Ethical Decision Making from a Consequentialist Perspective

Topics: Ethics, Morality, John Rawls Pages: 31 (10551 words) Published: April 21, 2015

people to exercise their rights but they are obligated, at least all things being equal, to act in accordance with their duties.
Section Two Tensions between Rights-based Theories and Utilitarianism The existence of the rights and freedoms listed in the previous section (no

© French, Robert, Jan 19, 2009, Ethical Decision-Making from a Consequentialist Perspective : A Study in Philosophical Ethics The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, ISBN: 9780773420830

matter which list is taken to be most primitive) is often deemed to be paradoxical for teleological consequentialist theories like utilitarianism. This is because what is being maximized according to utilitarianism is the general overall utility of all the people in a society, and since 'rights,' by definition, apply to individual agents. Hence, there is a built-in tension between utilitarianism and the ascription of at least absolute rights to individuals. For instance, the fallacy of division would obviously be involved if it was concluded from the fact that some type of situation was the best possible for an overall society, that it was also the best possible with regards to the interests of each individual agent in the society. It can also be noted that 'best' solutions will often involve compromises from among the conflicting interests of different individuals, while the whole concept of compromise is anathema to the concept of decision-making by principles—be they purported 'rights,' principles of etiquette, or even particular moral rules or legal statutes—whenever it is claimed that these principles do not possess any exceptions. In short, it would seem that the maximization of overall utility will at least sometimes involve the unfair distribution of either benefits or harms with a society; i. e., distributing benefits or costs to one group in a society at the expense of some other group. Thus, the 'rights' of the latter group would be violated, at least according to some of the lists of 'rights.' I will now illustrate the foregoing points by means of citing a few examples.

(1) A case where it is extremely expensive to provide a certain group (say, the severely handicapped, senile, or mentally retarded) with even the minimal


conditions for a productive life and where these same resources could be used elsewhere to greatly increase the standard of living for some other class of people in the society who were still, even initially, at least somewhat better off than the former group.

(2) Situations in medical research where, in developing a cure for some dread disease, some people's 'rights' are violated, such as if they are not told that

© French, Robert, Jan 19, 2009, Ethical Decision-Making from a Consequentialist Perspective : A Study in Philosophical Ethics The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, ISBN: 9780773420830

they are part of the 'control' group and thus not receiving the most effective treatment for what ails them. (3) A healthy person is deliberately sacrificed so that their organs can be used to provide transplants to several people desperately needing these organs. (4) An enemy city is bombed to stop a war sooner.

(5) A drug offender is given an extremely long prison sentence so as to make an example to other potential drug dealers.
It would seem that in each of these cases partiality is being shown towards the interest of a whole society at the expense of the rights of a few of its members. Thus, in each of these cases fairness is not being shown towards these individual members or groups. An added issue concerning utilitarianism stems from its 'impersonal' character. Here, obligations to any other people are held to count equally with obligations either to oneself or to others bearing Ross’s (1930/1988, p. 22) 'special relations'— e. g., family members or parties to promises etc. The question arises at this point as to how this tension between utilitarianism and theories which ascribe irrevocable 'rights' ought best to be...
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