Objections to Utilitarianism
OBJECTIONS TO UTIILITARIANISM SECTION (1) INTRODUCTION We noted, last week, that UTILITARIANISM is a version of CONSEQUENTIALISM in that it holds that the RIGHT action (in any given situation) is the action WHICH HAS THE WHICH HAS THE BEST CONSEQUENCES; CONSEQUENTIALIST ethical theories may be contrasted with DEONTOLOGICAL – or DUTY-BASED theories (such as Kant’s) Now, some ( but not all) deontological theories are versions of ABSOLUTISM – i. e the doctrine that some actions are so wicked that it would be wrong to commit such an action on any occasion at all whatever the consequences of not performing it might be. Note that Kant’s Moral Rationalism is an ABSOLUTIST theory. Granted thayt you have a duty not to commit suicide, for example, you ought not to commit suicide however dire your situation might be; granted that you have a duty not to lie, then you ought not to lie – not even to a would-be murderer who asks you whether his intended victim is at home (see SINGER 74) I am concerned, now, with the various objections that have been made against Utilitarianism. For the purposes of this lecture, I propose to these objections into two groups: (a) Absolutist objections (b) Other objections SECTION (2) ABSOLUTIST OBJECTIONS TO UTILTARIANSIM
The ABSOLUTIST holds (by definition) that there are some kinds of action which are so intrinsically wicked that it would ALWAYS be wrong to perform such an action WHATEVER THE CONSEQUENCES of not performing it It is very clear, then, that Absolutism is incompatible with Utilitarianism. For whatever the sort of action which is supposed to be absolutely wrong, the Utilitarian will say that, if on some particular occasion, one would produce MUCH MORE happiness by performing such an action than by not performing it, then, not only would be justified in performing such an action: one would be positively obliged to do so.
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The question arises: WHAT sort(s) of actions are supposed to be absolutely wrong?. Absolutism has, historically been associated with RELIGIOUS conceptions of morality. Thus Roman Catholics hold that (among other things) abortion and adultery are absolutely wrong; for these are matters on which God has (literally) laid down the law for us. The most plausible version of Absolutism, I suggest, is that IT IS ABSOLUTELY WRONG TO KILL AN INNOCENT PERSON INTENTIONALLY. Let us confine our attention to this version. (Note that this is an issue of some political significance.
The Catholic objection to abortion is a cause of controversy in most Western countries. Further more many Caholics (and non-Catholics are opposed, in principle, to the policy of Nuclear Deterrence just because it entails the threat to kill large numbers of innocent people) Granted, then, that all of us would agree that it is, in general, morally wrong to kill an innocent person intentionally, the question still remains whether such an action is so wrong that what ought never to perform such an action regardless of the consequences of not doing so.
To put the question more precisely: ARE THERE ANY CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH ONE WOULD BE MORALLY JUSTIFIED IN KILLING AN INNOCENT PERSON INTENTIONALLY? I maintain, for my own part that there are. Here are three cases to illustrate the point (the first of which is an actual case which was dealt with in Court) (1) The lorry-driver case. (2) The Fat Man and the School Outing (3) Jim and the Indians (Singer,85). SECTION (3) OTHER OBJECTIONS Many people who are not Absolutists still object to Utilitarianism on the grounds of its Consequentialism. Granted’ – they would say, `that it is morally good to create happiness and morally bad to create unhappiness, it does not follow that the production of happiness is the ONLY criterion which determines whether an action is Right or wrong. What about Justice, Honesty, Integrity – aren’t these moral virtues in their own right? ’ Here are some examples to illustrate this general objection. (1) Promise keeping. You should keep a promise,just because you made it in the first place.
It follows that you ought to keep a promise to a dying man EVEN IF you could spread more happiness by breaking it. (Smart disagrees;Singer 80) (2)Telling the truth. You should tell the truth, in many (if not all) cases, EVEN IF you would cause less unhappiness by lying (cf. cases of terminal illness) (3) Punishing the innocent. It is morally wrong to punish someone known to be innocent; and this is morally wrong EVEN IF framing an innocent person is the only way of avoiding a riot. Smart disagrees; Utilitarianism:For and Against; JJC Smart & Bernard Williams;pp69-73) (4)Persecuting a minority is wrong EVEN IF by doing so you increase net happiness. (5) You should not sell arms to an evil regime EVEN IF others will sell them if you don’t. (Cf the case of George in Singer,85) (6)You should not kill an innocent (friendless but healthy) person EVEN IF by doing so (and giving his organs to several others) you could increase net happiness. These cases pose great difficulties for the Utilitarian. (Many (if not all? have to do with what Jonathan Glover calls THE ACTS AND OMISSIONS DOCTRINE; this states that `in certain contexts, failure to perform an act, with certain foreseen bad consequences of that failure, is morally less bad than to perform a different act which has identical foreseen bad consequences. ‘(Thus it is worse to KILL someone than merely to LET SOMEONE DIE (or to let someone else kill them. Thus some Catholics would justify the bombing of military targets in The Second World War even when such bombing was bound to cause civilian casualties).
The Utilitarian is committed to REJECTING The Acts and Omissions Doctrine; but this seems unacceptable. (Failing to send money to the starving is wrong, but it is not as wrong as sending the starving poisoned food – Philippa Foot). SECTION (4) ACT-UTILITARIANISM vs RULE-UTILITARIANISM There are, clearly, some very strong objections to Utilitarianism. Do these objections (taken together ) amount to a conclusive refutation of Utilitarianism? Perhaps not. In 1955, John Rawls published an article entitled Two Concepts of Rules reprinted in Theories of Ethics,, ed.
Philippa Foot) There drew a distinction between (a) JUSTIFYING A PRACTICE (e. g. the practice of promise-keeping) and (b) JUSTIFYING A PARTICULAR ACTION FALLING UNDER THAT PRACTICE (e. g. keeping a particular promise on a particular occasion. This distinction is the basis of the distinction which moral philosophers have since drawn between ACT-UTILITARIANISM and RULE UTILITARIANISM (Rawls, himself, did not use these terms in his article; but, his explicit intention, in that article was to defend Utilitarianism against the sorts of objection raised in Section (2))
Rawls’ proposal is, essentially, this. We should interpret Utilitarianism as entailing (NOT that the rightness/wrongness of every particular act that we perform is a function of its consequences for happiness/unhappiness, but, rather, that) the proper way to justify a certain practice is to show that the general adoption of the practice would result in a net increase in happiness; while the justification of a particular action falling under that practice would, simply, consist in its falling under a practice which may be justified in the way described.
We can readily see how this interpretation avoids the objections raised in Section (2). Thus, it is pretty obvious that the a society which has a well-established practice of promise-keeping will be a society whose members are, on the whole, happier, than they would be if there were no such practice at all. So, too, if the members of a certain society could be confident that they would not be kidnapped and killed by surgeons looking for healthy organs, then, to that extent, they would be happier than they would be if they suspected that the surgeons were not subject to any such constraints.
My own view is that RULE-UTILITARIANISM is less objectionble than ACT-UTILITARIANISM ; but I am not persuaded that it is completely sound. The big difficulty is this. Consider the `Desert Island Case’ once again. If the practice of promise-keeping is itself justified on the grounds that it promotes happiness; and if you are sure in this (exceptional) case that more happiness will be created if you break your promise then what utilitarian reason could you possibly have for keeping your promise?
I can’t help thinking that Rule-Utilitarianism could avoid this difficulty only by appealing to some KANTIAN notion of consistency or rational integrity. But then again, perhaps R. M Mare is right in suggesting that [ while] `people talk as if Kant and the utilitarians were at opposite poles in moral philosophy…. this just shows how little they have understood either the utilitarians or Kant’ (Singer, 81)