Strengths & Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

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1 Strengths & Weaknesses of Utilitarianism Strengths with a simple symbol for each please! It is quite easy to use It gives clear guidance on working out the correct moral action It looks at results this is usually what matters It observes the natural order pleasure is sought, pain is avoided It appeals to common sense it seems to be what we usually do It fits well with a democratic society Some pleasure/pains do seem better/worse than others (Mill)

2 Criticisms / Weaknesses The problem of consequences The rightness or wrongness of an action under utilitarianism depends on the consequences and it can be argued that the accurate prediction of all consequences is impossible. Edna Clouds, the philosophy teacher, uses a cricket bat with a brick nailed to it to beat student Tess Tickle around the head whenever Tess gets a logic problem wrong. This leads to Edna getting the sack and later finding fame and fortune as a writer of humorous adventure stories about a heroic goat called Norman and Tess goes on to become a brilliant logician. When is the action to be judged right or wrong? (a) The day after the beating when Tess has concussion and a large lump on her head or (b) 5 years later when both are doing very well? How far in the future do we need to calculate the consequences? How far out do we need to calculate the consequences? e.g. the ripple effect e.g. the butterfly effect

3 How do we view the need for short term evil to achieve long term good? Does the end justify the means? What if I make a mistake in calculating the consequences of an action we are not omniscient (all knowing)? I think I have acted to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, but I got it wrong Am I a bad person? Consider the following from Nicholas Monsarrat s The Cruel Sea A British naval captain comes across the survivors of a German U-boat attack in the water, their ship having just been sunk. He turns his ship to rescue them, but then his radar shows a large object just beneath the floating survivors this is presumed to be the U-boat. The captain reasons that if he attempts the rescue, the U-boat will probably sink his ship too. So on utilitarian principles he decides it will bring the greatest good for the greatest number if he abandons the rescue and saves his own crew, leaving those in the water to die. Later he finds out the submerged object was not the U-boat and he could have rescued those sailors in the water. Did he do the right thing? What is the problem here? Individual Reward Utilitarianism is only concerned with total happiness. Who deserves that happiness is not a concern. Kermit is really kind to people, whereas Piggy is cruel. Piggy gets all the happiness, but does this matter for utilitarianism?

4 Superogation when you do something above and beyond what is generally expected (Hint impress potential partners by using this word a lot!) With utilitarianism you must always do what brings the greatest good for the greatest number. There is no room for people to do the normal. You must always excel! E.g. Willing Evil Suppose you have two possible courses of action. Option A will result in high pleasure for Teresa Green, Dora Jar and Rita Way, but will result in high levels of pain for Hugh Jarse. Or Option B which will result in low pleasure for Teresa and Hugh According to utilitarianism, which produces the greatest good for the greatest number? Doesn t this mean you are choosing to make Hugh suffer when you could make nobody suffer? Are you choosing evil? Utilitarianism justifies Evil acts Suppose Felicity has the potential to be a doctor (where she would do much good) but would need a lot of money to train and she is broke. She could kill her landlady, old Mrs Scroat, who is a nasty minded, smelly

5 woman with no friends or family, take Mrs Scroat s money and become a doctor. How would utilitarianism view this act? According to utilitarianism, is murder intrinsically bad? The Problem of Justice Utilitarianism seeks to be totally impartial (meaning ) which may seem the perfect basis for justice. However, utilitarianism makes no distinction as to how the happiness is distributed. Killing an innocent person to save many will be morally correct, but does not seem to involve justice. Utilitarianism is perfectly happy with a situation where the happiness of many is achieved at the expense of a minority. Minority Rights Following on from the previous point, do you think there are some rights that all people should have, irrespective of how it affects the happiness of the majority? What rights might you include here? How would utilitarianism view these rights? A Constant Duty to Help Others I have a constant duty to maximise happiness of others, yet if I did not cause their unhappiness why should I have to maximise their happiness? What if maximising the happiness of others causes me to be unhappy?

6 The Problem of Special Responsibilities Two people are drowning, one is your parent and the other is a brilliant cancer scientist. Who do you save? According to utilitarianism it must be the scientist (because ) but surely we have a special responsibility to our parent? Utilitarianism does not recognise this. Should it?..... The value of people s happiness Bentham and Mill assign happiness units and multiply this by the number of people involved. Some philosophers have argued that not all people have the same importance and so the happiness of all people is not equally valuable. Friedrich Nietzsche (who went insane and then arguably wrote some of his more interesting work) called Mill a blockhead for maintaining all people are equal. About Mill he wrote: I abhor the man s vulgarity when he says What is right for one man is right for another Do you agree with Nietzsche or is he the blockhead? No Consideration of Motives Many would say that the motive of an action is important, but utilitarianism gives no recognition to this. Do we praise the thief who steals a car and inadvertently prevents a drunk from driving and killing someone?

7 Your own example of a good motive producing bad results: Impartiality Utilitarianism requires me to be impartial, to put my feelings aside, but is this possible or likely? Will I unconsciously rig the hedonic calculus to cause me less pain? Can I really be impartial between those I love and strangers? The nature of Pleasure What brings happiness to some would be horrible for others. How can we know what will make people happy? Isolation for some is torture, but Sartre said Hell is other people. Where are there likely to be disagreements about what brings happiness? It is impractical to use The hedonic calculus is difficult enough in the classroom, so can we really use in all the time in day to day decisions? E.g. Could rule utilitarianism over come this?

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