Initial Discussion Instructions:
One famous worry about utilitarianism is that it demands that we regard our own set
of desires, ends, and our own happiness, as just one among a great many others
whose lives we might impact. Accordingly, our own desires, ends, etc. bear very little
weight when determining what the greatest happiness of the greatest numberis, and
thus what our moral responsibility is.
Think of a situation or area of life in which this might be true, and our concern for
our own well-being and happiness has to take a back seat to the concern for the wellbeing and happiness of the greatest number. What might a utilitarian say to someone
who thinks this is too high a sacrifice? Would this be a plausible response? Be sure
to back up your answer with references to the resources, and respond to your peers by
considering what someone who disagrees with them might say.
Response to peers Instructions:
Reply to your classmates and instructor. Try to attempt to take the conversation further by
examining their claims or arguments in more depth or responding to the posts that they make to
you. Keep the discussion on target and try to analyze things in as much detail as you can. You
must utilize the reading material as a reference and ensure the reference is in APA style.
Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine that merits based on utility where behavior should be aspired
at bringing happiness to the utmost number of individuals. Mosser (2013) emphasizes that many
of us find utilitarianism as a simple and beneficial approach when it comes to making ethical
judgements. An action is deliberated as right if it guides to happiness and wrong if it guides to
pain. A great example of utilitarianism is the rule that would permit medical physicians to kill
healthy individuals to utilize their organs for transplants that will save the lives of many other
individuals who would otherwise pass away without such organs. If a physician is able to save
five individuals from deceasing by killing one healthy individual, then utilitarianism suggests
that the physician should kill one individual to save the lives of five other individuals. A very
usual argument in contradiction to act utilitarianism is that it has the tendency to give incorrect
answers to moral questions. Critics discuss that it permits some actions that every person thinks
and knows that are unethical, for instance the case above. For example, in the case above,
physicians would be violating the law by killing one such individual. Correspondingly,
individuals would not belief in physicians in the concern that they could be prospective victims
for such organs and would fear acts like for example: a surgical operation. Sheskin, & Baumard
(2016) state that individuals usually show non-utilitarian judgments in different areas like for
example: healthcare choices, income distributions, and disciplinary laws. Utilitarian discusses
that the overall good of a deed should be taken into thought. Therefore, an act that produces the
greatest number of utility should be attained.
According to Bentham, utility is what others are able to gain as a result of the hard work that we
put in our day to day life (Mosser, 2013). One area in life where this might be true is in the
family set up. A father and a mother who are involved in a relationship go through the greatest
lengths to just see to it that their sons are satisfied before they even fulfill their own needs. For
example, when a kid is small and they start crying, the father or mother will drop what they are
doing to just make sure that their kids are back to sleep and that they are okay. This will be
regardless of whether they are tired or they are not tired, they will do their best to ensure that
their kids are safely back to the position where they were before and that they are not crying
again. In this situation we observe that the parents sacrifice their own happiness for the happiness
of their children. The parents choosing to forego their sleep or the work that they were doing,
which if they would have concentrated on it more, they would have gained from it just so that
they can be able to assist their kids out of the discomforts that they are having. The utilitarianism
idea is complete when the child is able to stop crying or being in discomfort as a result of the
actions of their parents.
What a utilitarian would say to someone who thinks this too high a sacrifice.
The opinion of a utilitarian would be that the satisfaction that is derived when one does such a
selfless act to be able to calm the other person down is far much greater than the act that a person
would have done for themselves which would mean that they forego those of the other people
(Mori, 2015). For example. for a utilitarian the satisfaction these parents gets when they wake up
to attend to their child is that the child might have wet the bed and the urine might be burning
their skin. If the parent ignores their cry and the child cries himself to sleep, what happens is that
the child might get a rash lying in the wet bed. This will incur additional costs to the parents
which will require them to take their children to the hospital for medical attention. If the parents
had woken up, all they would have lost was sleep which they could get later because sleep is
free. In this sense the parents will have prevented themselves from using additional amounts
money for medical treatment for their child.
Would this be a plausible response?
This in all sense is reasonable plausible because saving oneself from additional costs is what is
considered economical and that is what utilitarianism is all about, "the act should produce the
greatest net good, or the greatest amount of happiness, for the greatest number" (Mosser, 2013).
I think one area in which utilitarianism is present would be in the area of criminal justice. For
example, let's say we have a murderer (first-degree). The family of the victim is more than likely
going to want to see the perpetrator killed as well, wanting "justice" for their family member. I
mean, how harshly should a criminal be punished or corrected? Utilitarianism brings several
ideas to the table. First, criminals are still human beings, not matter how violent or the crime, and
deserve moral consideration. We should "punish" them as leniently as possible, but punishing
them can prevent future harm, so we should consider different types of sentencing as a deterrent,
such as paying for damages or working in community service. This can help some of the harm
done by the crime to be taken away. I think utilitarianism ushers in a new kind of light on many
situations. Instead of everyone getting what it is they want, there must be sacrifice to support the
greater good for everyone involved, whether directly or indirectly. Utilitarianism helps us think
and realize that criminals can be rehabilitated and molded into highly functioning members of
Perhaps the most notable aspect that utilitarianism rejects is, retaliation. Utilitarianism rejects the
traditional narrative that bad people deserve to have bad things done to them. Instead it focuses
on what future good punishment can do and provide.
I think a utilitarian would tell someone who thinks most criminals should (I apologize for the use
of wording, but have nothing else) be shot and killed because it would be cheaper and easier, that
their way of thinking is flawed. That killing criminals would be too detrimental to society and
would not help the greater good, but help those get the retaliation we mentioned above. They
would say, who would be the judge of what qualifies as a crime bad enough or violent enough
for someone to just be killed? As Winston Churchill once said, "If you kill the murderer, the
quantity of murderers will not change" (Churchill, 1940s).
In my opinion, I think the above possible response by a utilitarian would be plausible, because
their argument against killing every criminal intends to show the person that it is ethically
unacceptable to kill all criminals, as well as show them why they are wanting them dead in the
first place, retaliation.
Overall, Utilitarianism intends to reveal what is morally and ethically right or wrong based on
the effects every action would leave behind. Utilitarians believe that the purpose of morality is to
make life better by increasing the amount of good things (such as pleasure and happiness) in the
world and decreasing the amount of bad things (such as pain and unhappiness). They reject
moral codes or systems that consist of commands or taboos that are based on customs, traditions,
or orders given by leaders or supernatural beings. Instead, utilitarians think that what makes a
morality be true or justifiable is its positive contribution to human (and perhaps non-human)
beings. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017). This being the case, we can see how the
above examples using the criminal justice system would be unethical through the eyes of
Why/ Getty Images
You have your way. I have my way. As for
“It is the mark of an educated mind
the right way, the correct way, and the only
to be able to entertain a thought
way, it does not exist.
without accepting it”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
After reading this chapter, students will be able to:
1. Characterize the classical theories of ethics—utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.
2. Identify some of the problems these theories confront.
3. Describe other metaethical views, such as relativism and egoism.
4. Apply ethical theories to problems that affect both individuals and larger groups, including
What We Will Discover
• Philosophers have developed theories to provide support for our claims about right and
• Other theories such as egoism and relativism offer alternatives to traditional theories of
• Ethics has many specific applications to our lives, from the very personal and specific to
those that affect everyone in society.
6.1 How Should One Act?
thics, or moral philosophy, investigates how we
can evaluate our behavior in terms of right and
wrong, good and bad—in other words, how we
determine what we should do, what we should not
do, and how to tell the difference. After looking at
the three classical ethical views that philosophers have
presented and some of the problems with these theories, we will explore some alternative approaches.
Suppose you and five of your friends are hanging out
one night and decide to order a pizza. You are all
equally hungry and decide to order two pizzas, each
of which has six slices. Thus, when the pizzas are
delivered, it is pretty easy to determine how to divide
the pizzas in a way that is the fairest: Everyone gets
two slices. It may be that one person wanted a third
slice, and someone else may have only wanted one.
Yet without knowing anything else, this arrangement, more than any other, will be the most beneficial to the greatest number of people.
Photos.com/© Getty Images/Thinkstock
Jeremy Bentham is associated with the
founding of utilitarianism, which states
that given a choice between two acts,
the one that creates greater happiness
for the greatest number of people should
This simple example demonstrates the basic notion at
the heart of the ethical doctrine known as utilitarianism. Often associated with the philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748–1822) and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism offers a very straightforward and
direct way to evaluate behavior. When given a choice between two acts, utilitarianism states that
1/6/14 2:33 PM
Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
the act that should be chosen is the one that creates the greatest amount of happiness for
the greatest number of people. Philosophers (and economists) often use the term utility
to express this quality. Utility is the satisfaction one gets from something. For instance, if
you like chocolate ice cream more than vanilla ice cream, we can say that chocolate ice
cream has a higher utility for you, relative to vanilla ice cream. In theory, at least, each of
us can rank all of our choices according to a scale that indicates our relative preferences.
Some philosophers, such as Bentham, even attempted to assign numbers to these preferences. If someone likes chocolate ice cream five times as much as vanilla ice cream, that
person would presumably be willing to accept five vanilla ice cream cones as a substitute
for one chocolate ice cream cone. It should also be noted that utility is regarded in terms
of net utility: The correct moral choice is that which generates the greatest good and also
Read more of
on this topic
in his work
section of the
Because utilitarianism considers an act’s consequences in assessing its morality, utilitarianism is also regarded as a consequentialist theory. The basic idea in consequentialism is
to consider the consequences that will result from the choices one confronts: If the consequences of one act produce the greatest net good—or the highest utility—for the greatest number of people, this is the act one should carry out. Many people find this to be a
rather obvious ethical viewpoint; clearly if we had decided to give all the pizza slices to just
three people and no slices to the other three, this would seem rather unfair. It should also
be clear that utilitarianism offers an approach to scenarios other than distributing pizza
and ice cream. Imagine Mary really loves to dance, but she does not get to go dancing
very often. Mary has three children, with whom she enjoys spending time and who enjoy
spending time with her. One night she is given the option of staying home and spending
time with her children or going dancing. What should she do? The utilitarian might argue
that, on the one hand, the pleasure Mary gets from dancing is greater than staying with
her children. Yet on the other hand, her children will receive great pleasure if she does not
go dancing. Therefore, the “utility calculation” is that the net happiness of Mary and her
three children will be higher if she stays home, even though Mary’s individual happiness
might be slightly lower than it would have been if she had chosen to go dancing.
Utility is often described in terms of pleasure, which can be problematic for utilitarianism. Imagine someone finds pleasure in playing video games and drinking beer all day
long. Given a choice between, say, helping out in a homeless shelter or drinking and
playing the newest video game, a person may well choose the latter, which suggests to
some that utilitarianism has no way to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures.
Presumably, we want our theory to be able to make a distinction between hedonistic and
nobler pleasures. Mill saw this as a potential problem and insisted that pleasure should be
considered not just in terms of quantity but also quality: that certain kinds of pleasures,
or certain ways of satisfying desires, are simply better than others. A pig may be happy
rolling around in the mud and eating garbage, but Mill insisted that people who take that
approach to pleasure fail to develop their potential as human beings (relative to pigs, at
least). According to Mill, it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. This is
not to say that one should always choose something less pleasurable; rather, it is simply an
indication that pleasures themselves can, or perhaps should, be distinguished from each
other. It is not always easy to say that one pleasure is “superior” to another, and certainly
people have long argued about this issue. However, these kinds of examples indicate a
problem utilitarianism confronts if we evaluate acts solely in terms of their pleasurable
consequences (Mill, 1909).
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
Many people find utilitarianism to be an easy and useful approach to making ethical decisions.
When distributing goods, services, or even time, it would seem to be a “no-brainer” to choose
the option that would satisfy or please as many people as possible, compared to any other available choice. However, philosophers have raised a number of problems in response to utilitarianism, which may make it a less plausible ethical theory than it first appears.
Problems With Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism has what philosophers call an intuitive appeal: It seems to be relatively obvious,
and just plain common sense, to evaluate our actions based on the results those actions produce. If all we know about a situation is that four kids in a sandbox have one toy, the best option
would be for the children to share that toy, even if each child is quite sure he or she would get
the most pleasure from playing with it alone.
However, many philosophers have objected to utilitarianism, and for a number of reasons. As
we have seen, distinguishing different kinds of pleasures from each other can be difficult. Does
utilitarianism have any way to address the situation of a person who gets pleasure from staring
at the wall or doing something else that most people would find quite unpleasant (something
often called masochism)? Mill (1863) suggests there are “higher” or “more refined” pleasures
and that they should be preferred, but who is to say which is a “higher” pleasure? Is reading
poetry somehow better than watching soap operas? What if someone gains pleasure by sleeping all the time or hitting his thumb over and over with a hammer?
More significant objections to utilitarianism have been posed on the basis of calculating the outcome, or consequences, of a choice. Suppose you are on a cruise ship that catches fire; you and
19 others are lucky enough to survive on a lifeboat. There is enough water to last for a week or
more, but you have no food and do not know whether you will be rescued. Everyone is aware
of how grim the future looks; as the boat drifts, everyone gets hungrier. It becomes apparent
that everyone is going to die unless your group finds food. The utilitarian in the group poses
the following options: All 20 people die, or 19 people live if one person is killed and eaten! To
justify his position, he cites historical examples of similar cases in which cannibalism helped the
majority survive. However, while this scenario may appear to result in the greatest good for the
greatest number, do we really want an ethical theory that not only allows cannibalism, but actually endorses it as the fairest and most ethical decision?
Few of us are likely to experience a situation this extreme, but we may find ourselves in situations
where the basic utilitarian calculation actually leads to results that are very unfair and unjust. This
is particularly threatening anytime individuals find themselves in a minority, whether because
of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any of the other ways in which society categorizes people. For example, suppose a local grade school must decide if it should use
taxpayer money to build ramps to make the building accessible to students in wheelchairs. This
tax will likely decrease the pleasure of each taxpayer and may only be used by a few individuals
throughout the year. In this way it would result in a net utility that would favor a decision not to
build the ramps. Would you consider this a fair outcome?
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Section 6.1 How Should One Act?
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