Ethically justifying a ban using utilitarianism & harm reduction principle

Introduction In this paper, I will argue that Kass’ public health ethics framework that Quebec considering outlawing the sale of caffeinated ‘energy’ drinks to persons under 16 is ethically justified using the utilitarianism and harm reduction principle. Caffeinated energy drinks (CEDs) are beverages that contain high levels of caffeine, stimulants, and often other substances such … Read more

Rule and act-consequentialism

Consequentialism is a moral theory like the deontological and virtue ethics approaches. They differ in terms of which object they attach moral importance to. Kant’s deontological approach views goodness as belonging to duties, acts and obligations themselves rather than their consequences. Virtue theory looks at good in relation to the character and habits of a … Read more

We need sympathy and reason to derive morality (utilitarianism)

Utilitarians emphasize the role of sympathy in thinking about morality, this is important to take into consideration because it is right to acknowledge the reality of strong human compassion. We cannot separate ourselves from the feelings that drive our behavior, even if it reason that drives our thinking. One could argue that we need both … Read more

Act utilitarianism

There are two different types of utilitarianism: Rule-utilitarianism and Act utilitarianism, however I’ll only be discussing the latter. Is Utilitarianism is a moral theory that believes the right action is the one that produces the best outcome for the greatest numbers. For example: The best outcome would be the one that produces the greatest amount … Read more

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is the theory that we should always try to maximize happiness. When it comes to Bernard Williams, he is considered one of the greatest critics of Utilitarianism. The first test case for the utilitarianism theory he covered was for George the Chemist. Geroge just got his Ph.D. in chemistry. He is finding it to … Read more

Deontology and Utilitarianism – maximisation of Shareholder value

Mostly firms think that maximisation of Shareholder value is a suitable goal to achieve in a capitalist society but it is not true. Directors must act in the interest of all stakeholders not just shareholders. As a result, this give rise to ethical dilemma for directors. According to McPhail and Walters (2009), there are many … Read more

About Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism and described it as “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…[or] to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” Bentham’s theory was continued with such philosophers as John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R. M. Hare, and Peter Singer.

John Stuart Mill revolutionised and modernised our conception of morality as a whole. Through his book Utilitarianism, he exposes and defends utilitarianism as a moral rule. “Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy” ( Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009), but is this moral value to be taken as being a rule for a universal morality? The theory is an ethical one, in the sense that it advises us on what is right and wrong, good and bad. Early defenders of utilitarianism used to offer theories as an alternative to the historic deontological moral value, emphasising god and the law of nature; These theories have therefore been, from the very beginning, challenged by more conventional ones. Mill’s thinkings may appear as logical to human nature but appear to have issues when applied as a universal moral value.

Mill bases his utilitarian theory on the promotion of happiness that our actions consequently have on our surroundings, leaving us with uncertainty regarding how the ignorant mass could be led to higher quality pleasures (Su Kim, 2006). But can our actions only be judged upon the happy consequences, or not, that they have? Why is Mill’s claim not the justification of a true moral standard? We shall, therefore, counter the philosopher’s theory by observing its provisionality, the subjectiveness of happiness and its ineffectiveness in terms of justice and one’s individuality as a whole.

Firstly, one may argue that Mill’s theory is only provisional. Indeed, what would be considered a right action would, therefore, promote happiness, but it seems impossible for one to evaluate the true long term consequences of his or her actions. As a matter of fact, as humans, we can only think out the direct and logical consequences of our actions. An action may, therefore, be considered right when it promotes a sense of happiness, but will not systematically make this feeling continue through time. This brings us to consequentialism as a theory (even though Mill’s theory distinguishes itself from it), being the view that normative properties depend only on consequences (SEP, 2003). Indeed, one of the prime arguments against utilitarianism, according to Thomas Gisborne, is the fact that, more generally, we find ourselves incapable of knowing all the consequences of our actions; not knowing “how few are the consequences which we can foresee, compared which those which are wrapped obscurely” ( The Principles of Moral Philosophy Investigated, 1789). One may take as an example the dilemma of saving an innocent child from drowning, which on a utilitarian point of view would be moral (it would promote happiness) but would not take into account the possible consequence of the child becoming a dictator (diminishing overall happiness). Hence, Mill’s point is more of a naive assumption than a moral rule. Furthermore, the ephemerality of the consequence that we foreshadow, enhances the idea that our actions will appear “right” in the present and near future, but will, unfortunately, undermine one’s moral future. Taking the time into account, an important flaw of Mill’s theory would, therefore, be its incapacity to predict the long term consequences of one’s actions.

Secondly, one may add up to this provisionality, the subjectiveness of happiness (also called subjective well-being) and the “reverse of happiness”. Indeed, for one conception of morality to exist and be taken in application, it needs to be universal; that is to be judged from a standard naturally at reach for and by everyone. But, by making these sensations of happiness and unhappiness objective, Mill and the Utilitarians, in general, miss out on the fact that not everyone associates these feelings with the same actions. One may take the example of a serial killer: killing someone would provide a sense of happiness to him and the person’s in question’s possible enemies, therefore considering his action to be moral, while the action would promote unhappiness for the victim’s family. Furthermore, one of the earliest thinkers of the sources of subjective well-being was the Greek philosopher Democritus, incorporating ideas of pleasure, satisfaction, and subjectivity in his definition of it. (Diener, Scollon, Lucas, 2009). This definition has been remembered more on a hedonistic point of view, with objective standards, excluding the sense of pleasure. Mill’s utilitarianism being, in a way, a modern and complexified version of Epicurean Hedonistic philosophies, also makes the error to characterise happiness as an objective ideal, thus, adding up to another one of its severe flaws. Happiness is theoretically a universal sensation ( everyone must feel it directly or indirectly throughout his or her lifetime) but what provokes it is purely subjective, making it impossible to base our moral values on a base that you are the only one to have, being different to everyone else’s. This does not mean that we should base ourselves on one precise moral value, but that we should do like Kant: universalise the morality in a sense to always act in a way that my actions be universal; not doing to others what you don’t want others to do to you. Moreover, one may enhance the fact that, to the contrary of Mill’s statement, actions have to be overrun by the respect of people and humanity; that’s the respect of human dignity. One may therefore not precisely define this idea of happiness, so important to Mill, nor will he ever be able to. Hence, happiness is not only provisional but misinterpreted on a universal scale.

Lastly, one may notice that Mill’s moral judgments often conflict with our ordinary conceptions of moral obligations; that is to say the fact to accomplish an action that does not particularly promote happiness or unhappiness but that is historically and universally morally right to do. A possible example may be, according to British philosopher F.H. Bradley, the fact that on a utilitarian point of view, cheating on your spouse would not be morally wrong ( you promote happiness on you and your mistress’s side as well as not diminishing happiness on your spouse’s side); but that doesn’t make the action right, because one should be faithful to his spouse to be moral. Utilitarianism can also justify the exploitation of a lonely person for the sake of the happiness of an entire family. Our moral judgments may be assimilated to Kant’s two imperatives; we do not necessarily promote or access happiness by executing our actions with respect to them, but we become worthy to reach happiness; it being extensively more rewarding. To Mill’s contrary, happiness should thence not be acquired through the accomplishment or not of “right actions”, but should be the long term worth consequence of moral life; Mill’s vision of happiness is a simplistic view of what it is and should be. Henceforth from a very general point of view, Mill’s theory may, therefore, have a point, but when assimilated to more delicate matters, it rapidly becomes morally wrong to apply it as our only moral rule.

We may, therefore, conclude in saying that Mill’s claim is certainly not to be taken by itself as a true moral standard. The theory explicated by the philosopher is wrongly objective, in the sense where it values itself as very objective (being relatable to a grand number of people) but cannot because its core is based upon a subjective sentiment (happiness). One should not be in “Complete obedience to utilitarianism” as it “is as impossible as our eternal envatment” (Mueller, 2003). Mill, therefore, states a point in humanity’s search for morality but we cannot base our behaviours on the fact that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’. Our moral standards will always have flaws but a true vision of morality should be the one with the fewer of these. Mill’s theory underestimates the complexity of human nature in exposing to us a simplistic theory, which at first glance seems adapted, but would lead the world to a darkly foreshadowed future. We should, therefore, value justice rather than happiness, the past and future consequences rather than the present ones to consider our actions as “right”. As Oscar Wilde would say, “the only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”.

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