Evaluating actions The principle of utility Strengths Criticisms Act vs. rule

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1 UTILITARIAN ETHICS

2 Evaluating actions The principle of utility Strengths Criticisms Act vs. rule

3 A dilemma You are a lawyer. You have a client who is an old lady who owns a big house. She tells you that she wants her dog to inherit the house after she dies. You promise her you will see to it that her dog will be the only future owner of the house. However, you also notice that there are not enough schools for children in the district.

4 A dilemma What would you do when the old lady dies keep your promise and honor her wish, or break the promise and convert the house into a school for poor children?

5 Evaluating actions When we make moral judgments, we try to determine whether an action is right or wrong. In other words, we are evaluating it. The moral worth of an action depends on whether and to what extent it is right from a moral point of view.

6 Evaluating actions Broadly speaking, there are 2 main theoretical approaches to moral judgments: [1] evaluation based on moral rules or duty (deontology) or [2] evaluation based on consequences (consequentialism).

7 Evaluating actions Deontology, or duty-based ethics, is the view that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on whether it follows a particular rule or principle.

8 Evaluating actions For example, if all rational people accept the principle You should be nice to those people who are nice to you an action is intrinsically right (i.e. right in itself) if it accords with this principle, intrinsically wrong if it goes against this principle.

9 Evaluating actions Deontological ethics asserts, additionally, that we have a duty to do what is right. On the contrary, if an action is wrong, we have a duty not to do it.

10 Evaluating actions Consequentialism is the view that we should evaluate actions according to their consequences. An action is right if it brings good consequences; an action is wrong if it brings bad consequences.

11 Evaluating actions From the standpoint of consequentialism, actions are not intrinsically right or wrong. For example: an act of lying is not wrong in itself; it is wrong only if it brings bad consequences.

12 The principle of utility Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. The classical formulation of utilitarianism is found in the writing of Jeremy Bentham ( ) and John Stuart Mill ( ).

13 The principle of utility For Bentham and his followers, morality is concerned with maximizing utility (i.e. happiness or well-being).

14 The principle of utility As a social reformer, Bentham believes that morality, as well as law and social policy, should all have the same goal: to serve for the good of all persons. The purpose of morality, as he sees it, is to make the world a better place for everyone.

15 The principle of utility Bentham and his followers saw their ethical theory as a basis for legal and social reforms. They wanted to reduce suffering and promote happiness. They wanted to make law serve human needs and interests. They wanted social policy to work for the good of all persons.

16 The principle of utility For Bentham, happiness is the only thing that has intrinsic value, i.e. the only thing that is good in itself. Other things such as money or freedom may be good too, but only to the extent that they produce happiness; what they have is instrumental value, not intrinsic value.

17 The principle of utility The same goes for actions and practices; actions and practices are not right or wrong in themselves. An action or practice is right as long as it brings more pleasure or happiness, and wrong if it causes more pain or suffering.

18 The principle of utility The 3 main propositions of classical utilitarianism: First, actions are to be judged right or wrong solely in virtue of their consequences. Nothing else matters. Right actions are, simply, those that have the best consequences.

19 The principle of utility Second, in assessing consequences, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness or unhappiness that is caused. Everything else is irrelevant. Thus, right actions are those that produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness.

20 The principle of utility Third, in calculating the happiness or unhappiness that will be caused, no one s happiness is to be counted as more important than anyone else s. Each person s welfare or well-being is equally important. In short, everyone counts, and everyone counts equally.

21 The principle of utility The way we act has consequences not only for ourselves but also for others, i.e. by causing them pleasure or pain. The utility of an action is the net amount of pleasure and pain that it causes when everyone affected by it is taken into consideration.

22 The principle of utility To put it all together, the most fundamental principle of utilitarianism is the principle of utility (also known as the greatest happiness principle ): We ought to perform the action that produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

23 The principle of utility Form the standpoint of utilitarianism, there is no need to consider the motives or intentions for which people do what they do; it is the result or consequence of one s action that matters morally.

24 The principle of utility According to the principle of utility, we need to measure, count and compare the consequences likely to be produced by various alternative actions. The morally right or best action is the one that produces the greatest overall positive consequences for everyone affected by the action.

25 The principle of utility If the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on all of its results, and these have not yet occurred, then how can we know whether an action is the right or best choice?

26 The principle of utility Utilitarianism requires us to treat every person as equal and put aside our narrow self-interest for the sake of the whole. It demands that we sacrifice our own pleasure or happiness for the greater good.

27 The principle of utility Utilitarians believe that policymakers should make decisions based on calculation of the effects of policies on society as a whole. They should not choose policies that favor themselves or their families or their friends.

28 Strengths An attractive feature of utilitarianism is that it has given morality a clear purpose: to promote general well-being or maximize overall happiness. To many people, it is obvious that morality should have a lot to do with people s happiness.

29 Strengths In addition, utilitarianism offers a logical and reasonable solution to moral decision making. In our normal lives we use utilitarian reasoning all the time: I might give money to charity when seeing that it would do more good for needy people than it would for me.

30 Strengths Utilitarianism provides a universal standard of morality according to which everyone s interest and well-being must be taken into consideration and given equal weight. As such, utilitarianism embodies an ideal of equal concern for all persons.

31 Strengths Utilitarianism demands impartiality. When applying the principle of utility, the wellbeing of everyone affected must be taken into consideration and treated equally. Everyone counts equally. No one should be given special treatment because of race, gender, or personal relationship.

32 Strengths Utilitarianism also encourages us to show more concern for animals. Because animals, like humans, can experience pleasure and pain, utilitarian reasoning requires that we take animal welfare into consideration when we decide what is the right thing to do.

33 Criticisms One criticism of utilitarianism is that measuring and calculating utility is by no means an easy task. Is it possible or meaningful to compare, in quantitative terms, the pleasure we get from eating an ice-cream and the pleasure we get from helping a friend?

34 Criticisms Do we have any method for comparing the happiness of two different people? If the answer to this question is no, is this a problem for utilitarianism?

35 Criticisms Different people may have different ideas of happiness or pleasure. John Stuart Mill, for example, suggests that we have to distinguish between lower, bodily pleasures (e.g. eating, drinking, and sexual activity) and higher pleasures (i.e. intellectual, creative and spiritual pleasures).

36 Criticisms Mill thinks that the higher pleasures are superior to, and thus more valuable than, the lower ones. In his view, it is not just the quantity (amount), but the quality or type of pleasure that matters.

37 Criticisms Another objection is that it is usually extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict the precise results or consequences of actions.

38 Criticisms Consider the following example: A child asked Alice for money to get home. Alice bought a train ticket for the child. Unfortunately, the train was involved in an accident and the child was injured. Was it morally wrong for Alice to buy the ticket for the child?

39 Criticisms We normally do not know the long-term consequences of our actions. Even if we agree with utilitarianism on principle, the best we can do is to perform the action that is most likely to have the best overall results.

40 Criticisms Utilitarianism has been criticized for only looking at the results of actions, without taking into account the motives of people s actions. In the previous example, Alice s action is not wrong if intention, rather than consequence, is seen as the most relevant factor in evaluating her action.

41 Criticisms Some people argue that utilitarianism is too demanding because it often requires us to promote the interests of others. For example, when I am about to go to the cinema, I should ask myself if helping the homeless in my community would promote greater happiness for all.

42 Criticisms According to utilitarian reasoning, you should sell your smartphone (or you should not have bought it in the first place) and donate the money to the Save the Children Fund. Why? Because the starving children in Africa need the money to buy food more than you need your smartphone.

43 Criticisms The implication of the principle of utility is that in order to maximize utility and promote the well-being of everyone, continual self-sacrifice is necessary, for example, by giving up one s time and money to help the needy.

44 Criticisms Most of us are aware that spending $1000 on food for some unknown person in Africa would create more happiness than spending it on entertainment or toys for our children. But most of us would not make the utilitarian choice because we think that our own happiness (or the happiness of our families) is more important.

45 Criticisms Very rarely, after all, do we take into equal account everybody s happiness before we act. Often we only consider our own happiness or the happiness of people who matter most to us.

46 Criticisms Utilitarian reasoning often implies that it would be right to sacrifice an individual s rights if it would maximize happiness for everyone else. A good example is the invasion of privacy of a celebrity (e.g. by placing a hidden camera in her bathroom) for the entertainment of the public.

47 Criticisms A friend of yours installed a hidden camera in your bathroom without you noticing it. He enjoys watching you take showers but you are not aware of it. From the utilitarian point of view, it seems there is nothing wrong with your friend s actions.

48 Criticisms Now, suppose your friend goes further by sharing the nude photos taken of you with other people over the internet. Do you think his actions can be morally justified in terms of the principle of utility?

49 Act vs. rule A common argument leveled against utilitarianism is that it justifies any action so long as it has better consequences than its alternatives. Cheating, stealing, lying, and even killing may all seem to be justified, depending on whether they maximize happiness in some particular situation.

50 Act vs. rule If it could be shown, for example, that publicly hanging someone who is innocent would have the direct beneficial effect of reducing violent crime by acting as a deterrent, then a utilitarian would say that hanging the innocent person is the morally right thing to do.

51 Act vs. rule The apparent weaknesses of utilitarianism have led some philosophers to modify the theory. They suggest that not only can we apply the principle of utility to actions, but we can also apply the principle to moral rules.

52 Act vs. rule It was John Stuart Mill who first proposed that happiness is generally more successfully pursued by acting on general rules than by measuring the consequences of each act.

53 Act vs. rule Rule utilitarianism applies the utility principle not to acts but to moral rules. The best way to promote general welfare, according to rule utilitarianism, is to adhere to those rules that are chosen to maximize utility.

54 Act vs. rule As a general rule, punishing innocent people produces more unhappiness than happiness. Thus, from the point of view of rule utilitarianism, we should adopt the rule never punish the innocent because its universal adoption would result in the greatest happiness.

55 Act vs. rule Actions that violate the rule can never be morally justified, although there might be particular instances in which punishing the innocent would produce more happiness than unhappiness.

56 Act vs. rule Act utilitarianism states that we need to consider the consequences of actions and choose the one that maximizes happiness. Rule utilitarianism, on the other hand, asks us to consider the potential consequences of different rules of action.

57 Act vs. rule Act utilitarianism: An act is right insofar as it maximizes happiness in a particular situation. Rule utilitarianism: An act is right insofar as it conforms to a moral rule the application of which will bring the greatest amount of happiness.

58 Act vs. rule A doctor has five patients under his care. One of the patients needs to have a heart transplant, one needs two lungs, one needs a liver, and the last two need kidneys. Now into his office comes a young healthy man who just wants to have a flu shot.

59 Act vs. rule Doing a utility calculus, there is no doubt in the doctor s mind that he could do more good by injecting the healthy man with a sleep-inducing drug and using his organs to save the patients. Is there anything wrong with this line of thinking?

60 Act vs. rule In the above example, there are at least three reasons to oppose classical (act) utilitarian reasoning: First, it is unjust to sacrifice the life of an innocent person who does not deserve to die. Second, killing the healthy young man clearly violates the basic human right of personal security.

61 Act vs. rule Finally, the general public will lose trust in the medical profession if they are aware that unsuspecting patients have been murdered in hospitals and their organs harvested for transplant.

62 Act vs. rule Given these objections, a rule utilitarian would argue that the act of killing one to save five can never be morally justified. Certain actions must be forbidden, even if they might sometimes achieve good results.

63 Act vs. rule All doctors, as the argument goes, must abide by the rules laid down in the medical code of ethics which strictly prohibit the removal or transplant of organs without patients consent.

64 Act vs. rule According to rule utilitarianism, to determine whether a rule should be followed, we need to look at what would happen if it were constantly followed. If following the rule brings the maximum amount of happiness, it is a rule that must be followed at all times.

65 Act vs. rule For rule utilitarianism to work, the rule that has been chosen must be a clearly defined rule of action that can be followed consistently by all members of a society, group or profession.

66 Act vs. rule Broadly speaking, a rule can be a law, a social norm, a custom or convention, a regulation, or a professional code of practice. An act is morally wrong if it violates a rule whose public acceptance maximizes the good.

67 Act vs. rule In August 1945, the US Air Force made history by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two bombs killed nearly 200,000 civilians and reduced both cities to rubble. Japan surrendered immediately on seeing the incredible devastation caused by those bombs.

68 Act vs. rule Can we say, in hindsight, that sacrificing civilian lives can be justified on utilitarian grounds? Does the end (stopping the world war) really justify the means (murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians)?

69 Act vs. rule If you were a rule utilitarian, would you support or oppose the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

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