Thursday, 4 May 2017

Has Utilitarianism Lost Its Utility?

by Gabriella Watson


Jeremy Bentham's mummified body is
still on view today at
University College, London
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which can be divided into two forms; Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism and Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism. The two theories differ predominantly because Bentham took a quantitative approach to measuring pleasure, believing that the best action was the one which promotes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, whereas Mill took a qualitative approach as he recognised that some pleasures were superior to others. However, both forms of Utilitarianism are teleological and normative ethics as they assert that decision making should be based upon the outcome of a situation. Utilitarianism is too weak to apply to a contemporary society, a present-day society with modern features such as the development of nuclear weapons, which would not have existed in previous generations, predominantly because its consequentialist nature means that although it attempts to promote the greatest good for the greatest number, the future is unpredictable, and instead, a quantitative judgment could cause more pain than pleasure as it justifies immoral behaviour to create the greatest amount of happiness for the majority. Additionally, as a secular ethic, Utilitarianism does not appeal to the many religious believers in this modern-day society who continue to maintain a strong belief in God and rely on strict guidelines to choose the best moral action.

Firstly, the consequentialist nature of Utilitarianism could be applied effectively to a contemporary society when struggling to make ethical decisions. Bentham’s main aim, to promote “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, proves that the outcome of any action should be based upon favouring the pleasure for the majority of individuals in today’s society. For example, during the Second World War President Truman authorised the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan after considerable deliberation. He did so on the basis that it was reasonable to predict that although the future outcome would lead to the deaths of many individuals, it would hasten the surrender of Japan bringing the war to an end and subsequently saving many more lives in the long run. His decision therefore demonstrates how Utilitarianism can be used successfully in this contemporary society as the pleasure and wellbeing of the majority of lives played an essential role in President Truman’s judgement. The consequences of evaluating any action in this modern society are developed by Bentham’s principle of utility which enables utilitarians to carry out the most useful action to maximise levels of happiness and pleasure after Bentham explained that utility is the key outcome which an individual should look for to increase. Again, referring back to the example of authorising the dropping of the atomic bombs, the principle of utility helped justify the consequences of Truman’s decision as it supported the usefulness of the action for the majority of civilians.


On the other hand, as a consequentialist theory, Utilitarianism attempts to predict the future as it relies on an accurate prognostication of a particular outcome which is impossible. Despite intending to produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, this may not always be the case as it could instead lead to the promotion of unethical behaviour. For example, in this contemporary society where the threat of war is imminent, Utilitarianism would justify using nuclear weapons as a deterrent because the consequences suggest that it could prevent war and the subsequent pain which conflict may bring.  However, given that the consequences are unpredictable, the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent may produce a greater quantity of pain as some countries may not be able to afford the expense of nuclear weapons, leaving these countries vulnerable to attacks from armed, richer countries, creating more pain from the effects of atomic weapons. The unreliability of attempting to predict outcomes is strengthened by Mill who argued that the prediction of consequences, to maximise the greatest happiness for the greatest number, could lead to a “tyranny of the majority” where the minority groups would be overlooked. Mill explained that “the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread”. This is because Utilitarianism can be used to promote immoral behaviour whilst attempting to predict the action which will produce the greatest amount of happiness as it disregards groups who are deemed as “insignificant”. Any decision-making process based on Utilitarian principles, in order to produce the greatest quantity of happiness, will ultimately result in discrimination against minorities whilst attempting to predict the consequences of an action to benefit the majority.

Secondly, proponents of both Act and Rule Utilitarianism would claim that it is particularly practical for atheists living in this contemporary society as it does not rely on a religious belief in God. Instead, Utilitarianism is often referred to as a “Godless” doctrine, using guidelines which haven’t been based upon religious teachings to help atheists who struggle to make moral decisions. For example, Mill created the harm principle which asserts that any action is justifiable so long as it refrains from causing pain to other individuals after he explained that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised…is to prevent harm to others.” Therefore, Mill’s principle can be used to demonstrate that acts such as rape and torture are fundamentally wrong as they cause pain to others, even though the principle itself is not grounded upon a religious belief in God. Utilitarianism is against the idea of divinely ordained moral codes and the idea of “means to an end”, when it involves people, challenges beliefs about the sanctity of human life, furthering its appeal to atheists who hold little value for the idea that life is sacred because it is God-given. This is strengthened by utilitarian Peter Singer who claimed that “the notion that human life is sacred just because it is human life is medieval”. Singer views the idea of sanctity of life as incorrect and subsequently he believes that to base ethical laws on teachings derived from God is flawed and should not be followed in this day and age.  

On the other hand, critics would explain that, as a secular ethic, Utilitarianism does not appeal to many absolutists in this modern society who follow strict guidelines of religions, such as Catholicism, and prefer to judge each circumstance using a set of rules and regulations derived by God. This is strengthened by Pope John Paul II who, recently, in 1994, lambasted this theory of ethical decision-making because he explained that “Utilitarianism is… a civilization of "things" and not of "persons," a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.” By this he means that basing a judgement on the quantity of happiness eliminates the rights of any individuals in the minority groups, directly contradicting the religious beliefs of those who follow the principle of “imago dei”, being made in the image of God, as it does not treat each person individually but rather as a collective group to maximise the amount of pleasure produced. Many religious believers in this contemporary society disagree with Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism as they argue that it is wrong to make decisions based on a quantitative judgement if these went against the teachings of the Church and the Bible. For example, the justification by Utilitarianism of the murder of a terrorist, threatening to kill fifty civilians, would be condemned by Catholicism as the act of murder violates the sixth commandment “thou shalt not kill”, regardless of the circumstances. Many Catholics in today’s society look towards the teachings of the church in times of uncertainty as the inflexible biblical laws provide guidance and consistency, unlike the teleological and secular nature of Utilitarianism which does not base its teachings upon a religious belief in God and subsequently does not appeal to religious absolutists of this contemporary society.


In conclusion, Utilitarianism is too weak to apply to a contemporary society because, although its consequentialist nature enables the moral agent to make decisions based on the quantity of happiness produced, it attempts to predict the future outcomes, which is unreliable and impossible and could instead lead to the promotion of immoral behaviour because the minority groups would be overlooked. In addition, despite the fact that Utilitarianism is particularly practical for atheists, as the principles aren’t based on religious teachings, it does not appeal to religious absolutists who prefer to follow strict and inflexible biblical laws as they provide clear rules and guidelines when dealing with an ethical dilemma in this modern era. 

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