of interests in cars than most people do.) As originally proposed by several Scottish thinkers of the Enlightenment, this general conception about what makes things "good" was appropriately extended to morality too. Thus, what is good in morals was declared to be those social norms or actions which are of utility, or usefulness, or which serve the needs and interests, of the people in general (or as a whole). This profound insight remains the most central truth in all of ethics (though it does have to be modified in an important way in class society). [See the entry on PAUL ZIFF for more on this.]
Unfortunately, along came JEREMY BENTHAM who proceeded to wreck this original version of utilitarianism and twist it beyond all recognition! Instead of keeping the focus on usefulness and people's common, collective interests, Bentham narrowed things down to just two of those interests: pleasure and avoiding pain. In other words, Bentham turned utilitarianism into a hedonistic theory, and it has remained such since his time. In addition, Bentham proposed a simplistic "felicific" or hedonistic calculus by which to measure the goodness or badness of any act. The goal is supposedly to calculate how to "maximize" happiness and "minimize" pain before taking any action. Thus if two people receive great pleasure and happiness out of killing an unhappy man in his sleep and robbing him, (and the person killed in his sleep presumably suffers no pain in any case because of his near instaneous death), we might have to "calculate" that this was a "good" act because it increased the amount of pleasure or happiness in the world.
Perhaps it is this twisting of utilitarianism in the foolish and naive direction of hedonism that inspired the following limerick, submitted by a philosophy student in Europe:
There once was a utilitarian
Who was an outstandingly merry man
"My bill may be rising,
But I keep maximizing—
Now bring me another sherry, man!
JOHN STUART MILL
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