Utilitarian ethics was formulated first by Jeremy Bentham in 1781, and later championed and elaborated by the philosopher John Stuart Mill. This ethic states that the rightness of an action entirely depends on the value of its consequences, and that the usefulness can be rationally estimated. (As opposed to, say, the intentions behind it, the social acceptability, or the historical/religious principles of ethics that might disagree.)
The value of said consequences are often measured by the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that each person's happiness counts for exactly the same as every other's, and that value of an action is positive if and only if that action increases the total happiness in the world. Other forms of utilitarian ethics use other bases for maximization.
The central idea of the utilitarian theory is that ethics is a reality which can be demonstrated. One can define it without religious dogma, nor external regulation, starting from the only elementary motivations of human nature -- seeking happiness or pleasure, and to escape suffering. This principle is formulated in the opening sentence of Bentham's book, Principles of Morals and Legislation (printed in 1781, but only published in 1789) :
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.
A closely related and very controversial branch is Utilitarian Bioethics. Utilitarian Bioethics concludes from a hedonistic form of Utilitarian ethics that killing unhappy people could have net positive value, and that people with birth defects, people with terminal diseases, and depressed people are candidates for Euthanasia. "Utilitarian Bioethics" is distinct from utilitarian ethics generally, in that it specifies a specific position rather than advocating use of utilitarianism in bioethics.
Ethics is the general term for attempts to state or determine what is good, both for the individual and for the society as a whole.
Ethics has been applied to family structure, sexuality, and how society views the roles of individuals; leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including feminism.
There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics and legal ethics, while technology assessment and environmental assessment study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society.
The proposal that utilitarian ethicists should resort to the techniques of Madison Avenue to educate the wider community is likely to be met with a fastidious shudder of distaste - or outright incredulity - by (most) professional philosophers.
Further, not all abolitionists are utilitarians; and it may be unwise to imply that commitment to the eradication of suffering is the exclusive prerogative of one contested ethical theory.
Practical ethics becomes, in theory, a rigorous, exact, and mathematically quantifiable discipline - though this aspiration remains a pipe-dream even as neuroscientists elucidate the molecular substrates of happiness, sadness and other "core" emotions (anger, fear, disgust, surprise, etc.) in the brain.
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