On Utilitarianism


Published ByMilder Jacobs

Publish DateOct 31,2014 at 10:00 PM


Would you choose to kill one person to save a hundred? Would you sacrifice your best friend’s life to save two doctors? Would you put ten soldiers’ lives on the line for the possibility of killing a terrorist?

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Would you choose to kill one person to save a hundred? Would you sacrifice your best friend’s life to save two doctors? Would you put ten soldiers’ lives on the line for the possibility of killing a terrorist? These are extremely emotional questions, and they may or may not have obvious answers, but one thing that they do all have in common is that they are based of the concept of utilitarianism: a ethical theory that calls for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Intuitively, this seems like a cover-all solution to ethics—make the most number of people happy…. It’s an extremely simple solution, but opponents nonetheless argue that virtue ethics, duty ethics, right ethics, and cost-benefit analysis are superior ethical theories; in fact, utilitarianism is superior because it’s simple and because it fundamentally requires more objectivity than subjectivity.
Consider if you will a simple case: the city is commissioning a contractor to build a sidewalk on a long, busy, suburban road. Now by creating this sidewalk, not only would people be using cars less and therefore be consuming less self-damaging fossil fuels, but people would probably also be more willing to exercise to improve themselves and the overall health of the city. However, these benefits come at a cost: the currently busy four-lane road would be bottlenecked into a two-lane road for the three-month construction period, causing commuters an average of a 30 minute delay on an everyday basis. Should the city choose to go ahead and create the sidewalk?
Now utilitarianism would argue that the city should choose to build the sidewalk because in the long run, the sidewalk will maximize human well-being and create social benefits. How? On the most basic level, it would motivate at least some people to walk more. Indeed, without a sidewalk, many people won’t even see walking as an option, but once one is opened (especially on a busy road), a lot more people will be wiling to walk and bike instead of riding in a car or even carpooling. In the long run, this will reduce the amount of fossil fuels that the city uses which will result in less pollution, less CO2 emissions, less acid rain, less destruction of land to mine the fossil fuels, less deaths in mining accidents, and less natural gas odor (“Fossil”). Moreover, since there is a venue to walk and run on, there is a high chance that more people will be wiling to go out and exercise, not only improving their individual health, but also improving the overall health (and beauty) of the city. Since utilitarianism is collectivist, it would argue that the city should build the sidewalk, because the vast number of positives severely outweighs the inconvenience that a select number of people have to face because of the bottleneck.
On the other hand, virtue ethics would ask the question “is the action honest” to address this dilemma. Some of the virtues that go along with building the sidewalk include loyalty to the community and a desire to improve the community as a whole in terms of health and fossil fuel use. The vices depend on the individual, but may include complaints about inconveniences in passing through the bottleneck, and perhaps even include complaints about preferring one group (that is the people who will actively use the sidewalk) over another (that is the people who will have absolutely no need for the sidewalk); still, since the city is working on an honest idea, virtue ethics fundamentally argues that the city should go ahead with the plan. So we reach the same conclusion: build the sidewalk.
Then why exactly is utilitarianism superior to virtue ethics? Firstly, virtue ethics is very much based on personal opinion and as a result, individuals using the ethical theory are less likely to put in real objective thought into making decisions; rather, individuals are more likely to use opinions that may contain fallacy, and thus actually result in negative ramifications. Additionally, one can only loosely apply virtue ethics to engineering corporations because even though an engineer might want to follow ethical standards, being “honest” may not be on the mind of a managerial superior, rendering the ethical theory rather powerless in this particular case. However, since a firm wants the most good for itself (and hopefully its consumers), and because it’s much simpler to objectify concepts to use in utilitarianism, the latter ethical theory works quite well for an engineering firm. In other words, while virtue ethics may be extremely useful in more personal conundrums, its intrinsic opinionated nature combined with the fact that it’s not perfectly suited for engineers render it not as useful as utilitarianism in many important respects.
Just like many argue that virtue ethics are superior, others argue in favor of duty ethics—that it’s the duty of the engineers and the city management to not cause people to suffer (because of the long wait that would result from the bottleneck), even if it leads to ultimate happiness to another group (mainly, the people who would gain from the sidewalk forming). And as a result, duty ethicists would probably argue not to go ahead with the plan for building the sidewalk.
Similarly, right ethicists would argue that everyone has the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that others must protect; specifically, because right ethicists put emphasis on individuals over groups of people, they would choose to not create the sidewalk because of the inconveniences that the commuters would face.
In other words, if the city used either right and duty ethics, there would not be a sidewalk built at all—something that could have long term benefits in the health, beauty, and sustainability of the city. While some may argue that there is no reason why one group of people should suffer for the benefit of another group, both right and duty ethics often fail to recognize the good of a large group of people. In our example, while a select few drivers may benefit from the sidewalk not being built, the city as a whole would lose an opportunity that could greatly enhance it for a significantly larger population over a long period of time. With utilitarianism, this problem is never present, since the theory is based on the principle that one should pursue the route that results in the greatest good for the greatest amount of people; and while some may argue that utilitarianism disregards the needs of individuals, in reality, the ethical theory doesn’t “disregard” anyone: it simply puts the needs of multiple individuals (who collectively have more rights and duties) over the needs of single individuals.
And finally we have cost-benefit analysis, an ethical theory that is extremely closely related to utilitarianism. Indeed, in our example, a researcher using cost-benefit analysis would basically follow almost the exact same steps as he would while using utilitarianism, and he would reach the same conclusion…. So why exactly is utilitarianism superior to cost-benefit analysis? Well primarily, cost-benefit analysis is fundamentally tied to the ratio of cost to benefit, and oftentimes, it’s quite difficult to objectify something subjective. For example, there is a fairly high chance that less people will use their cars to travel to close destinations as a result of the sidewalk, therefore reducing fossil fuel consumption. But how do we accurately convert that concept into a statistic that can be inputted into a ratio? There simply isn’t a reliable manner to accomplish this task. Additionally, it is difficult to consider all the possible factors of an action; it’s even more challenging to incorporate externalities, and consider who pays the costs and who reaps the benefits with cost-benefit analysis. In other words, while cost-benefit analysis works fantastically for recognizing the financial feasibility of a project, it is not exactly an ethical theory that one can use to determine which ethical path to take.
At this point, we have considered utilitarianism and compared it to various different ethical theories; but the fundamental question arises: we cannot claim that utilitarianism is superior by only examining one case. Upon a deeper analysis of utilitarianism though, the theory’s superiority becomes evident because of one key factor: simplicity. Indeed while the other ethical theories presented may be preferential in particular cases with intense research, utilitarianism’s intrinsic simplicity allows it to act as a easy-to-use ethical theory that one can apply at any time and make a reasonable decision; in other words, even if one doesn’t know exactly what ramifications an action will result in, one can generally always say whether or not it will have net positive results; on the other hand, the other ethical theories are so niched that this simple usage is not possible. Moreover, it is almost never acceptable to benefit a single individual or even a small group at the loss of a larger group of people; in the converse, however, a collective group of people has a greater probability of positively affecting many people (merely because there are more people to possibly do good), whereas it is often difficult to determine how much positive impact a single individual can have. At the end of the day, while some may argue that deciding what theory to choose is dependent on the situation and one’s personal preferences, it is folly not to consider utilitarianism as at least a prime option.

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