Utilitarianism

The author of this report is to offer a fairly extensive essay about three general questions relating to utilitarianism. The first question pertains to John Rawls and his deconstructions of utilitarianism and what came to be known as “the analogy.” The second question pertains to the views of Peter Singer as stated and enumerated in Famine, Affluence and Morality. Last up will be Bernard Williams. Like Rawls, he generally viewed utilitarianism poorly and offers specific examples and explanations of why he did not agree with the subject. For all three questions, there will be a critique or criticism of the overall argument. While cases can be made for both utilitarianism and its opposite, there are some rather gaping holes in the logic that justifies utilitarianism and how it works.

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Questions Answered

Of all of the ethical and moral philosophers out there, Rawls is certainly one of the more notorious and notable. Rawls was a crusader against utilitarianism under the auspices that it was not ethically or rationally sound. His argument came to be known as the analogy. The analogy, to put it simply, is the general idea that society is treated as an individual rather than a series of individuals with different mental yardsticks, perceptions of fairness and opinions. As Rawls himself stated it, “a society is properly arranged when its institutions maximize the net balance of satisfaction.” In other words, there is to be a standard and a desired outcome that brings the most benefit and happiness to all people and that this standard should be applied across the board (Rawls, 1971).

To use a more modern example, having a singular government-run system that maximizes health outcomes for as many people as possible would be the utilitarian way of doing healthcare. On the other hand, having a free marketplace with different options and coverage levels and then people would pick what they prefer would be the other. Under the former example, a larger collective and single view of what is best for society is forwarded and advanced. In the latter, it is left to individual choice. Another factor involved that makes the former a utilitarian view and the latter not so much is because the former is funded by finite taxpayer resources and there is not enough to do things at a high level for everyone. Instead, there is the idea of maximizing the amount of people that benefit rather than what the average benefit might be. The definition of what is needed and what is affordable to the people is made by the collective rather than each person. In the free market system, people can choose what they want based on what they can afford and what they feel they need. The downside to such a system is that not everyone can afford the care they want or think they need. Some people cannot afford anything at all and this leads to inequity. However, the huge upside with the free market (non-utilitarianism system is that a single standard is not being foisted and defined for everyone (Rawls, 1971).

The utilitarianism counter to the free market upsides is the use of what is known as the impartial spectator. It is this idea of an impartial spectator that guides and defines what society, as a single individual, can and should provide its people. As Rawls put it, “for it is by the conception of the impartial spectator and the use of sympathetic identification in guiding our imagination that the principle for one man is applied to society.” If there was to be a criticism of this idea, that would be who that person should be, what conclusion they would/should come to and why they should come to that conclusion. Indeed, one can look just casually at the current political dichotomy that exists in the United States. There are people that are independent in terms of ideology and/or party affiliation. However, there are also two very developed and firm camps with one side being the liberal/Democratic side and one being the conservative/Republican side. Again, there are outliers but those are the main sides that people fall into. These two camps would give two very different answers as it relates to what people need, how to divide finite resources and so forth. Indeed, Democrats are much more apt to favor universal healthcare and socialization/expansion of the social safety net. This would obviously be the more utilitarian view. On the other hand, the GOP/Republican side is more associated with the idea that people need to be self-sufficient and not beholden to what the government could or should give to them whether it is in times of hardship or not (Rawls, 1971).

The point is that there is a logic problem in allowing on person or ideology to be the sole arbiter of what is needed and proper when it comes to society or government setting a standard. Compromise is not always beyond the pale. However, it is often hard to find when divergent ideologies exist in the same political paradigm. Such a situation is present in the current United States government which has a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democrat President. When one party is asserting that cutting unemployment benefits to prevent some people from mooching and over-using the benefits is unconscionable, the other side is saying that it is a necessary evil. Much the same argument and, as referred to with utilitarianism, is seen with many other arguments such as Social Security, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, WIC and so on (Rawls, 1971)

Singer asserted through the qualified principle that no amount of poverty or squalor should be allowed to fester or continue. He asserted that the amount of distance between a rich person and a poor person would or should have any difference. He specifically uses starving people in Nepal as an example. To use the words that Singer use, he first said that “the principle…takes no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away.” He later states that the duty to act and the ability to act are not separated and delineated the way that some people would believe (Singer, 1972).

Even with that argument, Singer is willing to at least partiall contradict his own assertions. Indeed, he refers to these counter-arguments as “paradoxes.” One manifestation of that paradox of what people give, how much they should give, how much others should or would give, how much others have given and the perceptions about what precisely was given. There is also the consideration of whether those perceptions mentioned lastly are even correct in the first place. He continues by saying that if everyone did more than they did currently, it would lead to better results. If everyone did less than what they “ought” to do, then it would be less. However, if it comes down to what one “believes” they should have to do, the results get extremely murky and hard to predict. The results could be good but they may not be. Indeed, many people in Dallas, Texas might be inclined to think that they have no burden to help or assist starving people in North Korea given that they had no part in how those people got that way and they probably could not directly help those starving people even if they wanted to (Singer, 1972).

Within that last sentence in the prior paragraph is where Singer really misses the point. Using North Korea as an example, Kim Jong Un is deranged on a scale that makes Kim Jong Il look tame. He portends a “godlike” presence but there is nothing supernatural about that despot. The people of North Korea are starving and Kim is the reason why. He has nukes and he keeps all of the riches of his police state to himself. Indeed, nothing short of a bomb being dropped in his lap (and a lot of other places) is going to end his rule anytime in the foreseeable future and there is no telling just to what depths he would go if he felt his world was closing in. Herein lies the focus on the “why” a situation has come to be rather than just the “what.” Yes, it is tragic and unfortunate that the people of North Korea are starving. However, there is a very specific reason (or series or reasons) why those people are starving and it has little to do with a lack of compassion from other countries. Bribing and giving Kim money and resources would just make him more greedy, at least that’s the risk of enabling and coddling him (Singer, 1972).

On the same note, one could say exactly the same thing about the homeless and impoverished in the United States. There are a number of factors that lead those conditions being the case including mental illness, job loss, drug addiction, bad life choices and simple bad luck. Further, there is almost never a uniform type of bad happenings that lead to such outcomes. For example, a homeless drunk on the streets could very well be a military veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder and never got treated. This means that even though he made some very poor life choices along the way, they were caused at least in part by factors that were not entirely his fault and/or entirely within his control. So often, people assume one extreme or another. There are those that will give money freely out of the utilitarianism point-of-view and that money will be spent on alcohol. On the other hand, there are those that will give no money because they will assume that precisely that alcohol binging will happen but the person they stiff might be trying to get it together. The point is that going hardline utilitarianism with no thought to why things happen as they do and what precisely is necessary to fix them is less than wise but so is assuming that personal choice and voluntary pathways in life are the only reason people end up in the situations they find themselves. Rawls tries to suggest that preventability of a negative event makes no difference when he says “…neither our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation we are, lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil” (Singer, 1972). . However, that is far from being true and for two major reasons. First, “preventing” evil is easier said than done when it comes to international despots and dictators. Second, defining what the “evil” really is becomes quite hard when multiple factors and antecedents are involved (Singer, 1972).

What Rawls talked about is the culmination of the trumpeting above of Rawls and the slight critique of Singer. Indeed, Bernard Williams talked about negative responsibility. After all, some do not see a difference between doing something personally and someone else doing something in reaction to a choice made by a person. One example that Williams put forward was the idea of having ten people. The choice becomes that if you personally kill one person, the other nine will be spared. However, if the one person is not killed, that someone else will kill all ten. In other words, one of them is dying regardless but the other nine oculd be spared if the person being demanded from is willing to kill one. The utilitarianism is that he person killing one would be the way to go because it preserves the most life. However, Williams instead focused on who was doing the killing of the people involved. Indeed, if the author of this report were asked to do that, it would be a matter of the author killing one of them or someone else killing all ten. In the latter case, the author of this report would have killed no one. Taking that logic a bit further, the question becomes whether the author would have an proverbial culpability for allowing the ten people to die instead of the author killing the one. Williams asserted that while this is not a clean answer, it is most certainly relevant that the author would have killed no one in the second instance but would not be a murderer in the first (Smart & Williams, 1973).

To use a fresh example, there is an example that is even more complex and morally vexing. This example would a pregnant woman who has developed a medical condition that cannot be remediated while the child is in utero. However, let us say that the fetus would certainly not survive if labor is induced as viability has not been reached yet. Let us also say that the overall chance that the fetus will survive in general is quite low. This leads to two basic options. The first option is that the fetus aborted so that the woman can be treated right away. The other option is for the woman to forgo treatment so that the fetus has a chance to become a living child. The mathematical and the utilitarianism option would be for the woman to abort and get treatment. This would be double true if the woman’s survival chances are high if she gets treatment now. The fetus will likely die anyway and the woman will likely die herself if she does not get treatment right away. However, many women would go against the utilitarianism view and would seek treatment due to believing that abortion is wrong and/or that they otherwise love the child so much that they want to give it a chance at life. Many would not deny that mother the chance to make that choice but many would frown on any choice of hers to not abort and save herself due to the odds and stakes involved. Other factors that could make this even more complex would be if the woman has power, is married, has other kids and so forth. Her contributions to society would be endangered if she does not abort and get treated. That all being said, it is her choice and she alone would generally have the final say on what is done and why even if utilitarian pupils would disagree vehemently, albeit quietly. To truly invoke negative responsibility, one could point to if the woman is in a comatose state and a doctor or family member is making that choice. There would actually be negative responsibility in multiple forms in that one action would definitely terminate the fetus and save the woman while the other could kill them both. Inaction would also kill them both and the question becomes whether the doctor or family member is responsible. There are three potential options (abort/surgery, wait out the pregnancy and then treat or do neither of the above) and all three have some very negative potential consequences (Smart & Williams, 1973).

A defense of utilitarianism above is that there is indeed a big loss to be had if the mother dies. If she is lucid and sane enough to make the choice, then it should be hers and hers alone. However, if she is incapacitated and there is no advanced directive involved, then the decision made should be made based on the best good. If the fetus is probably done for no matter what, then a termination and treatment of the woman is the obvious course. If the woman is terminal and the fetus might make it, then perhaps trying to get a live birth could work. It all depends on the details and what the greatest good is (Smart & Williams, 1973).

Comparatively speaking, a less extreme and political example would be a manager refusing to fire his subordinate because he doesn’t agree with the reason for it. The higher manager will do it anyway and the outcome will be the same. However, the conscious of the manager who refused to do the term will be clear even if he works for an employer that fires people for reasons that are less than legitimate. The utilitarian response to that particular question would be that the manager should confide in the employee and they should both leave as it would be the most just thing to do and based on the facts involved and thus would bring the greatest good. Lastly, there is the idea of people making business decisions based on the costs rather than the safety of the people involved. Let us say that someone who work at Ford during the Pinto safety debacle that led to some people burning to death is not in any responsible for the flaw but knows enough to blow the whistle. If that person says something, it would hurt Ford but it would save lives. Thus, NOT doing that would cause people to die and get hurt unnecessarily but actually saying something would hurt other people in different ways (Smart & Williams, 1973).

Conclusion

As with most things, there is no clear winner between utilitarianism and its antithesis. There are times where the utilitarian view is the proper one but it is not something that works (or should be attempted) in all instances. However, the author of this report feels that Rawls and Williams made the stronger cases. While anti-utilitarianism as a hard rule is not the right way, neither is always being for it.

References

Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard

Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(1).

Smart, J., & Williams, B. (1973). Utilitarianism; for and against. Cambridge [England: