What are the main principles of utilitarianism?

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The first main principle of utilitarianism is that humans instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. That being the case, utilitarianism argues that society should be concerned with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. This involves achieving the second main principle of utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number.

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Utilitarianism is based on the notion that, in any given society, people instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. In very simple terms, it is the seeking of pleasure that, for the utilitarian, is the most basic good. There may be all kinds of actions that members of a society prize and hold to be good, but in their essentials, they all come down to the sovereign good, which, as we have seen, is the pursuit of pleasure.

As pleasure is the sovereign good, it follows that the worst thing for a utilitarian is pain, and this is something that all sane, rational human beings try to avoid wherever possible. For a utilitarian, a healthy, moral society is one in which there is as much pleasure and as little pain as possible. This means that the institutions of society should be concerned with the overriding purpose of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Or, to put it another way, a healthy society involves achieving the greatest good for the greatest number.

Utilitarianism is therefore a prime example of what's called a consequentialist ethical system, meaning that it's concerned with the precise outcomes of moral actions rather than any intrinsic worth they may have. So for instance, a utilitarian wouldn't condemn stealing because it was inherently wrong but because it maximizes pain and diminishes good. It does not conduce to the greatest good for the greatest number.

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