Are the needs of the individual sacrificed to those of the ‘many?

Discuss utilitarianism as an effective ethical theory — or not. In other words, explain whether utilitarianism does produce the best outcomes for ‘all concerned’ when the rule of the greatest happiness for the greatest number is followed. What are the limitations of such an approach? Does it generate individual satisfaction? Are the needs of the individual sacrificed to those of the ‘many’? You can ask other questions or make other criticisms as well
— do read Mill’s text, and respond with your own concerns about the ‘advantages and disadvantages’ of this particular approach to ethics!
(150 words)

Modern Ethical Theories (see the briefer lecture on Utilitarianism under the “Lecture” heading; what follows is for future reference as well)
Let’s look here at some more modern approaches, which are usually divided into consequentialist and non-consequentialist or “deontological” theories. The latter find the value of the action in the type of action itself, regardless of consequences. The former identify its worth with its impact or effect. The former might be concerned in part with good intentions; the latter looks only at results.
The most basic consequentialist theory might be called “egoism,” since it measures the value of an action by the good it does the agent, i.e., oneself. Here’s an example from Shaw and Barry’s text, _Moral Issues in Business_: In the late summer of 20000, a dismayed American public learned that the Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, one of the country’s most popular vehicles, were dangerously prone to split apart on the road, causing the SUV’s to roll over and crash. [Fifteen deaths had been caused by an earlier version of that tire, which Firestone had promised to discontinue. Which would seem to mean] that Firestone would immediately remove the tires from the market. In fact, Firestone intended only a ‘rolling phase-out’ and continued to manufacture the tire. When a Firestone spokesperson was later asked why the company hadn’t corrected the media’s misinterpretation of its intent, the spokesperson said that Firestone’s policy was to ask for corrections only when it was beneficial to the company to do so – in other words, only when it was in the company’s self-interest. (57)
The view implied here, that morality is equivalent to self-interest, is called egoism. The long-term advantage to the agent is the measure of an action’s rightness.
Now, egoism doesn’t necessarily claim that everyone ought to lead hedonistic lives, or lives based solely on pleasure; nor does it say that the egoist can’t act altruistically. It only says that one’s own self-interests are all that matters in the end. The best-known modern proponent of this view, by the way, is Ayn Rand (who very clearly understood that ‘egoism’ is at the heart of capitalism’s ethos of seeking a competitive advantage wherever possible). But an egoist might be moral in the usual sense or not – for example, it might be perceived as beneficial to business not to cheat customers, or, on the other hand, nepotism in the corporation might be seen as legitimate if it brings more success to the business and more satisfaction to the owner than other courses of action. It all depends on “advantage.”
Let’s not spend too much time on this theory, although, again, we should note that this theory lies more or less at the heart of capitalism as its basic “moral” perspective. Milton Friedman, for example, the Nobel-prize-winning conservative economist, claims that self-regarding activity is absolutely necessary for things to work out to the best for everyone concerned in a capitalist society – anything less than purely “selfish” behavior, i.e., behavior geared toward making the highest profit possible for one’s own concerns, is in a way immoral. An odd notion of morality perhaps, but it does hark back to Adam Smith’s original notion, in his 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations, that an “invisible hand” will guide society to its highest level if everyone acts primarily to their own advantage.
We can look next at a presumably much more sophisticated ethical theory, the ultimate “non-consequentialist” theory, namely that of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant wanted to show that only actions undertaken out of duty and on the basis of reason have any moral significance; that good feelings don’t make an action moral, nor should one look at consequences at all. Lying, for example, is always wrong according to Kant, even when the consequences might be disastrous – there isn’t any situation in which one should lie. Kant’s approach is very profound, but also very severe.
For Kant, nothing is good in itself except a good will – i.e., it is the motivation in the action that makes all the difference. The only legitimate motivation is to do one’s duty – this is the meaning of a good will. Furthermore, for Kant the will means “the uniquely human capacity to act from principle,” i.e., on a purely rational basis. This capacity to act on the basis of “pure reason” defines humanity for Kant, and a good will is attuned to pure reason. Actions undertaken from feeling, or inclination, or good habits, or self-interest have no moral value in and of themselves. If you, say, as a shop owner, return the correct change – perhaps running out of the store after a customer to correct a mistake, and you give the customer the correct change, a ten rather than a five – this action is of moral worth only if you did it because it was “the right thing to do,” out of duty, and not because it would be good for business or because you wanted the customer to think you are a decent person, etc.
Ultimately the only basis for right action is, as we said, a good will grounded in pure reason. But how does pure reason express itself in morality as opposed to science and mathematics? It can only express itself through an absolute and universal rule that applies to every situation, just as the “law of non-contradiction” applies to every situation in logic. But just as logical rules have no specific “content” but apply universally, so there has to be some rule in morality that has no particular content yet can apply to all situations.
Such a rule, according to Kant, is the ‘categorical imperative.’ This is an imperative or charge that flows from human reason and that applies to every situation even though it transcends any particular situation.
The categorical imperative demands a sort of consistency of rules in action – the same thing applied to everyone, so to speak – just as the law of non-contradiction demands that no statement can contradict itself and still make sense. Thus, the categorical imperative takes the form of the “imperative” or directive to always act in such a way as to be able to will the maxim of our action to become a universal law. So here’s the procedure according to Kant: Turn your habitual action or your intention to act into a maxim or general statement about how you behave. If this maxim or rule can be made universal – i.e., made to apply to everyone in every situation – and still make sense, then it is a legitimate rule, and the action is moral. Otherwise, the action is not moral.
Here’s an example from Shaw and Barry’s text: Suppose a building contractor promises to install a sprinkler system in a project but finds it’s going to cost him a little more than he expected – in other words, he’s willing to break the promise to suit his purposes, or because keeping it isn’t convenient. Then his maxim can be expressed as “I’ll make promises that I’ll break whenever keeping them is no longer convenient.” Now, what would happen if everyone adopted this maxim as their rule of action? Then the very idea of keeping promises would be undermined. For the very meaning of a promise is that it is something that people believe will be kept. But if everyone came to feel that a promise could never be believed, then there would no longer be such a thing as a “promise” — the concept wouldn’t make sense. So the maxim contains an internal contradiction, and the action it formulates is not in accord with Reason. Thus, it isn’t a moral action.
Another example concerns the way that for Kant the idea of suicide is contradictory, in that it arises from self-love – wanting to avoid pain – but self-love is already at the root of all actions that enhance life, and Kant sees it as a contradiction to utilize the same feelings that enhance life to destroy it.
An alternative formulation of the categorical imperative would ask whether the action undertaken would be acceptable to those upon whom it’s committed, so to speak. For the rule associated with an action to be valid, it has to be universal and so, for example, the victim of a crime would have to want the crime committed, or women would want to be paid less than their male counterparts in the work place, and so on. What would happen if the positions were reversed, in other words?
Yet another formulation concerns the treatment of human beings always as ends in themselves, and never as means. This formulation stems from Kant’s profound notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, arising from their participation in Pure Reason. Thus, moral action is that which respects this humanity in every concerned party.
There are certain ways that Kant could be criticized, if we wanted to pursue that direction. We could ask, for example, whether refusing to acknowledge human sympathy as a motive for action different from duty isn’t a little harsh or even “inhuman.” Actually, everyone allows himself or herself to be used as a means from time to time (“work”), or find ways to use their friends without many qualms.
A somewhat more contemporary approach is that of utilitarianism, first formulated by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and more fully developed by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). This, we might say, is a fully secular ethical theory, meant to be wholly empirical, having no reference at all to transcendent values or categorical imperatives. Once again there is only one rule, but this is founded in emotional and bodily behavior, not in “pure reason.” It depends solely on the desire of every living thing to be free from pain and to increase the degree of pleasure it experiences. So, “utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our action” (S&B, 60), where, of course, by “good” utilitarian’s understand happiness or pleasure.
Now, this may seem at first like another selfish or egoistic theory, but it really was developed in the context of social reforms and an attempt to enhance the growth of democratic institutions. Actions are right only if they promote the growth of human welfare, and wrong if they don’t – that’s what the utilitarian calculus is intended to tell us.
Of course, this is in some sense a ‘hedonistic’ theory, i.e., one oriented toward the maximization of pleasure, although John Stuart Mill goes to some lengths to restore all the traditional “values” of the Western tradition by distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures. For him, people would naturally desire the higher pleasures of good taste and learning once they had experienced them, and refuse to submit to the “lower” pleasures of sexuality and appetite. So he understood utilitarianism as a sort of refined hedonism. In any case, objections to pleasure can take on a moralistic tone; actually, the attention to pleasure as a norm could have a revolutionary value, since so much associated with conventional morality does work out to the convenience of the “rulers.”
Anyway, just to apply utilitarianism a little, suppose playing your radio loudly enhances the pleasure of you and your roommate somewhat, but causes considerable discomfort to three neighbors, although a fifth doesn’t mind the loud radio. Here the sum total of “pleasure points” would be slightly negative, so the conclusion would be that the radio should be turned down. One can see that utilitarianism attempts to take everyone’s interests into account – it is as if it is oriented toward a large number of anonymous strangers living together in large communities (i.e., a city). It is very democratic, as opposed to the somewhat aristocratic sensibility of an Aristotelian ethics. Also, there aren’t many presuppositions about what morality really consists in; it’s a free-floating ethics, for which what is right in one set of circumstances may not be right in another.
Notice that utilitarianism is actually at the opposite pole from egoism, because it requires us to weigh our own interests in the same scale as everyone else’s not giving our own any particular preference. Perhaps, in that, it’s a little unrealistic.
An ethics text by Olen and Barry takes up the work of the feminist writer Annette Baier, wherein she criticizes the Aristotelian and Kantian approaches as too much bound to a “masculinist” perspective. This may seem a strange criticism, since it doesn’t take the route of a “logical” criticism; but feminist critiques do have the virtue of pointing out presuppositions in Western thought that no one else has noticed. Thus, traditional ethical theories focus on the “masculine” values of autonomy and respect, as opposed to a presumably more feminine attention to care and interdependency. Women, according to Baier and the psychologist on whose work she draws, Carol Gilligan, tend to focus as much on these issues, caregiving and interdependency, as much or more than on issues of justice and rights.
Baier challenges, via Gilligan’s research, what might be called the ‘abstract’ character of most philosophical versions of society and social ethics, with their emphasis on autonomy, control, individuality, and an abstract respect for rights? Kantian ideas of justice address such issues as honoring contracts, due process, equal opportunity, and freedom of expression and worship, and so on. The point is that none of these elements of individual rights and social justice address in any detail, or very concretely, the realities of everyday life for many people.
As Baier writes, people “may well be lonely, driven to suicide, apathetic about their work and about participation in political processes, find their lives meaningless and have no wish to leave offspring to face the same meaningless existence. Their rights, and respect for rights, are quite compatible with very great misery, and misery whose causes are not just individual misfortunes and psychic sickness, but social and moral impoverishment” (42).
For Gilligan and Baier, life involves a series of experiences of interconnection and association, “where the concept of identity expands to include the experience of interconnection” (43), as opposed to the primarily individualistic model of classical ethics.
Also, the feminist approach challenges the wholly rationalist or intellectualist approach of Kantian and classical ethics. Such approaches omit the sense of care and even love that characterizes first of all a mother’s relationship to her children, and it omits the reality of unasked-for obligations and connections that develop more or less accidentally in everyday life; or the fact that people experience differing levels of autonomy and dependency, and that, in general, people’s lives are more interconnected, and are generally a lot less autonomous, than the classical Greek and Kantian theories suggest