Key Points

Applied Ethics

Bentham's Hedonic Calculus makes Utilitarianism the easiest ethical theory to apply to an issue. Any exam question is merely an excuse to show the examiner how well you know your stuff, and if 'Utilitarianism' comes up, you know you have a lot to say. It's also easy to remember the different aspects of the Calculus, because it tells you how pleasure and pain RPRICED. (look at the theory in detail to see what the letters stand for).

Bentham and abortion

Consider a 15 year old girl who gets pregnant:

Have abortion
Don't have abortion
The relief is immediate
Any benefits/pleasures are a long way away
May lead to regret; possibly inability to have children in the future
Could fail exams - not get a good job - have a poor quality of life (mother and baby)
More choices and freedom in life
Joy of being a mother; many joys experienced by the baby
You might argue that a person without a child can enjoy a wide range of intense pleasures
Having a child might bring intense feelings of joy repeatedly; the child itself may experience intense pleasure throughout its life; the child may cause equally intense pain
The freedom from the pain of an unwanted child is certain
It is uncertain what pleasures continuing with the pregnancy might bring
The mother and her immediate family are most directly affected
Having the baby will affect a vast number of people, but many cancel each other out as each life brings pleasure and pain
The freeedom might last a long time (even for the rest of the girl's life, although if she were to get pregnant again, it may be wrong to consider her free)
The child will bring pleasure (and pain) for a lifetime

Obviously it's very dificult to decide which decision would cause the most pleasure and least pain, but in an exam you get marks for pointing things like that out! Don't feel you have to resolve the issue as long as you've done what you've been asked to. It's a problem with the theory, not with you (see criticisms)

Mill and abortion

It is much harder to apply Mill's theory to any issue, as it has so much in common with Bentham's. The key difference is the qualitative nature of pleasure. He famously said it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, so we would imagine that Mill might have a different opinion about whether to abort a fetus which will develop into a person with disabilities.

Bentham would consider physical disabilities a major drawback, as they rule out many pleasures. Mill wouldn't worry about these lower pleasures so much, as long as the mind was not affected. However, in the case of a fetus with learning difficulties, Mill would see this as a real problem, whereas Bentham would ask "Can they still enjoy life?"

Mill is often seen as a rule utilitarian. Rule utilitarians would look for principles that generally lead to happiness, and would follow these even if they sometimes led to choices that an act utilitarian would reject. An example - should you tell a mother that her 14 year old daughter is going to have an abortion? Rule utilitarianism might say no - if you inform parents in these cases, girls won't get the help they need. This is why we have laws about confidentiality. What if there was a special case where you thought it was really important for the girl's parents to know? Rule utilitarians would keep the rule even though keeping it would lead to greater unhappiness. Act utilitarians would break the rule if doing so brought a better outcome.

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