Me, Learning Ethics: Utilitarianism

I was very wrong about Utilitarianism, or I just happened to hear a different definition of it in the past. Originally, I thought it only related to usefulness—I mean utility is part of the word. Every time it was mentioned, I would clearly imagine the Industrial Revolution in either England or the United States. I have also seen the various Vogue fashion shoots that had clothing inspired by Utilitarianism. Basically, what I saw were sexy uniforms. So, it is safe to say that I did not have an actual distinct idea of Utilitarianism, and I did not bother to look beyond those images.

Utilitarianism is a theory where its main purpose is the result of the most amount of happiness for the largest amount of people (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 105). There are times when we can consider an action to be moral because the majority of people are happy with it, but that is not always the case. The majority of people are capable of enjoying or becoming content with certain actions the involve the torture of others against their will. Ideally, under Utilitarianism, a government would have hardly any regulations or rules “unless it is harmful or dangerous to others (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 108).” Even then, it is possible that a certain group of people can be “forsaken” in order to save the majority. This is true for Utilitarians because the focus is on most—not all. So, I wonder if the minority deserve a lesser life, even in the form of complete “sacrifice”, so that everyone else can have their happiness. I find that to be a weakness in the theory.

An example of that weakness would be the use of slaves as entertainment. Of course, this would only apply if the minority of the population are slaves. The ratio needs to be considered because 6 million people can be “sacrificed” so that 70 million can enjoy life to the fullest. At first it may seem like Utilitarianism will benefit enough people in a society, but one never knows when one will have to be “sacrificed” and how (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 122). Anyone is subject to “saving” the majority whenever it becomes necessary. Yes, some people will go along with this decision, but others may be against it. That violates free-will, which is supposed to be a standard for Utilitarianism (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 108).

I would say that the consequences of our actions should align with our intentions. Doing otherwise could be considered lying or hypocrisy. This does not matter to the theory, though, unless it causes unhappiness (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 129). The problem I see is that a lie can cause short-term happiness, but learning the truth in the future, can lead to negative feelings or even some kind of harm. Utilitarians believe that the result is more important than the means or reasons to the outcome. I do see where Utilitarianism can be advantageous because it feels nice to do whatever makes me happy, and satisfied individuals may be more likely to cooperate. I also believe it is possible for the majority to be blind to a truth and end up not just hurting the minority, but also a large portion of that majority (Rachels and Rachels, 2017, p. 131).

Would I be wrong in believing this is the kind of theory that liberal democrats and liberal republicans would prefer to follow? It just sounds familiar—especially the whole idea about having as much freedom as possible. Of course, if that were so, there would be differences when considering the economics and the level of wealth that is allowed. I am not politically liberal since I believe in using various social and a few economic speed bumps—full-blown concrete barriers in some cases.

~Here are the replies I received to my post~

Professor:

Jacquline and Class,

Nice synopsis and text integration, Jacquline.

Class, Jacquline mentioned the “sacrifice” of the minority in a utilitarian setting. Our democratic society operates in a utilitarian fashion and has a fail safe system to deal with the “tyranny of the Majority,” a term coined by J.S Mill to refer to the potential of minorities in a utilitarian/democratic to be disadvantaged? What is that fail safe?

Me:

Professor,

Thank you. Is the fail safe the right to vote?

Professor:
Essentially, yes. It is the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments expanding individual rights.

Fellow Student #1:

Great post, Jacqueline.

One thing I’d like to mention is the testing that has been done in earlier times for psychology purposes. Before there was an understanding of what psychology was and what our ‘psych’ is there had to be a lot of testing done in order to draw conclusions and learn more about the brain and the connections of the brain and actions, etc. Not all of the participants signed forms that legally protected them from harm during the studies and a lot of ethical boundaries were crossed in the name of science as well. That being said, studies would often times continue and push forward even when the test subject was not necessarily on board with the following procedures or even equip for them and it was done for the ‘greater good’, for future science, to make history or what have you, but that is conflicting with ethics, no? So, even if utilitarianism isn’t bad, it isn’t good. It overlooks crucial, subject specific wants, needs, and interests for the larger number of people and that is unethical. It would be ignorant to take on this theory as a life style because there are those who fall through the cracks of life. However, I do feel that we should always take into consideration who our actions are affecting and how.

Me:

Thank you. I have learned a little about that, but I can’t remember any specific examples. Was it similar to what the Germans did during WWII? With Utilitarianism, I understand where it can be applied to profit, but I do see the dark side of how it can hurt many. This must have been a popular theory during the various industrial revolutions that many countries experienced in the past.

Fellow Student #2:

Jacquline,

You bring up an interesting point about the use of slaves. There are some definite parallels between the Social Contract Theory and Utilitarianism if we use that definition. If you recall in the reading on Social Contract Theory, it too is about doing what is best for the masses, even if that did mean that social injustice was being performed on the minority. It defended civil disobedience, however, in that we had the right to overturn a disservice that resulted in an inequality.

References

Rachels, James, and Stuart Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 8th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017. Print.

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