What Is The Greatest Happiness Principle?

By Nadia Khan

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Avia James

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If you've done much philosophical studying, you may already know about the greatest happiness principle. But not that many people do. So, you may be wondering a little more about it. Well, it's a relatively simple ideal, though it's application or understanding can be a little less simple. Many people have very different opinions about whether it's realistic or whether it conveys the truth about life and morality. So, just what is it and what does it mean? Well, let's take a look.

What Is The Greatest Happiness Principle?

Used as the foundation for Utilitarianism, the Greatest Happiness Principle says actions are moral if they promote utility but are immoral if they promote the opposite. Utility, for this purpose, is defined as happiness without pain. So, if someone commits an action that provides happiness without pain, then that action is moral. If the action does not cause happiness without pain, then that action is immoral. In general, it's a very simplistic idea, but does it work in real life? There's a lot of controversy about that very thought.

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Why It's Right

When we think about it in general terms, we can see that there are plenty of reasons why this makes sense. If you do things that make people happy and don't cause any harm, you would likely believe that you're doing the right thing and that doing the right thing is moral, right? But there are situations where no decision would be considered totally without harm or pain or situations where it's difficult to determine which action is the better option when it comes to choosing between two actions or activities. That's why there's a little bit more information involved.

The creator of this principle says that, alongside the previous description of the principle, the action must also be an optimal choice with higher quality. To determine the higher quality option, it must be preferred by the majority and therefore would be the more moral option to complete. Of course, there is also the possibility that in a situation with two or more choices both would be equally moral to perform, which means that it is up to the individual or the group to decide on one or the other without regard for morality.

Why It Fails

All right, so this isn't really why the ideal is wrong, but why it seems to be lacking a little and to cause some difficulty. First of all, you can see the future, which means that it's nearly impossible to understand all of the consequences of anything that you might do. Which means that action may seem moral at the time but may cause harm at some point in the future. This makes determining a moral action or one that fits the principle we've been discussing much more complicated. But there's more to it than that as well.

By following this principle, we ignore three very important things, malignant practices, societal laws, and motive. For example, an individual could break a societal law for the sake of increasing utility, and this would be acceptable under the rules of the Greatest Happiness Principle. Someone could engage in an activity for all of the wrong reasons and motives or could engage in malignant practices, all to increase that level of utility and this too would be just fine according to the principle. Of course, most of us would have different opinions about these things, but the principle says it's all right.

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Under Utilitarianism, the search for happiness within society is more important than the search for justice within that society. Which means if a law is enacted but breaking it would bring about more happiness for those in the society the Greatest Happiness Principle would say to break the law. This could have some different consequences for anyone who decides to do it, which means that it's important to consider the consequences overall before attempting any choice. But for the good of society, what would or should you do?

Understanding It All

If you're looking for an ethical principle that you can follow it's important to understand that there will never be one that fully exemplifies what is needed within society. There will never be one that fully gives you a description of right and wrong with no gray area. It's a complex situation and understanding ethics is always going to be a difficult process. So how do you make sure that you're doing things right? Well, you're going to have to make the most ethical choices that you can for yourself and then make sure that you can live with them over time.

Getting Help

If you struggle with understanding ethics or if you're struggling with anything at all it's important to reach out for help. There are mental health professionals all around you who would love to help you live a healthy and happy life. Even those who don't have a diagnosable mental illness can benefit from therapy or sporadic appointments with a mental health professional. All you need to do is check out BetterHelp, and you'll be able to find out more about yourself and get started toward a better life for you and your family.

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With BetterHelp you can log on to an online service, and you won't need to worry about going to appointments or specific locations. You can connect with a psychiatrist or therapist who has located anywhere in the world, and you'll be able to get in touch with them at any time, without having to worry about getting to the appointment. You just log on to any internet connected device and before you know it you're going to be talking to a professional. This gives you a whole lot more freedom to find someone that you're comfortable with and the ability to make that appointment no matter what is going on around you that day.


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