Utilitarianism is a Consequentialist theory of Ethics, which states that in making ethical decisions, one only need consider the consequences of that decision for all involved. It places NO emphasis on the nature of the action itself. Consider the following example already used in the “My Moral Compass” exercise:
Dr. X is a scientist looking to find the cure for cancer. Undoubtedly, finding this cure would alleviate much suffering and procure much happiness for millions of people. However, to finish her research and formulate the cure, she needs to kill one person to obtain the last bit of information she needs. She decides the benefits to humanity are too great, so she locates a suitable candidate: a homeless person. She does what she needs to, formulates the cure, and saves millions of lives.
Utilitarianism, as seen in the above example, is a very much an “ends justifies the means” theory. In the above, there is no emphasis on the action of killing the homeless person – that is incidental in this theory. What is important are the consequences only. If it is judged that the consequences will produce more happiness for more people, then and ONLY then is the action considered ethical or unethical.
Mill – the foundation of morals is the Greatest Happiness Principle – actions are right or wrong based on the amount of happiness they promote. Happiness means to Mill the amount of pleasure you experience as opposed to pain. Freedom from pain is the only thing desirable as an end for human beings.
In evaluating moral conflicts, one need to take into consideration more than just quantity of happiness achieved; one also needs to take into consideration quality since some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and valuable than others. How do you decide? If given two pleasures, if almost everyone prefers one to the other, it can safely be said that it is better.
He also says that human happiness has to be something more then mere animal happiness (immediate satisfaction, fulfillment of basic needs, etc….) Human happiness has to strive for something more.
Mill is not talking about merely acting in one’s own interest (ethical egoism) because the principle of utility is also about maximizing happiness for as many as possible and this may conflict with how we personally pursue happiness.
What are the pros of Utilitarianism?
1.) It asks us to consider consequences in moral decision making (Hypothetical reasoning, “If I do this, then these are the possible consequences….”)
2.) More than any other theory, it asks us to be as impartial as possible when making moral decisions. Everyone concerned counts equally and no discrimination is permitted.
3.) It promotes human welfare as a whole by asking us to consider the well being of others (altruism or beneficence)
After considering the above example of Dr. X, respond to the following questions:
1.) Do you think what Dr. X did was morally right or wrong and why? Reflect on whether you think you may or may not be a Utilitarian in your answer.
2.) Should all of our moral actions consider the good of the whole? In other words, it seems like Utilitarianism does not want us to consider individuals themselves. If 5 people were on a collapsing boat, and one person had to be thrown overboard to save the other 4, well a Utilitarian would argue that if my mother was on that boat and she weighed the most, I shouldn’t care that I toss her overboard. Is that true?
3.) Is Mills definition of happiness as “pleasure over pain” an adequate one in general and as the basis for an entire ethical theory? Why or why not?
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