Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, Natural Rights Theories, and Religious Ethics A “utilitarian” argument, in the strict sense, is one what alleges that we ought to do something because it will produce more total happiness than doing anything else would. Act utilitarianism (AU) is the moral theory that holds that the morally right action, the act that we have a moral duty to do, is the one that will (probably) maximize “utility” (happiness, welfare, well-being). AU is not to be confused with egoism. The egoist really only cares about his own happiness. AU says that everyone’s happiness counts equally. Suppose that executing Joseph would in the long run produce more total happiness than letting him live would. Then according to AU, we ought to execute Joseph. Now if Joseph is a convicted serial murderer who would probably escape and commit more murders if we tried to incarcerate him, then it’s reasonable to think that executing him would be the right thing to do. But what if he has committed no crime? What if he is simply an extremely irritating person with no friends or loved ones, and the many people with whom he has contact in his life are very sensitive and dislike him intensely? Since more total happiness is produced if Joseph dies (the increased happiness of the many who no longer have to endure him outweighs his unhappiness about dying) than if he lives, AU says that it’s right to kill him. This example illustrates what is probably the main objection to AU: it tells us to violate rights/commit injustices when doing so is necessary to produce the greatest total amount of happiness. A “utilitarian” argument in a looser sense is one that alleges that we ought to do something because of its “good consequences” (or not do something because of its “bad consequences”), where good/bad consequences needn’t be limited to what increases or decreases happiness, but might include other things that a strict utilitarian theory attaches no positive or negative intrinsic value to. -- An example: “the FDA shouldn’t approve the ‘morning after’ pill, because it will only promote out-of-wedlock sex.” This argument assumes that out-of-wedlock sex is something that is per se bad, and that the risk of unwanted pregnancy and babies will deter at least some, perhaps many, from engaging in it, thereby reducing the total amount of it. The strict utilitarian rejects the idea that such sex is an intrinsic moral evil, holding instead that if such sex is bad, it is bad only insofar as it causes bad consequences like unwanted pregnancy and babies. -- This argument for why the FDA shouldn’t approve the ‘morning after’ pill is better described as “consequentialist” rather than “utilitarian.” All strictly utilitarian arguments are consequentialist, but not all consequentialist arguments are strictly utilitarian. The important point is that one needn’t believe that utilitarianism is the correct moral theory in order to believe that consequentist arguments of either the strictly utilitarian kind or other kinds provide good reasons. We can admit that the increase in the happiness to others is a good reason to execute Joseph. But we can say that the fact that it would violate his right to life is an even better reason not to do it. Respect for rights “trumps” maximizing utility.
Suppose that we want to build a highway that connects two cities. The shorter route would require destroying some scenic wilderness that is enjoyed by some nature lovers. The longer route avoids that but entails a longer driving time for people who commute between the two cities. Which route should the highway be built on? Here it’s plausible to think that we should make the decision on the basis of utilitarian considerations. We look at all the costs and benefits of both alternatives and pick the one with the most favorable benefit to cost ratio. The other three views—Kantian ethics, natural rights theories, and “religious ethics”—all agree that there are many circumstances when...
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