Utilitarianism is an indispensable word in the study of normative ethics, whether it is medical, legal, or other professional ethics. For example, a situation posing the question of whether it is morally right to remove life support systems of one who appears to have no hope of recovery from an illness could be resolved in favor of one position against the other through the application of the utilitarian theory of ethics.
Utilitarianism, the theory that could either save a life or relieve pain and suffering in the above situation, has been entered in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as "a doctrine that the useful is the good and that the determining consideration of right conduct should be the usefulness of its consequences; specifically: a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number. "
The latter phrase is more popularly known as the “Greatest Happiness Principle,” which holds as morally right or ethical such actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Mill). This principle was first enunciated in the late 18th- and early 19th-century. In this published work entitled Utilitarianism in 1863, John Stuart Mill explained the Greatest Happiness Principles in this wise: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.
By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure (Mill). Utilitarianism still exists at the present as a strong argument in favor of many ethical issues, such as the situation given above. Applying utilitarianism to such a scenario, one could argue that removing the life support system would be in accordance with the “Greatest Happiness Pirnciple,” the central tenet of utilitarianism.
This is so, because such an act would remove pain from the patient who, on his own, could not continue living; at the same time, the act would relieve the patient’s family from prolonged suffering due to stress and anxiety resulting from the lack of knowledge as to the possibility of recovery or death of the patient. From the foregoing example, it is apparent that utilitarianism is a doctrine that is used for justifying human actions. More importantly, utilitarianism is a philosophical tool that allows a person to decide on a proper course of action in any given ethical dilemma.