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Utilitarianism & Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the view that what makes moral standards valid is the fact that acting on them tends to produce good effects.  The most familiar form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, formulated with different emphases by the nineteenth-century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea is that the good is happiness, understood as either the feeling of satisfaction, or as the fact of having one’s desires satisfied.  Since morality is not just each individual’s pursuit of his private happiness, utilitarianism holds that the moral good is found in the maximization of happiness for all people or for all creatures capable of experiencing pleasure or pain.  The latter version would include sentient animals within the reach of morality (see below). 

The utilitarian supposes that we can, at least roughly, estimate how much net satisfaction (satisfaction minus dissatisfaction) any of our actions will produce in each person affected, and then that we can add this up to arrive at a total sum of satisfaction that will be produced by our actions.  The utilitarian would have us calculate these possible outcomes for all of the actions available to us (including the action of doing nothing).  Our duty is do that action that, among all the actions possible for us, produces the highest aggregate sum of net satisfaction. and provide a wide range of information, including Frequently Asked Questions, explanation of terms, lists of standard philosophical texts (many of which are available on the internet), and short papers concerning utilitarianism. 

Ethics Updates material on Utilitarianism includes a Powerpoint presentation and 45 minute lecture in RealMedia format

The Utilitarianism Glossary gives in-depth definitions in “plain English”. 

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's section on Consequentialism includes a definition and description of the major subdivisions.  

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Think you understand it? Try the Utilitarianism Quiz - includes the answers and an explanation

Moral Systems & Issues

Virtue Ethics
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Utilitarianism & Animals

Most groups arguing for better treatment of animals use utilitarianism as their foundation. They do not discuss 'animal rights' but are concerned that the pain and suffering of animals outweigh the benefits for people in eating meat [especially factory farming], wearing fur, or using products tested on animals. 

People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There's a good selection of videos, including the famous 'singing cows' spot. 

The Vegetarian Site

Ethics Updates: The Moral Status of Animals

Yahoo: Animal Rights

Washington Post series 'Modern Meat' part of a seven month investigation about meat safety, discusses conditions of meat packing plants

by Peter Singer

Animal Liberation

How Are We to Live: Ethics in An Age of Self Interest

The New Yorker calls Utilitarian Peter Singer "the most controversial philosopher alive; he is certainly among the most influential." 

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