Utilitarianism is a theory of metaethics. This means that it is grounds for what we mean when we say something is good, bad, right or wrong. This differs from normative ethics, which addresses which things we encounter in real life are good or bad. Utilitarian ethics is based on the quantitative maximization of some good for society or humanity, and its main advocate was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). It is a form of consequentialism, thus focusing on the outcomes of actions and emphasizing the ends over that of the means.
The good that must be maximized is often happiness or pleasure, though some utilitarian theories might seek to maximize other consequences. Thus, utilitarianism is sometimes summarised as “The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” As a form of consequentialism, utilitarianism states that we must first consider the consequences of our actions, and from that, make an appropriate choice about our action that would generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people (or in some forms of utilitarianism, people and animals).
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In modern times this is, perhaps wrongly, interpreted as stating that an action is judged entirely by its consequences and so can be morally good even though the intentions of the action may have been villainous. Thus, this interpretation implies that someone may perform a moral action consistent with utilitarianism without even meaning to. However, more refined forms of utilitarianism exist, such as those proposing maximized ‘benefit,’ which seems broader and less physical. This seems a more promising metaethical theory because it does not define pleasure as the only morally good thing.
Rule utilitarianism further refined the theory, stating that we must consider the consequences of a rule instead of action and then follow the rule that would best yield the most happiness for the most involved people. Preference utilitarianism is yet another offshoot of the main theory, which defines the good to be maximized as the fulfillment of a person’s preferences. Like any utilitarian theory, preference utilitarianism claims that the right thing to do is produce the best consequences; when defined in terms of preference satisfaction, the best consequences can include things other than pure hedonism, like reputation or rationality.
Thus we can see, the theory of utilitarianism seems to make the best sense of our moral intuitions. Utilitarianism looks intuitively attractive because the right thing to do is do the most good, promoting others’ happiness and well-being and preventing suffering. Happiness is conceived as the ultimate good; we may wonder what we want money or fame for, but not what happiness is for. Indeed, it seems that it need not serve a purpose at all. However, critics of utilitarianism claim that it suffers from several problems. Many of the early utilitarians hoped that happiness could somehow be measured quantitatively and compared between people so that the action that maximized happiness in one particular situation could be fixed.
Utilitarianism holds that in any given situation, the ‘right’ act produces the greatest good, while all other acts are wrong. However, it is not currently possible to quantify happiness, and it does not seem likely to be possible in the future. Even if it were, the calculation that would need to be made would take far too long to be achievable in time to make a decision. If Utilitarianism were to be implemented in normative circumstances without any calculations, then people would need to carry out the action that they believe maximizes the good. Still, most people don’t think about a problem thoroughly before acting – indeed, some believe facing a full moon whilst holding horseshoes is a cure for cancer.
Thus, making utilitarianism a tangible and applicable theory seems very taxing, so usually, the extent of attainable calculations exists as pros and cons, such as “she will be much happier if I tell her a flattering lie – but on the other hand, if she later discovers the truth she will be depressed. Therefore, I should tell the truth in the first place.” Furthermore, because the theory only praises those who carry out the action that maximizes happiness, even charitable actions could be considered wrong. For example, if a person donated ï¿½1,000 to a charity that provided starving children with food when they could have donated ï¿½1,050 and, in doing so, created even more good, their action would be judged as wrong by utilitarianism. Thus we can see, utilitarianism could be argued to be far too demanding of its upholders.
Moreover, utilitarianism may not condemn actions that are generally considered immoral as long as they create more happiness than suffering. For instance, a legal drug with no bad side effects could be seen as good. Another example could be three hundred sadists intensely enjoying the severe misery and pain of one person. The pleasure of a sadist should have the same importance as the pleasure of an altruist seems outrageous, but the utilitarian view that everyone counts as one appears to promote such activities. However, note that in practice, altruistic acts help many more people and hurt many fewer than sadistic ones do, and so utilitarianism almost always condemns sadism and sanctions altruism.
Utilitarianism has also been criticized for only looking at the results of actions, not the desires or intentions that motivate them, which many people also consider important. An action intended to cause harm but inadvertently causes good results would be judged equal to the result of an action done with good intentions. However, many utilitarians would argue that utilitarianism applies not only to results but also desires and dispositions, praise and blame, rules and punishment. For instance, bad intentions may cause harm (to the actor and others) even if they do not result in bad acts. Once this is recognized, it can be argued that utilitarianism becomes a much more complex and rich moral theory and may align much more closely with our moral intuitions.
In deontological ethics, attention is addressed much more seriously, reflected in Kant’s opinion that “the aim of life is not to achieve happiness, but to deserve it.” Deontology is an ethical theory considered solely on duty and rights, where one has an unchanging moral obligation to abide by a set of defined principles. Thus, the ends of any action never justify the means in this ethical system. If someone were to do their moral duty, then it seems that it would not matter if it had negative consequences. One of the main advocates of this philosophy is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who, during the Enlightenment Project, attempted to deduce the rational way to live.
Kant imaged a ‘Kingdom of Ends’ in which entirely rational beings live in harmony by common principles and respect for others. About morality, Kant argued that the source of the good lies not in anything outside the human subject, either in nature or given by God, but rather only in goodwill. Goodwill is an intention of a rational being that acts according to universal moral laws that the human automatically and freely give themselves. Kant emphasizes that this is only true of rational beings. These laws obligate them to treat other human beings as ends rather than a means to an end. This is summarised in Kant’s quote: “There is only one good thing, and that is goodwill.”
Kant also proposed a ‘categorical imperative’ which asserted whether a moral action is good or bad. Kant defined an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain kind of action (or inaction) necessary. A hypothetical imperative would compel action under a particular circumstance: If I wish to satisfy my thirst, I must drink this lemonade. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances and is both required and justified as an end in itself. The categorical imperative is best known as: “So act that the maxim of your action could be willed as a universal law.”
Kant employs the word ‘maxim,’ meaning the subjective principle or rule that the will of an individual uses in making a decision. For instance, the maxim behind taking your rubbish out each week is to live healthily, because not taking your rubbish out would result in multiplying bacteria and possible spread of disease. Another example is the moral proposition “One should never lend aid to another person unless there is something in it for oneself” could only be morally true if the individual never wanted help from another person because that is the only case they could make it to be true. However, since we can determine (by empirical observation) that this is rarely the case, we have a duty to help others in their times of need, when possible.
Whilst at first glance this appears similar to the golden rule ‘do unto others as you would do unto yourself,’ Kant’s categorical imperative deals with problem cases such as masochistic and suicidal individuals coherently. It also accounts for the problematic question ‘is the reason you should treat others as you would treat yourself because you do in fact want other people to treat you in that way?’; a question sometimes raised in contention to the Golden Rule. Kant challenged the Golden Rule with the famous motto ‘what if everyone did that?’, believing that rational beings aim to act according to consistent principles and make a decision by generalizing a problem.
Kant claimed that truth is like a magnet for rational people. When a sum is written on a board in a room, and people enter without any instructions, they invariably and almost automatically work out the answer if they have the capability to. Kant claimed this quest for the truth is the main motivation behind his deontological theory; entirely rational people cannot live with contradiction. Thus, if a contradiction is present in themselves, they are irrational. Kant thinks of irrationality as a synonym for immorality, claiming that anyone who lives with contradictions according to the categorical imperative is immoral. He says that consistency is an essential factor for rationality, and to be consistent, one must have maxims. Thus, to be rational, one must have maxims.
However, as with every philosophical theory, there are problems and criticisms of Kant’s deontological ethics. For example, the well-meaning fool is often bought up in opposition to Kant as an example of why consequences should be considered. Someone with flawless intentions who foolishly doesn’t consider all the connotations and repercussions of his action, creating disaster, would seemingly be a highly moral person under Kantian ethics. However, this can be countered by claiming that someone with genuinely good intentions would consider the potential indirect consequences of their action before acting; the well-meaning fool is said to be ‘wearing blinkers, ‘ which in itself is ill-intentioned. Furthermore, Kant suggests that good intentions imply attaining an education to assess situations better, a form of intellectualism backed by the mighty Socrates.
Relative maxims are also problematic. The principle for the same action can be described in dramatically different ways by different people. An example of this would be a terrorist freedom fighter, who might claim he is acting under the maxim ‘always do your best to prevent your family and friends from suffering oppression from others’, which is clearly drastically different from the interpretation of the action by his victims’ families who might see it as ‘murder innocent people when you feel like it. Kant would claim an inherent maxim to every action according to all its details, which could be worked out due to negotiation to obtain an absolute correct maxim for the action. However, the correct maxim of action must be at least partly relative due to the different situations the two different parties are occupied. Indeed, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
Furthermore, some argue that following maxims leads to silly universalizations and blind rationality, which impede certain situations. An example of this objection to Kant’s ethics in action is in the case of a large car crash which five people encounter, and every one of them implements the maxim ‘always ring the ambulance if you think someone could be injured. However, in doing so, none of them try to help smaller injuries or inform any of the other emergency services because, as narrow-minded individuals, they are all competing to get through to the same service. However, this challenge can be refuted by Kant with the question, “what if everybody did that?”. Indeed, if everybody rang the ambulance whilst you were injured, it would not be the most effective aid for yourself, and thus would no doubt not be able to be willed as a universal law.
Simply rewriting the maxim to something such as ‘Always do the thing that will help most when someone is injured’ could easily solve the predicament. Instead, qualms about moral minimalism and alienation are often used to refute the categorical imperative. Kant’s sentiments that you should not follow your feelings because it results in you following bad ones and good ones are criticized because the categorical imperative only requires you to follow your duty. Thus, it appears to promote alienation from feelings to follow your duty. In today’s society, where there is a definite notion of the ‘right’ feelings, this has caused much controversy. However, this is not Kant’s genuine position; he claims that feelings can be good, but they are definitely not morality.
Kant’s ideal of a ‘Kingdom of Ends’, and indeed most ethical schools, petitions to questions about scope. If you have good moral standards, to whom do you apply them? In utilitarianism, some animal rights activists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that the happiness of all species who can feel pain and pleasure should count, not only the feelings of humans. Kant’s ethics only apply to ‘rational beings,’ so animals are left out of the theory. Problem cases such as the brain-damaged or mentally ill spur us to ask the question, ‘where do I draw the line of morality and why?’ Kant’s theory seems to suffer most from the attack that someone with warped and unconventional values could will all kinds of universal laws without inconsistency.
A masochist could will the torture of everybody as long as he did not mind being tortured himself. This example shows no objection with Kant’s categorical imperative, indicating that Kant’s theory only holds with those possessing ‘usual’ values. The two theories deal with moral dilemmas in drastically different ways: You were told to attend your father’s funeral in one week to whom you were very close. His death has caused you an inordinate amount of grief, and his loss caused you to contemplate suicide. If you do not go, your relatives and particularly your mother would be shocked and upset, but you feel that dragging up the memories of your father could make you suicidal once again.
Utilitarianism would attempt to maximize pleasure in this situation as in any. There is a week in which to calculate to maximize pleasure and minimize suffering, so your calculation is likely to be more accurate than if you were required to act in a shorter amount of time. Telling a lie to avoid having to go to the funeral seems like the most attractive option initially, because if your relatives did not find out then, it would not result in any suffering, aside from a small amount on their behalf (your mother making up a large percentage) that you weren’t well enough to attend. However, a funeral is not the type of family occasion you can usually ‘get out of’ simply by ‘pulling a sickie.’ Your relatives may rearrange the funeral for another day, requiring you to lie again.
Or they may go ahead with the funeral and request a separate period of mourning alone with you. This could spiral into an entangled web of lies, which could have disastrous repercussions if it were uncovered; most mothers (and philosophy teachers) hold lying to them worse than many crimes with prison sentences and thus would probably disown you. Going to the funeral is out of the question because there is a high risk it could lead you to kill yourself. The total of your net happiness outweighs how ‘happy’ your relatives would be should you show up. In fact, they probably wouldn’t be happy to see you there at all but would consider it normal. Furthermore, should the funeral lead you to kill yourself, your own death on top of that of your fathers would probably lead several of them onto suicide themselves?
Ideally, a drug would be taken that could numb your emotions for a short period of time so that you would appear sombre to your relatives, but in fact, feel nothing. However, such a drug does not exist, so realistically it would be best to inform your relatives of your closure and, therefore, not be attending the funeral. Some may even be happy that you told them the truth as straight as you did, and considering it is your own father; distant relatives would be unlikely to question such action even in their own minds. It might be best to avoid suicidal tendencies when informing less close relatives of your future absence from the proceedings, as this could result in unwarranted concern.
Kantian deontological ethics requires you to act so that you can universalize your maxim. The maxim, in this case, maybe ‘never do something that could lead to suicide,’ which, assuming you don’t actually want yourself or anyone else to commit suicide, could easily be universalized. Whilst some might feel it is your ‘duty’ to go to the funeral, even if it is just so that you can comfort your mother, it could lead to your death. As long as you did not mind your own son not attending your funeral, the action seems justified by Kant’s categorical imperative and remains coherent. Kant requires us to ask the question, ‘what if everybody did that?’ If everybody skipped funerals, then no one would go to funerals, and so funerals, as they exist at the moment, would cease to be convention.
People would most probably mourn in their own homes, which would be fine. Thus the only rebound from telling your relatives you don’t want to come would be emotional feelings, which are, according to Kant, are not morality and therefore irrelevant in this case. Another dilemma would be a situation in which a philosophy essay is due for the next day, but it is 11:30 PM, so trying to finish it would cause mild suffering on your behalf because you would have to stay up for a large portion night. You could lie to your mother, telling her you to feel ill with a cold so that you would not have to go into school the next day, effectively removing any suffering because the philosophy teacher takes ages marking the essays anyway.
Utilitarianism would attempt to maximize pleasure (and minimize suffering) in this situation as in any. Lying to your mother would be the best option if she weren’t to find out that you were, in fact, not ill. This would be the best option because it would create no suffering aside from having to catch up tomorrow and the repercussions. Lying under the categorical imperative seems to create an instant paradox, in that you would need to will it as a universal law. Is it possible to universalize a maxim that permits lying? The maxim would be ‘it is okay to lie (i.e. cheat) when you want/need to.’ This undermines itself, destroying the rational expectation of trust upon which it depends.
Therefore, lying cannot resolve this dilemma under Kant’s ontology because this would create an instant contradiction, resulting in immorality, as discussed above. If you didn’t hand the essay in on time, we must ask, ‘what if everybody did this?’ The teacher would get behind on marking, eventually reporting the class to the headmaster as ‘rebellious.’ The headmaster would keep the whole class in detention. He would tell the class how naughty they are and how good rugby is. If it were a universal law, some pupils would get tired of the constant detentions and move to a different school, resulting in no philosophy class at RGS. Tragic.
Thus, the best action would be to will the maxim, ‘always do homework if you can,’ and do your duty. However, it does not matter your attitude whilst you do the essay, so it could be done begrudgingly if desired. I reject utilitarianism, primarily on the basis that it seems to be incompatible with human rights. For example, if slavery or torture is beneficial for the population, it could theoretically be justified by utilitarianism. The utilitarian theory thus seems to overlook the rights of minority groups. It might also ignore the rights of the majority. A man might achieve such pure ecstasy from killing 100 people so that his positive utility outweighs the negative utility of the 100 people he murdered.
Whilst utilitarians would argue that justification of either slavery, torture or murder would require improbably large benefits to outweigh the direct and extreme suffering of the victims, it still appeals to me that these three things (and others) are inherently wrong no matter what the consequences; in other words, they are absolutely immoral. Moreover, whilst Kant’s theory that relative maxims can lead to warped universal laws, unlike utilitarianism, it requires the person holding the intention to be rational, as well as to accept the affect that the universal law might have on them. Also, the motivation behind utilitarianism seems weaker than that of Kant’s deontological ethics, which is contained in the ‘good will’.
The sole motivation for utilitarianism is the pursuit of increased net happiness or pleasure, and the theory appears to set the bar far too high for moral action. There appears no upper boundary to the happiness potential. In conclusion, there are pros and cons to both Kantian deontological ethics and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism promotes paternalistic democracy, whereas the democracy implied by Kant’s moral theory would be more liberal, emphasizing individual freedom. Both appear to advocate a cold and almost robotic inclination to follow your duty. Kant’s deontology has many universal laws, placing reason above all else, but utilitarianism has just one which others can be deduced from according to situations.
The lack of any desire to perpetuate happiness in Kantian deontological ethics could be disconcerting to some, favouring statements such as ‘If I am unhappy or in pain, following my duty would probably be slightly lower down my list of priorities.’ However, the theory has great strength in that it offers the possibility of criticizing evil cultures, even the ones in which you yourself live. A combination of the two theories in which duty, happiness, intentions and consequences all played a role would be the ultimate. However, constructing a coherent theory as such is a grand and daunting task.