Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism Bentham – Act Utilitarianism Mill – Rule Utilitarianism
Strengths (Bentham 2 – 5 taken from Wiki answers ) 1. Easy to use – clear criteria and offers a systematic approach to ethics.

2. Utilitarianism cannot be faulted on its morals as it clearly seeks the happiness and fairness for the largest number of people, which has always been an important consideration in the works of government and other major powers, as well as in everyone’s everyday life.

3. Designed for global politics unlike Kantian ethics.
Also, it considers the consequences of all actions, which is key in building a civilized society. If people were not aware of consequences then there would be no deterrent to commit crime.

4. Also, it encourages a democratic approach to decision making, and minorities are not allowed to dominate.

5. It does not rely on any controversial or unverifiable theological or metaphysical claims or principals, so it is accessible to everyone.

1. Mill considers emotions a form of higher pleasure which is a strength because it can make the theory a little less impartial and allow more room for emotions. In the house on fire example (Bentham Weakness 3) Mill could possibly allow you to save your mother arguing  your emotions are a higher pleasure and since he gives no explanation of what to do if pleasures clash we could justice the saving of the mother.

2. Mill’s idea of creating generalized rules makes the theory more objective and provides us a means to creating universal rules.

Weaknesses 1. Difficult to predict consequences e.g. if you plan to hit someone you might predict that they will be upset because 99.9% of the time this is the result however, what if the person turns out to enjoy it and get pleasure out of pain – all you consequences are wrong!

2.Utilitarianism is a demanding theory as something as simple as buying an ice-cream can be deemed immoral because you know that the money could be spent elsewhere in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number.

3. Some critics argue it is too impartial – if a house was on fire and you could only save your mother or the world’s best sergeant you would according to the PoU (principle of utility) have to save the sergeant. No room for emotions. John Rawls advocates this criticisms pointing out that it could support a more dictatorial society just because it produces the greatest amount of pleasure.

4.Utilitarianism is subjective – what is moral for one person isn’t the same for another implying that no such universal law system can exist.

5. Utilitarianism implies that everyone has a moral faculty (awareness that gives us a sense of moral judgement) and not everyone has this young kids, disables persons etc. This alienates people from the theory.

6.Bentham and Mill both commit a naturalistic fallacy according to G.E.Moore, just because something is desirable and produces a lot of pleasure does not imply that we ought to pursue that action.

1. Difficult to predict consequences e.g. if you plan to hit someone you might predict that they will be upset because 99.9% of the time this is the result however, what if the person turns out to enjoy it and get pleasure out of pain – all you consequences are wrong!

2. Utilitarianism is a demanding theory as something as simple as buying an ice-cream can be deemed immoral because you know that the money could be spent elsewhere in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number.

3. Utilitarianism implies that everyone has a moral faculty (awareness that gives us a sense of moral judgement) and not everyone has this young kids, disables persons etc. This alienates people from the theory.

4. Mill makes several elitist claims e.g. for example it is better to a dis-satisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig (comparing not so intelligent people to pigs), claiming that the higher your moral faculty the more difficult to find pleasure (as not so intelligent people are satisfied with almost anything). Yet what Mill fails to acknowledge is if through utilitarian values a pig can be satisfied then this devalues the intellectual ability of all humans.

5. Mill uses non-utilitarian values such as justice (supreme moral good) and from this we can infer that there are more important things than happiness and this inference destroys the foundation of utilitarianism.

6. As mentioned previously, Mill does not discuss what happens if rules/higher pleasure conflict. Adding to the ambiguous nature of utilitarianism.

7. Furthermore, given that the rules are generalized and formulated through experience this means that they are not absolute and can be broken. But it is difficult to see how one would know when an exception could be added and if we keeping using exceptions and don’t make Mill’s utilitarianism rigid then this some scholars imply collapse it back to act utilitarianism. E.g. the rule tell the truth unless a lie produces more pleasure isn’t that essentially Bentham’s form.

8. No two moral situations are exactly the same so how can rules based on past different (Albeit similar) circumstances helps us with new situations?

9. Moreover, Mill argues that a competent judge would always pick higher pleasures over lower pleasures yet this is not true for all circumstances e.g. if Mill was somehow stranded in a desert he would not pursuit poetry or imagination he would pursue drinking water – which is a lower pleasure- doesn’t this mean he has an infirmity of the mind?

10. Bentham and Mill both commit a naturalistic fallacy according to G.E.Moore, just because something is desirable and produces a lot of pleasure does not imply that we ought to pursue that action.

Quiz on Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Please find answers below.

1. What is the Hedonic Calculus and another name for it?

2. Distinguish between higher and lower pleasure giving examples.

3. Which utilitarian theory focuses upon the quantity of pleasure and which on the quality of pleasure?

4. What are 4 components of the hedonic calculus?

5. What does Bentham believe is the supreme moral good and Mill? Does Mill agree?

6. If you pick a lower pleasure over a higher pleasure what are you said to have?

7. What is Mill’s famous quote (hint. think pig)

8. How would you describe Utilitarianism?

9. What are three strengths of Utilitarianism (Act or Rule)?

10. What are three Weaknesses of Utilitarianism (Act or Rule)?

______________________________________________________________________

Answers

1. Felicific Calculus –  this is a calculation used by the universal hedonists to calculate how much pleasure an action produces.

2. Higher pleasure are those of the mind e.g. feelings, imagination and intellectual pursuits. Lower pleasures are bodily pleasures e.g. sex, drinking and eating.

3. Bentham’s Act utilitarianism focuses upon the quantity of pleasure and Mill’s Rule utilitarianism focuses upon the quality of pleasure.

4. Any 4 from: (i) Remoteness (ii) Certainty (iii)Fecundity (iv)Purity (v)Intensity (vi)Duration (vii) Extent

5. Bentham believes the supreme moral good is happiness and Mill disagrees saying it is justice.

6. An infirmity of the mind.

7. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”.

8. Secular, Consequentialist and Teleological theory.

9 and 10. For list of strengths and Weaknesses see my other post.

Ethical Application to Abortion and Right to a Child

Approaches to abortion + Right to a child

Ultimately, as discussed in a previous post ethical theories accept or reject abortion on the basis of what they consider the status of the embryo to be.

Natural Law

The tradition Roman Catholic view is the life begins at conception so abortion is absolutely always wrong. Furthermore, the Sanctity of Life argument is used to demonstrate this.

One of the primary precepts in Natural Law is life hence we have a duty to protect and abortion goes against this and again is deemed incorrect.

Natural Law only permits the act of abortion (although it is not discussed as abortion) when we have to use the principle of double affect. When two actions conflict a second criteria is used in Natural Law and that is (i) the action must not be immoral and (ii) the intentions must be good. So if a pregnant women discovers she has cervical cancer the doctor may terminate the pregnancy by performing a hysterectomy because performing a hysterectomy to protect the women’s life is not immoral and the doctors intention is not to kill the foetus but rather save the mother. This would be fine for those who subscribe to Natural Law.

Evaluation

Strengths

-By using the Sol principle and clearly saying life begins at conception, ethic is straightforward and clear.

-Allows flexibility as well as a clear cut approach.

Weaknesses 

    • If a pregnancy will lead to unhappiness on the mother’s part and there is a threat of depression etc as this is an unwanted baby then sure the principle of double affect would kick in and suggest that abortion is fine with the intention of protecting the mother.

 

  • If you do not accept that life begins and conception and Christian teachings then this theory is not one worth abiding by.
  • Again we can argue against this using GE Moore’s naturalistic fallacy just because abortion is wrong or life begins at conception it doesn’t mean we ought to not do it or abortion is wrong.

 

The right to a child

Reproduction, is of course a significant aspect to being a natural law theorist. However, this does not imply that everyone has a right to a child, the outcome of reproduction, they have a right to try to procreate.

One of the reasons why a couple does not have a right to a child is because the various methods such as surrogacy and AID threaten the sanctity of marriage which as Aquinas said is one of the important constructs of society. It also enables homosexual couples to have babies which is unnatural and opposed by the Natural Law theory.

Another primary precept is ordered society and some of the artificial techniques used to get the child involve a child having theoretically several parents which may result in mental problems and a loss of identity and this is a threat to the ordered society in which we live in.

Kantian Ethics

Abortion

Kant has no clear opinion on the this matter but supporters of Kantian Ethics argue that the embryo is a potential human and hence the same ethical reasoning should be applied when looking at humans so abortion is wrong. However, if the moral status of an embryo is not a person then abortion is acceptable.

The right to a child

Kant would not agree that we have a right to a child because a parent does not have a right to a real live child then how can a person have a right on a hypothetical child.

– If a child is born in response to a person’s emotional needs then it is being used as a means to an end not end in itself.

-Reason is King so one must be taken adrift with emotion, this is immoral

Utilitarianism

Abortion

In general all forms of utilitarianism would be in favour of  abortion because it always women to have a choice as well as unwanted pregnancies in general lead to nothing but pain which is what a utilitarian seeks to avoid.

Right to a child 

Right to a child is a little bit more difficult to say that utilitarianism would be in favour because of the vast amount of factors a utilitarian would have to consider here are some.

Benefits

– joy of parents

– benefits may be unknown such as if the child turns out to discover an important theory

– Women are given the choice to sell their reproductive organs

– Financial benefits to surrogate

Disadvantages

– harm to unborn child if surrogate mother fails to take care of herself

– No way of avoiding medical problems which can affect the individuals involved

– psychological harm to the child of having multiple parents

– Possibility of rejection if child is born handicapped

– What if surrogate bonds with baby?

– Surrogate mother could black mail parents?

As we can see it is really difficult to work out a utilitarian answer to this ethic dilemma. We can however look at past experiences in  this matter and create generalised rules which would follow Mill’s rule utilitarianism which one would guess would be in favour for couples having a right to a child.

Religious Ethics – Here we would use the SoL principle

What makes a crime?

This video is about the theoretical background behind the criminal legal system. I look at what makes a crime and three main philosophical foundations: legal moralism, the harm principle and paternalism.

Notes

A crime is an offence punishable by law. Arguably there are two reasons for criminalising an act or creating a crime:

1. The conduct itself is wrongful

There are three central arguments that make a conduct wrongful:

i. Legal Moralism

Lord Devlin in “Morals and The Criminal Law” 1959: immorality is what every right-minded person is presumed to consider immoral.

He argues that ‘immorality’ is a necessary and sufficient condition of criminalisation.  This view is based on the premise hat social harmony is jeopardised if morality is not underwritten by the law.

He argues that morality forms a ‘seamless web’. By this metaphor, he intended to convey the notion that ‘society’s morals’ form a fragile structure and that is morality is not reinforced legally, then damage to the entire structure will follow.

Problems:

Rejects rationality, doesn’t look at an empirical investigation of the effects of criminalisation, based it upon feelings.

Bentham warned us to be suspicious when officials claim they are acting in the name of ‘right minded people’. In many cases it just justifies the prejudices of legislators themselves and is dangerous.

Seamless web is also problematic as Hart points out people don’t abandon their moral views if they are not punished by law itself.

ii. The Harm Principle

People should exhibit free will and the state should only intervene if harm is caused to others.

The problem is, is this primary harm e.g. assault or secondary harm e.g.  seat belts

The Report on the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences and prostitution 1957 argues that the law is to intervene to protect vulnerable people and preserve public order but not to intervene in private lives of citizens or enforce any particular pattern of behaviour. The Committee was recommending that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.

The principle was famously articulated by J.S.Mill as “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’

Harm is to be understood not just as physical harm but a violation of any recognised interest.

Problems:

Is that if you are focused on only harm to others it becomes impossible to criminalise drugs or the wearing of seatbelt.

However, many modern harm theorists point out they would support it because it is potentially harmful to others. Kaplan explains that there are different categories of harm such as ‘public ward harm’. That is, he may impose on other the cost of rectifying the damage he causes himself. He may not be able to take up the economic responsibilities he owes others as a result . Furthermore, other individuals may copy the behaviour and suffer harm as a result.

However, this is still problematic because if we acknowledge the broad concept of harm, there are few actions that one can perform that threaten harm only to oneself. Thus leading to a world where almost all acts are criminalised.

Prohibition of harmful conduct may in itself result in harmful consequences such as the sale of say drugs may indirectly or directly harm consumers as well as the potential economic harm to business enterprises involved.

Bentham advocated a utilitarian outlook.

iii. Paternalism

Preventing someone from harming themselves – inferring with autonomy for their own good.

2. It is necessary to employ criminal law to prevent such conduct.

– This refers to the principle of minimising interference in an individual’s autonomy.