Objections to Utilitarianism

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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.

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....
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