Chapter 6. Teleological Theories : Utilitarianism
Section 5. Universal or Relative?

Universalism or relativism?

It might seem that, owing to the fact that pleasure and pain are subjective, utilitarianism is similar to subjective relativism.

Sure, it has a relativistic component to it, just as it has a subjective component to it. For example, what one group of people might find pleasurable another group won't. British love their tea! Not everyone else does. What are the sources of enjoyment for urban New Yorkers? Are they the same as Californians? I can attest to the fact that they are not.

When therefore, we are making a decision about an action, we need to consider what forms of suffering or pleasure will come to those it effects. As was pointed out earlier, once we find out just how our actions will effect others, then our obligations will be perfectly clear. Our obligation is rooted not in opinion, not in the fact that I happen to believe it's right -- it's not a function of a decision being "right for me." Instead, we have to do what is best for the largest number of people, even if that negatively impacts us.

Let us distinguish between two forms of universalism:

1. All actions of type X are wrong for all people
All rational people ought to decide to do X, when they are under identical circumstances.

Utilitarianism is not universal in the first sense, but it is universal in the second sense.

Secondly, unlike relativism, one's obligation is not a function of what a culture happens to believe, but rather on what will objectively give pleasure and pain to the largest number of people.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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