Utilitarianism vs. Moral Rights and Principles of Justice
University of Mary Undergrad Student
This assignment asks us to answer the following two questions: Does utilitarianism provide a more objective standard for determining right and wrong than moral rights do? Does utilitarianism provide a more objective standard than principles of justice? I was previously asked to study utilitarianism in a class that studied business law. I was unsatisfied with utilitarianism at the time but was unable to say why. Our current textbook has helped me understand why-I am a Kantian at heart! As I seek to compare utilitarianism with the Kantian theory of Moral Rights, I find that I have 3 primary objections to utilitarianism: 1) Utilitarianism only judges the outcome, not the means; 2) Utilitarianism places happiness as the highest good; and 3) Utilitarianism tends to objectify persons. My first objection to utilitarianism is that it only judges outcomes and it places no judgment on the various actions used to achieve those outcomes. Our textbook gives the following definition of utilitarianism: “An action is right…if and only if the sum total of utilities produced by that act is greater than the sum total of any other act…” (Velasquez, Manuel. Pearson, 2012. P. 78). By this definition, an action is moral if it produces the greatest utility for society, regardless of what that action is. This is akin to saying “The ends justifies the means”. Let’s take an imaginary situation-let’s say that a terrorist is angry with the CEO of an oil company. The terrorist takes a plane full of people hostage and threatens to kill all the people on board unless you kill the CEO of the company. Utilitarian ethics might make the case that the greater utility to society would be for you to kill the CEO in order to save the hundreds of people on the plane. Kantian ethics says that the CEO has a moral right to life and killing him/her would be morally wrong. In this case, the ends clearly do not justify the means, because the means would be immoral. In fact, Paragraph 1759 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1997). This objection to utilitarianism extends to one of the most controversial topics of our time-the abortion debate. Many of the arguments in favor of abortion are based on utilitarianism and what is deemed to bring the most happiness to the most people. Many of the main arguments against abortion are based on the ethics of moral rights and on the willingness to judge the morality of individual actions. Kantian ethics would say that each baby has a moral right to life that cannot be taken from them, while a utilitarian ethics can be used to justify abortion as well as genocide and other atrocities in the world. My second objection to utilitarianism is that it places happiness as the highest of all goods, without stating what brings true happiness. Some of the examples given to support utilitarianism make it sound like happiness is found through an easier life, greater wealth, better bridges, etc. I would contend that we only find our true happiness in relationship with God, and that we were actually created for love, not for happiness. To quote the catechism again, “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity (love).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1997. Paragraph 1818). This quote from the catechism states that our happiness ‘flows from love’. I find that utilitarianism does not ask...
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