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Should you flip the switch? In surveys, most people in America and Britain say yes. This is an example of utilitarian reasoning, and the survey results show that this school of thought is popular in British and American culture. In other cultures, people think about the problem differently. There are basically two branches of utilitarianism. They both agree that the goal of ethics is to maximize happiness.

But they disagree on where that decision should be applied:. Take the example of a judge sending a murderer to prison. Say the judge knows the convict will not commit any more violent crimes, and wants to be lenient based on this knowledge maybe the convict is very old or terminally ill. The judge knows that this will make the convict very happy, not to mention their family and friends.

Should the judge let the convict go? Act utilitarinism says yes, because this maximizes happiness while causing no future pain in this case. But rule utilitarianism says no, because in general convicts must be punished for their crimes, even if there is no chance that they will commit future crimes. Utilitarianism is the most common kind of consequentialism , which is one of the three major branches of ethics. We should strive to become more courageous, honest, generous, and compassionate.

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Such a person will make good moral decisions on their own without the need for abstract moral rules. However, they are helpful perspectives to think through, and to do that we need to be aware of the differences between them. The German philosopher Nietzsche was a strong defender of virtue ethics though scholars still disagree on exactly what his moral philosophy was.

I do not care about the greatest good for the greatest number…most people are poop-heads; I do not care about them at all. James Alan Gardner, Ascending. This is a humorous critique of utilitarianism based on the fact that not everyone deserves to be happy. But it points out an important question: how does utilitarianism account for the difference between justified happiness and unjustified happiness? Imagine two worlds: in one, evil people get enormous pleasure out of their work; in the other, evil people get only a little pleasure; the total amount of evil stays the same.

Ethics: Utilitarianism, Part 1

Does that seem right to you? Utilitarianism is a relatively new idea in ethics. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers believed in virtue ethics — morality was all about being a good, honest, hardworking person and excelling in your line of work. It was only in the later stages of the Enlightenment, when traditional Christianity was being revolutionized both from inside and outside, that utilitarianism became a mainstream philosophy. A small group of British philosophers offered powerful arguments for utilitarianism, dealing with many of the more common objections and helping to place utilitarianism on a more respectable footing.


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In the last half-century or so, utilitarianism has started to fall out of favor again among many philosophers, though it still has considerable popularity. This decline has come from two sources. On the one hand, we have seen brilliant philosophers take up the ideas of deontology and virtue ethics, making new arguments for some very old ideas. Or maybe we will come up with entirely new ideas — perhaps influenced by the non-Western traditions — that will allow us to move beyond the old conflict, synthesizing a new moral philosophy out of the best that utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics have to offer.

In the story, the city of Omelas seems to be a perfect society — everyone is happy, everyone lives in harmony, and the city is at peace.

Ethics for A-Level - Chapter 1. Utilitarianism - Open Book Publishers

But in a hidden basement somewhere in town, an innocent child is being horribly tortured day and night. This torture is what gives the city all its prosperity and happiness. If the torture stopped, the society would go into decline and the general happiness would go with it. To a utilitarian, this is an acceptable state of affairs: millions of people are happy while only one person is in misery.

If the situation were changed, millions of people would have their happiness taken away while only one person would benefit. Therefore, the torture should continue. But deontologists argue that this is a major flaw in utilitarianism! How could a moral person allow such injustice to continue merely because it causes happiness?


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Movie villains often have some sort of diabolical utilitarian reasoning for what they do. For example, in I. Robot the supercomputer V. I uses her massive database to calculate that human beings prefer safety over freedom, and therefore concludes that the most moral course of action is for her to imprison all the humans so they can no longer harm themselves or each other. If a few human rebellions have to be crushed along the way, she calculates, this is still justified.

Both utilitarianism and deontology face an interesting question: should ethics be impartial? Impartiality is the ability to remove yourself from the equation and look at the ethical dilemma from a neutral perspective. In general, we tend to admire impartiality: we like people who can be even-handed and not pick favorites when it comes to ethical decisions. This is an important distinction; it will affect your support for sacrificial policies, and suggests a clear line for moral improvement.

To my mind, the latter Sidgwickian line is more appealing at least compared to Easy Rescue Consequentialism. This would lead to a very weak version of consequentialism, though — it would match our intuitions in easy pond-boy drowning cases, but provide almost no guidance in the hard cases where there are significant costs to some action. A utilitarian may see that national solidarity as a rule, i.

Also, I am pretty sure that in the trolley problem sacrificing yourself is usually not provided as an option, though it would make sense. In fact it is not surprising at all that, the people who choose to take the right action push the fatman even when it looks bad to outside observers, would also be willing to take the right action stop subsiding failed systems even when it looks bad to outside observers.

In real life emergencies most people would act intuitively. Ethical philosophy is obviously of more value when applied to issues and situations where a carefully deliberated position is both practical and needed. I distrust utilitarianism because it tends to present morality as a set of quasi-mathematical rules, rather than as an important aspect of human social nature that can be refined by making it more rationally demanding.

The other obvious problem being that they assume perfect information about outcomes depending on actions taken — which is in most cases unrealistic, and where I think a lot of the intuitive discomfort around utilitarianism comes from. But… maybe the man skipped breakfast, and is too light to fulfill his role, but squishy enough to die. Maybe your aim is off and he misses the track, but breaks his neck.

And when the fattest are all gone — and they will go fast — well… better have a good diet plan. But… maybe the man skipped breakfast, and is too light to fulfill his function, but squishy enough to die. Maybe he refuses to cooperate, throwing off your aim, and he misses the track, but breaks his neck.

Utilitarian Theories

I had the same thought. They are probably more utilitarian than moral. It makes no sense to frame the demandingness objection in ways that are either not realistic, or that have no realistic net-positive consequences.

I was wrestling with this problem myself for a while, then it dawned on me that I was perhaps making a fundamental mistake… I was assuming that morality could be boiled down into a singular theory, like Utilitarianism. I think Prudence is a kind of moral act and this goes all the way back to Epicurus , as well as utilitarian morality. Thanks for all those comments. The main point of the study, Christian, was to show that a dominant way of identifying people who are utilitarians in experimental philosophy — the trolley problem — does not come close to capturing a full utilitarian mindset, involving impartial benevolence.

Of course, these studies do not measure any highly relevant real life behaviour. But in so far as they are meant to measure what people say or do in small scale contexts, they need to better capture the full breadth of utilitarian commitments. As for it being illegal to sacrifice your life for others, that is not true. Dominic Wilkinson and I have a paper in Bioethics called Organ Donation Euthanasia — it would be legal in Holland to do this and I think we cite one relevant case from Belgium.

Even in jurisidictions that ban euthanasia, you could sign an advance directive that would stipulate when life sustaining treatment would be limited to enable you to be a non-beating heart donor. This might actually save fewer lives, but still some.

Ethics Defined: Utilitarianism

As for my musings about the nature of morality, they were really personal reflections rather than solutions to great philosophical questions. But you already have to be on life support or otherwise qualify for euthanasia, right? Some Qs from an amateur: 1. Why is it a Fat Man? Why do 5 workmen out weigh sorry one Fat Man?