According to act-utilitarianism that action is right which, in relation to all other alternative actions, will result in maximising the probable happiness or well-being of humanity as a whole, or more
accurately, of all sentient beings 1 The theory defines morality in accordance with the happiness that occurs as a result of an action and not any perceived intrinsic moral worth of the action itself. It is a theory that has had profound social impact but has also been criticized for contradicting some of society’s most basic moral ideals.
Strengths of the Utilitarian Ethic
What many find most attractive in the utilitarian ethic is its elegant simplicity and “commonsensical” nature. What, after all, would seem more obvious than the individual’s moral duty to oppose suffering and promote happiness? To determine which specific action is moral all one need do is determine that one action which would produce the greatest amount of happiness and the least possible amount of suffering. On its face, utilitarianism would therefore seem to echo an almost self-evident moral truth. Act-utilitarians, when determining what course of action to take, need consider only the end results of their actions; they need consult neither contemporary abstract social concepts of morality nor the vague and confusing theological interpretations of “God’s will.” Simply put, actions are deemed moral or immoral on a case by case basis according to how much happiness that specific action will produce in that specific circumstance. A specific action does not have any intrinsic moral character independent of its results in a specific circumstance. The results of an action alone are what assign it a moral value and those results are all one needing analysing to determine that value and ultimately, what course of action one will choose to take. Gone is the notion of the absolute moral rule; the act-utilitarian need not consider what they perceive to be archaic, ill-supported, and abstract conceptions of moral worth. For these reasons act-utilitarianism continues to have a highly attractive and tangibly concrete quality to it.
It seems the most basic moral ideal that we should choose to promote happiness and prevent suffering. Morality must dictate that actions resulting from moral duty ultimately promote the social welfare. Happiness would therefore appear to be the ultimate end of morality since the social welfare must include, and can perhaps be defined solely as happiness. Utilitarianism seems a universally benevolent theory of morality where self-destructive and painful moral rules do not exist. Why after all, would society choose to promote moral doctrines which have no beneficial results save the fulfilment of what often appear to be moral abstracts grounded more in superstition than reason? Contemporary utilitarians often consider anti-utilitarian moral theories to be non-benevolent due to their lack of consideration of happiness and the general welfare.
Difficulties in the Utilitarian ethic
Though seeming an attractive theory, utilitarianism faces many criticisms, as it seems to over-emphasize the moral value of happiness while contradicting some of society’s most basic moral ideals. Is happiness really the only thing that matters morally? Does happiness define what is moral? Act-utilitarianism states that in every circumstance, the moral thing to do is that action which will promote the most happiness. But are there not actually cases where people can experience happiness as the result of immoral actions, and not merely one person or a small group of people but the majority? What if in the famous example, the sheriff of a small town decides to frame an innocent black man of raping a white woman in order to prevent race riots and hundreds of needless deaths? Certainly every member of the town would be ecstatic that “the rapist” was caught and executed but it seems very clear that their happiness and lack of suffering does not make the sheriffs actions morally right. Act-Utilitarianism when placed under such scrutiny, often can give what society normally perceives of as the wrong answer, leading one to engage in immoral activities. Act-utilitarianism in its single-minded pursuit of happiness, can often lead one to ignore basic human freedoms and fundamental moral concepts.
Act-utilitarianism takes the position that the ends justify the means, that any action, regardless of its non-utilitarian interpretation, will be right as long as it promotes the general happiness more than any other action. One may be tempted to take Joseph Fletcher’s view: If the end does not justify the means, what does? The answer is, obviously, nothing!2 . This view though, is contradictory to all contemporary social perspectives on morality. Is it not true that an action can find meaning in itself, that it has its own intrinsic moral worth which is independent of its expected consequences? Consider now, the consequences themselves – what justifies the ends themselves; our wish to seek those ends? One can appeal to nothing but the ends themselves. An end justifies itself because it has its own independent moral worth. Might it not be true then that a means may find meaning in itself apart from its ends; that actions can have their own intrinsic moral character?
Though it would seem obvious that in what one might consider a perfect society, there would be a maximal amount of happiness and a minimal amount of pain, certainly one must concede that the mere presence of happiness and lack of pain are not the defining characteristics of a perfect society. People can often be happy, either in ignorance or knowledge, as the result of immoral actions. One may without much effort, consider the existence of a society where nearly everyone is happy for all the wrong reasons: poverty, atrocity, lack of freedom. Often people can even be unhappy as the result of moral actions: forgiveness, benevolence, charity. The point is that happiness does not define morality. What if the sheriff in the example was able to catch the real rapist? Does the execution of the rapist gain moral value because people are happy as a result of his execution? Does the actual rape have moral value, however small, because of the rapist’s happiness in committing it? Act-utilitarianism must say yes even though it is clear that the rapist’s happiness in committing the act of rape cannot and should not be taken into account any more than the very fact that people would be happy about his execution make the execution morally right. One must appeal to other concepts to determine the moral nature of the rape and execution. Using the presence and level of happiness to define the moral value of actions often leads to ludicrous and anti-intuitive conclusions.
The Categorical Imperative, a concept of Immanuel Kant’s, has two basic formulations: 1) Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law; 2) Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.
Strengths of the Kantian perspective
At least at first glance, both formulations of the Kantian perspective seem highly intuitive and appear to be in conformity with accepted moral views. The first formulation, the Universal Law Formula, seems a rather simple and direct way of deciding whether or not an action may be morally permissible. To decide whether or not an action may be moral all we need do is determine the maxim from which the action proceeds and then ask whether or not we could will that maxim to be a universal law; in other words, whether or not we could wish it to determine the actions of others. If this could not be done without contradiction then the action is morally impermissible. This leads to a logical conclusion that no person should morally act in a manner inconsistent with how they wish others to act. This general conclusion is much to Kant’s credit, one that proceeds directly from reason.
Kant’s second interpretation, the idea of human dignity, arises directly from what seems an almost universal view people hold in regards to their own worth. For whatever reasons, we believe that people must always be treated with respect, as they embody a certain unique quality, that of dignity. In Kant’s terms people are ends in themselves and can never be used as means to obtain other ends – to use a human being as a tool in order to attain a goal is to illustrate a profound disrespect for their individual moral worth. To respect a human being is to respect their rationality and their status as a rational being for whom all “things” are subject as a means to fulfil their desires and attain their goals: It makes no sense. . .to regard rational beings merely as one kind of valuable thing among others. They are the beings for whom mere ‘things’ have value, and they are the beings whose conscientious actions have moral worth .3
Difficulties in the Kantian perspective
Many of the difficulties in the Kantian perspective arise more from Kant’s interpretations of the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative rather than the ethical theory itself. Certain aspects of the theory though, do have significant shortcomings. Perhaps one of Kant’s most serious oversights occurred when dealing with the example of lying. Kant held that, because the maxim “it is permissible to lie” would fail the universal law test and be an ultimately self-defeating line of thought that it is never under any circumstance, permissible to lie. Though it is true that this specific maxim fails it is obvious that another maxim, such as the maxim “it is permissible to lie in order to save someone’s life”, might easily pass the universal law test and therefore not forbid lying. This observation leads to a serious difficulty in the universal law formula. It appears that so much seems to depend on the actual wording of the maxim that it might be possible for someone especially skilled in linguistics to do whatever they please while satisfying the requirements of the universal law formula. Though this apparent susceptibility to considerations of circumstance may ultimately work towards the theory’s favour by escaping the classical objections to absolutist moral views, the weakness uncovered in its vulnerability to linguistic manipulation is far too serious to overlook.
Perhaps only because of human bias, one can find little fault with Kant’s theory of human dignity. The problems lie in Kant’s conclusions resulting from the theory, namely the concept of Retributivism. Kant held quite paradoxically, that his system of ethics allowed for judicial punishment. The punishment of a criminal offender according to Kant, is actually in accordance with the concept of human dignity since by punishing them, we are recognising their intelligence and ability to reason. If society failed to punish criminals we would be showing them disrespect since we would ultimately be asserting that they lack reason and the ability to perceive their actions as wrong4. There are a significant number of difficulties with this concept. First of all, Kant assumes that failing to punish a person implies a belief in that person’s lack of ability to reason and would therefore be an insult to their dignity. This interpretation, though, holds only if we consistently choose to not punish those who lack reason. The unfortunate fact is that, in American society at least, the law allows the mentally and developmentally disabled (people who obviously lack reason) to be punished for their actions just as harshly as those who have the benefit of reason. Such people can be sentenced to prison for any term of years or for life, or even be sentenced to execution should the crime (not the person who committed the crime) legally merit the punishment. Kant also seems to assume that physical punishment is the only way to illustrate our belief that someone has the capability to reason. Would we not though, be recognising an individual’s capacity for reason, if we chose to appeal to that reason through more intellectual methods rather than the often brutal tactics Kant championed? Kant’s theory of human dignity held that no person could be used as a means, that every person was an end in themselves. Society does not treat criminals with this level of respect. We use criminals not only for actual compulsory physical labour, but also to make society safer and to satisfy our desire for retribution directed against those who hurt us. We also punish criminals in an attempt to manipulate their behaviour and force them to behave in accordance with our wishes and not their own. Kant of course, would have nothing to do with such utilitarian perspectives on punishment. He thought that the only reason a criminal should be punished is to achieve justice. Yet here Kant makes an error. If we punish criminals in order to achieve justice, are we not still using them for the purpose of carrying out our concept of justice and forming a just society? Regardless of the reason we give for punishing offenders it is clear that we are using them to pursue our own and not their own ends .5