Thursday, January 12, 2012

How can Utilitarianism be attacked as a moral theory?

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There is no question of the important status of ethics in the majority of societies. The politics of today reinforce the prominent position of ethics through people like John Major and Tony Blair, illustrating a preoccupation with moral behaviour. Through many centuries moral philosophers have continually attempted to produce a suitable ethical theory which is applicable to all humans and to which there are no severe criticisms.

The philosophical theory which has come to be recognised as utilitarianism originally dates from the seventeenth century and is attributed to Thomas Hobbes, but the major body of thought can be seen back in classical times in the shape of Epicureanism. The work of Hobbes was revived by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century, although John Stuart Mill is more commonly viewed as the father of utilitarianism with his Victorian version of the doctrine. The popularity which stemmed from Mills impressive formulation, was responsible for the absorption of utilitarianism into the bloodstream of much modern thinking, and subsequently it has been hailed as a rational alternative to Christianity. Despite the seeming perfection of this moral hypothesis, it is possible to find several faults within the theory, coupled with varying criticisms. However, such problems are not really evident until the actual formulation of the doctrine of utilitarianism has been comprehended in its entirety, as criticisms cannot legitimately be made unless one has sufficient knowledge of the content of the theory.

Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy does exhibits several forms which are basically variations on Mills modification of the doctrine produced by Bentham, and so do not require special consideration. Morality is viewed as the obeyance of particular rules relating to society, and reasons for doing this. Utilitarianism promotes the concept of the only motive for moral action, that being obeying the rules that are necessary for social life, and the pleasure which can be found in the obedience or the pain which results from disobeying them. The standard form of the theory is can actually be expressed as two principles which are combined. The first is the consequentialist principle, that an action can be determined right or wrong depending upon the goodness or badness that results from it. The second half is found in the hedonist principle that pleasure is the only thing that is inherently good, and that the only completely bad thing is pain. The amalgamation of these two separate precepts results in a single principle which forms the basic doctrine of utilitarianism the rightness of any action can be decided simply by the evaluation of the amount of happiness it contributes to all those affected. This is an accurate summary of the propositions put forward by both Bentham and Mill. This position has been described as the greatest happiness principle and as the principle of utility, which John Hospers defines as actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

In addition to this fairly simple basis, there are qualifications which are intended to aid utilitarianism and to protect it from unnecessary criticism. It is suggested that utilitarianism as a morality, takes into account the power which humans possess, of sacrificing their own good in order to promote the good of others. Many moralities fail to acknowledge this point and refuse to accept that there are people who are not entirely selfish and can even be altruistic. In connection with this element, many who have entered into the utilitarian discussion have emphasised it similarity with the golden rule which was promoted by Jesus of Nazareth. The moral rule do unto others as you would have them do unto you and also the command to love your neighbour as yourself are held as being the complete spirit of the ethics of utility, around which utilitarianism is centred. Bentham added other aspects to this philosophy in maintaining that it was necessary for private interest to be weighted and guided if it were to be of any benefit at all to the public interest. In light of this, he believed that society is a collection of individuals, the good of which is dependent upon their happiness; an element which can in realiy be summed and calculated. This is a more detailed proposition which results in a stronger approach to morality, especially with Benthams opinion that goodness and rightness must be defined in the concept of the greatest happiness principle.

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To refrain from doing so would be, according to Jeremy Bentham, effectively talking nonsense, insinuating that the principle of utility is what every human should logically use in connection with ethical behaviour. It seems reasonable that every human being could understand actions in terms of pain and pleasure as scientists have discovered that these are the lowest emotions which can be experienced. Therefore to assess the consequences of an action using these criteria is an ability which all rational humans should possess.

Mill takes a more critical view of his own doctrine by stating that there are some unavoidable difficulties produced by utilitarianism. However, he compensates for this admission of weakness by proclaiming that reason and rationality mean that despite this, a utilitarian would be unable to conceive of abandoning his doctrine. This is a progression from the stance provided by Jeremy Bentham, and another strengthening factor is displayed by Mill. In contrast to Benthams emphasis on the quantity of happiness being the main consideration, Mill chooses to assert that the comparison between pleasures is or can be purely quantative. From this declaration the famous saying of Mills was derived It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. This fairly detailed investigation into the major theories of utilitarianism makes it far simpler to discover any detrimental faults.

There are various ways to try and criticise the argument and there have been several prominent scholars who have attempted to portray the weaknesses which utilitarianism displays. From the period 186 to 10 there are four critics who should be noted. The first is John Grote, whose pupil Henry Sidgwick succeeded him, and proved more sympathetic to Mill than his mentor. Following these two, F. H. Bradley published a violently polemical assault called Pleasure for Pleasures Sake in his book Ethical Studies. However, the final critic of this era is viewed as both the most important and lethal; G. E. Moore could be considered as the originator of effective utilitarian criticism.

A major criticism has focused on the element of the argument which includes an unjustified step from asserting that pleasure is desired, to claiming that it is desirable. This is viewed as an illegitimate conclusion which Mill arrives at desirable. The problem can be illustrated more clearly by stating that what Mill effectively attempts is to make is entail an ought. G. E. Moore is of the opinion that what Mill actually succeeds in doing is pretending to prove that good means desired , and this he achieves through his initial assumption. It is a bid to try and equivocate good with what is desired, which in itself is evidently problematic, for there is no real justification for such a claim. Moore also makes a sarcastic remark in maintaining that it is quite wonderful how Mill failed to see it, referring of course to the step which he makes. In a similar way, Grote also chooses to criticise Mill on this point, declaring that what has occurred is a generalisation which can only be described as fallacious. Grote formulates the example by saying that because each man desires his own happiness then Mill concludes that everyone desires the happiness of all. This premise is an extremely important aspect of utilitarianism, and here both Grote and Moore succeed in illustrating that Mill was severely disillusioned and that his inference in this respect was totally misguided.

Almost in anticipation of such attack, Mill preempts his critics in declaring that pleasure is not the only thing which we as humans actually desire The desire of virtue is not as universal, but it is as authentic a fact, as the desire of happiness. Nevertheless, in admitting this, Mill manages to contradict his previous statement that pleasure is the only thing desirable because it is the only thing desired. Despite these numerous initial criticisms, John Stuart Mill almost manages to resurrect utilitarianism at this stage. He professes that if one were to deny that pleasure is desirable, then it could be asked, do you not desire it? and Mill says that the answer is known in advance to be yes, and subsequently the subject must admit that pleasure is desirable. However, this retort does not suffice in restoring credibility to this aspect of the utilitarian argument.

The next significant criticism in aimed more specifically at the argument as formulated by Jeremy Bentham and is concerned with the concept of happiness. According to the doctrine of utilitarianism one should try to maximise happiness, which initially appears unproblematic until you strive to one attempts. It is obvious to most that happiness appears purely subjective and cannot be regarded as objective in the least, yet Bentham was untroubled. He used a simple definition in that happiness is a state of pleasure and no pain; and even went so far as to produce seven criterion for measuring pleasure in order to make happiness less subjective. According to Bentham these are intensity; duration; certainty or uncertainty; remoteness or propinquity; fecundity; purity; extent. In some respects this removes the primary criticism but does not completely solve the problem which the element of happiness causes. Bentham complicates the situation even more by his provision of fifty eight synonyms for pleasure, which only serves to reinforce the belief that pleasure and happiness can only be subjective and never objective. Grote has an opinion on this dilemma of happiness and pleasure, and concludes that here, utilitarianism exhibits two main deficiencies. The first can be found in its account of the right distribution of happiness, of who it is that actions, if they are right, are to be useful to. The second difficulty is the actual account of happiness that the argument provides.

Following the train of thought set by Bentham, Mill tries to establish an objective scale of pleasures in order to eradicate the problems of subjectivity. He realises that what is a good pleasure to one person may not be to another, and so sets about trying to find a way of rectifying the situation. It is possible that a sadist might find serial killing a pleasure and so act in this respect under the banner of utilitarianism. Alasdair MacIntyre upholds the point that men are subject to two sovereign masters, which are pain and pleasure, as Bentham suggests. However, he continues by stating that the belief that pain and pleasure are correlative terms is simply an assumption. This means that Benthams utilitarianism is founded upon a unjustified premise.

The issue of happiness and pleasure introduces yet another plausible criticism. Bentham and Mill both advocate actions on the basis of the amount of pleasure produced, whether it be quantative or qualitative. To act upon this theory requires the consequences of an action to be calculated prior to the actual act, in order to discover the correct sum of pleasure that would occur. This is a real problem as how is it possible to predict all the potential consequences of an action.

Asking someone to accurately do this is analogous to expecting a precise prediction of the future. An admission should be made that it is possible to roughly estimate what the consequences of an action would be, but the certainty about possible effects is normally low. Therefore, how is it possible to make a moral decision about an action based on probability rather than concrete facts and statistics. Even if it were possible to predict the consequences quite precisely, there will always be the possibility of effects occurring which one might not have originally considered. There may be psychological consequences which arise from the action that are so extensively detrimental that they counteract the initial advantages which led to the deed being carried out. It is impossible for one to calculate the infinite number of possible consequences before the action happens. This criticism finds an adequate summary in Utilitarianism and Its Critics Consequences cannot be precisely predicted, and happiness cannot be precisely measured.

Mill makes a feeble attempt at avoiding such a damaging criticism by stating that he intended the principle of utility for use as a criterion when, and only when, it is possible for the effects of an action can be adequately assessed. This in effect sidesteps the issue which makes the actual principle of utility almost useless and redundant. In reality there exists only a small percentage of actions whose consequences can be assessed to such a degree as to make them certain. This clearly illustrates another damaging blow for the argument behind utilitarianism.

A further criticism of this position is connected with the utilitarian goal of the highest total happiness. There have been many authorities on this moral theory who have viewed this intent as disturbingly impersonal. This element of the failure to distinguish between persons is perceived as a major weakness. The implications which can be found in utilitarianism completely eradicate the possibility of individual rights and make personal happiness a very dificult goal to obtain. Its aim actually requires the maximization of utility without any consideration of its apportionment between different persons. John Rawls really makes a detrimental comment that utilitarianism does not take seriously the distinction between persons, and this is in effect what the theory entails. From this proceeds an additional condemnation that utilitarians are completely unconcerned with both equality and inequality; distribution of happiness does not really enter into the equation unless it is in connection with the total sum of happiness. In this respect therefore, utilitarianism finds it totally acceptable to justify inequality. From this springs yet another concern that because of such an approach, there exists within utilitarianism the justification for trampling on particular individuals in pursuit of the general happiness. The reason for this attitude could be due to the fact that utilitarians have no belief in the existence of natural rights, and so there is no emphasis on what the individual deserves. In fact, Jeremy Bentham went so far as to describe such rights as being nothing more than nonsense on stilts. This means that according to the moral philosophy of utilitarianism slavery could be morally justified if the slaveowners benefited in a greater way than the slaves were burdened, and also if in general more utility was produced.

This example leads into another condemnation of Mills formulation of an acceptable morality. The implications which can be found in such an act would generally be seen as conflicting with the personal moral judgements of the majority of people. Therefore, it is seemingly legitimate to assert that the principle of utilitarianism actually requires people to act in a way that would not normally be regarded as moral unto themselves. It seems, then, that critics have stumbled across an extremely damaging factor of Mills theory. How can it be acceptable for a moral principle to have the requirement of acting in a way that conflicts with the integrity of the individual. Utilitarianism fails quite miserably to account for the fact that people have quite personal opinions of the moral value of a deed regardless of what the consequences may be. This can be illustrated in the problem of special responsibilities. Most people would agree that one exhibits special responsibilities to particular people. It is widely accepted that a person has more moral obligations to a relative or loved one than to a complete stranger. In the event of two men drowning, one being your father and the other famous scientist who was on the verge of curing cancer, the utilitarian would, upon the pricniple of utility, strongly urge you to save the life of the scientist. However, in actuality, the probability is that you would save your father, because of personal feelings and overall, your personal happiness. To make matters worse, utilitarian thinking contains the suggestion that personal integrity should be discarded in favour of concern for the general good. This is convincing evidence that this is a dangerous shortfall in the utilitarian argument.

The final major condemnation of utilitarianism comes in the suggestion by critics like Alasdair MacIntyre, that its philosophy can result in the instruction to commit acts that are essentially immoral. An excellent illustration of this problematic aspect would be a case where two people were in definite danger of dying due to organ failure, and there are no donors available. Would it be possible to view the action of killing one perfectly healthy human being in order to save the two? To do so would be an execution of the greatest good for the greatest number, even though in the opinion of most it would not be morally right. This proposal is avoided whenever possible by utilitarians, even though there is considerable doubt whether the theory indeed provides adequate reasons for opposing it. Due to this it could be said that in Dostoyevskys famous novel Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is given reasons for murdering an old moneylender because it produces more happiness for other people.

Similarly, applications of the principle of utility within society as a whole presents problems. How would a utilitarian respond if the public happiness in a society would result in the mass murder of Jews. They really have no grounds for dismissing such an action. Again, suppose there was a society of twelve people, ten of them being sadistic in nature who would obtain great pleasure from the remaining two being tortured. Under utilitarianism it would be totally acceptable for torture of the two to be carried out by the others. There is no doubt in light of these models that there are times when the concept of the greatest happiness for the greatest number as a criterion would result in the recommendation of courses of action which conflict sharply with what the public in general would normally perceive as the moral thing to do.

The conclusion that can be drawn from such analysis of the shortcomings exhibited by utilitarianism is that on the surface it seems highly plausible as an approach to making moral decisions and an uncomplex way of leading a moral life. On a closer examination, it is possible, as illustrated, to show that the moral implications of utilitarianism conflict, not just in trivial aspects, but quite significantly with common sense moral beliefs. It was initially propounded as a system of social and political decision as it possesses an appeal because it offers a simple but very powerful method of eliciting a result in terms of moral decision making. Nevertheless, although it may be simple in approach, its implications are very complex and cause the utilitarian argument to become very cumbersome because of the need to account for consequences. In split-second moral decisions there is just not time to try and establish for whom the greatest happiness will prevail and also calculate the consequences in respect to this. Therefore, what began as a one-principle system evolves into a complex web of calculative aspects which only serves to produce numerous problematic features.

Despite the undoubtedly detrimental criticisms which utilitarianism manages to provoke, it is necessary to emphasise that the belief in the importance of public happiness in aiding moral decision making should no be viewed merely as a mistake. It is impossible to deny that in some areas of life, such a criterion is frequently utilised in order to make a moral choice; and for this we owe thanks to Bentham and Mill. In final conclusion it seems fully justified to assert, on the basis of the criticisms discovered, that utilitarianism can be attacked quite openly and easily on many counts. It appears that nearly every premise upon which the argument is built can be subjected to condemnation, however severe. Therefore, utilitarianism does not present itself to be the complete and all-consuming moral theory that was in the thought of Bentham and Mill in the eighteenth century, but does exhibit some pleasing aspects that can be applied to the moral life of humanity today.

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