Friday, 24 October 2014

Morality 4 - Utilitarianism

Higher RMPS Podcast

This is available as an MP3 or to download as a podcast through iTunes
for Desktop and Apple devices, as well as PodcastHD for Android Devices.

We have looked at the sources of morality, either from God or from somewhere else.  In the previous section we explored how our ethics could come from religion.  In this section we will look at two distinct ethical theories that base right and wrong on different ideas separate from God.

Ethics, remember, are rules that help us decide what is right and what is wrong.  Utilitarianism is a Consequentialist branch of ethics.  Just like the name sounds it uses the consequences to judge if an action is right or wrong.  In Utilitarianism only the outcome, or result, of an action should be used when considering if something is morally right.  This is saying the ends (result) justifies the means (how you get there).

The ethical theory was developed in the 18th century by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and then furthered by his student John Stuart Mill.  For these Utilitarian’s only two things mattered when determining if something is right or wrong: Pleasure and Pain.  Pleasure should be maximised whereas pain should be avoided.

The basis of Utilitarianism is the Greatest Happiness Principle.  This is often shortened to GHP.  Every action, every interpretation, every decision in Utilitarians always come from the GHP.  This states:
“Good is whatever brings the greatest amount
of happiness to the greatest number of people”

What exactly does this mean?  An action is good if it maximises happiness, or pleasure, for the greatest number of people.  Remember this is a consequentialist theory, only the outcome of the action matters.  As long as the outcome is one in which more people are happy then the action is deemed good. 

GHP Application
Activists have planted a bomb somewhere in Glasgow.  The activists are asking for one thing: for the government to execute a serial killer housed in Barlinnie Prison.  The serial killer confessed and the evidence was overwhelming that he was guilty.  A utilitarian would consider which action would bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  If we don’t execute him he would be happy, but thousands would feel pain.  If we execute him then one person would feel pain but thousands would be happy being alive.  The choice, for a utilitarian, is simple – execute him.  Killing the one man would be the morally right thing to do as it maximises pleasure and minimises pain.

ACT and RULE Utilitarianism 
 Both Jeremey Bentham and J. S. Mill had different approaches to utilitarianism.  Bentham proposed Act Utilitarianism.  This is where the GHP is applied to specific situations.  Every time you were faced with a decision you would simply ask yourself which act, in this scenario, would generate the most amount of happiness for the greater number of people.  Each act would be considered individually with whichever act that maximised pleasure and minimised pain for the greater number being the right course of action. 

J. S. Mill proposed Rule UtilitarianismRule Utilitarians use the GHP to create rules, which people can follow, that produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number over a longer period of time.  It differs from Act as each situation isn’t considered individually, they look at the bigger picture.  Rule Utilitarians don’t consider each act, they just follow the rule that has already been shown to produce more happiness.

Act & Rule Application 
You’re on the train from Glasgow and no one else is in your carriage.  You notice that the train is approaching your stop and still no one has checked if you have a ticket.  You get off and you’re faced with a decision – leave and not pay or go into the ticket machine and buy a ticket.  How would act and rule utilitarians act in this scenario?

An act utilitarian applies the GHP to that one specific action.  He, or she, would consider if paying for the ticket would bring more happiness to more people.  There’s only him, and if he feels happier not paying then in this situation and act utilitarian would find not paying morally right.

A rule utilitarian would ask themselves what would bring more happiness to more people in the long term.  A rule utilitarian would consider the consequences of him, and others, not paying.  The company would lose money, people could be laid-off, and stations could close.  Ultimately the happiness you would feel from having an extra £2.10 in your pock is outweighed by the pain those would feel by you not paying.  A rule utilitarian therefore would pay for the ticket.

No comments:

Post a Comment