Last semester, I was assigned to write a final paper on Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics for my Philosophy class. I had to study and evaluate the work of two philosophers named Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant. These two philosophers examined the nature of morality a long time ago and they formed two different theories of moral philosophy.
Bentham formed the consequentialist utilitarian theory which evaluates the moral rightness of a decision based on its outcome, while Kant formed the deontological moral duty theory which evaluates the moral rightness of an action no matter what the consequence. (Wolff)
Jeremy Bentham is primarily known today for his principle of utilitarianism, which evaluates actions based on their consequences. He believes that an act is considered “just” if it generates the most happiness and the least pain for the greatest number of people affected directly or indirectly by that action. Bentham defines utility as the property in any object that tends to produce benefit, good, pleasure or happiness or averts the happenings of pain and unhappiness to the party where interest is considered. Hence, utilitarianism bases its understanding of right action based on consequences. (Wolff)
The three principal characteristics that constitute the basis of Bentham’s moral and political philosophy are the greatest happiness principle, universal egoism and the artificial identification of one’s interests against others. Bentham reminds us that it is crucial to move from the total pleasure and pain experienced by one person to the total pleasure or pain experienced by all members of the community taken together. (Wolff)
On the other hand, Kant proposes that only duty and rules should govern our actions, as consequences are beyond our control. Kant‘s theory of ethics is known as Kantian ethics and it is considered deontological because deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule. (Wolff) His theory holds that an action is either “just” or “unjust” without any regard to the consequences of that same action. To Kant, the only good thing in the universe is good will. If we are able to comprehend the term ‘good will’, then we can understand the main idea behind his ethical theory. The question I have is, how do we know what it means to be good, and how do we encourage a good will?
Kant’s ethics is guided by the fundamental principle called Categorical Imperative. Kant’s famous statement of this duty is: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (McCormick)
Consider the following situation: There are ten dying patients in a small clinic in a village who have a rare blood disease and they urgently need blood transfusions from a healthy individual with blood type O. Coincidentally, a healthy individual with no friends or family walks into the clinic for a routine check-up and the doctor finds out that the healthy individual’s blood type is O. Now, the doctor is faced with two options; he can either kill the healthy individual to save the other ten dying patients, or allow the ten dying patients to die and let the healthy individual live. In this situation, what is the doctor morally obliged to do?
Broadly speaking, Bentham would first consider the outcomes of both actions and evaluate how much pleasure or pain either action will cause, while Kant would consider the action of killing someone and evaluate if the action is morally “right” or “wrong.
Bentham’s system of ethics takes no account of intentions of our actions, and as a result, the unethical intention of killing the healthy individual can be justified. Bentham believes that an action is “right” only if it produces the most happiness and the least pain for the greatest number of people affected directly or indirectly by that action, he would say that the doctor is justified in killing the healthy individual because it maximizes utility of the ten dying patients, their families and friends.
Conversely, before Kant decides if killing the healthy individual is moral or immoral, he would consider if killing the healthy individual will respect the goals of humanity. He would want us to act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never just as a means. Kant’s theory suggests that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences; even in in cases where the action would bring about more happiness than the alternative. Therefore, the doctor would not be morally justified in killing the patient.
In the example above, it can be said that the Kantian response seems intuitively right as killing the healthy individual just because he can save ten other lives violates the goals of humanity. Furthermore, in real life, no doctor would want to take on the responsibility of killing an innocent person, regardless of whether they would save the lives of ten other patients. The law will ensure the doctor gets arrested for murder and it is not the doctor’s legal duty or responsibility to kill the healthy individual.
Consider another example – imagine if you were living in Singapore during the World War II. Your very close family friend and neighbor, Mr. Tan, who is Chinese, has lost his home due to a bombing and he and his family have come to ask if they can stay with you for a week. You agreed to house him for a week and all seems to be going well until one day you find out that the Japanese soldiers have a clue that there is a slight chance that Mr. Tan and his family might be living with you. They have come to your home to look for Mr. Tan and his family.
If the soldiers find out that Mr. Tan is living with you, they will arrest him and possibly separate him from his family forever. They might even cause potential harm to his family. The question then is, what are you morally obliged to do? In this situation, you have two options; you can either lie to the Japanese soldiers saying you have no idea where Mr. Tan and his family are residing, or you can admit that indeed – they are living with you.
Bentham would say that you should not tell the Japanese soldiers that Mr. Tan and his family are living with you because that action does not produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Additionally, by lying, you will save Mr. Tan and his family’s life, and as a result, Bentham would say that in this case, lying will maximize utility. Hence, Bentham’s theory indirectly implies that the only outcome of an act fixes its moral value.
Conversely, as Kant views the ethical value of an act based on the cause behind the action, rather than the result that is achieved by the action, Kant would say that lying to the Japanese soldiers in any circumstance is wrong, even if it means jeopardizing Mr. Tan and his family’s life. In other words, the consequence of your action does not matter, all that matters is that the act of lying is wrong, and therefore you should not lie.
In the example above, it can be said that the utilitarianism answer seems intuitively right because there is no reason why you should be honest to the Japanese soldiers, as their only motive is to harm Mr. Tan and his family.
My opinion is that lying is acceptable when protects yourself or others from potential harm. If someone was holding a knife to your neck, asking you if your favorite color was red, and if you know for a fact that saying yes would save your life, even though your favorite color is purple, would you tell the truth? I would lie, because I value my life more. While lying is generally immoral, as with any other general concept, there are always exceptions.
I think that the Greatest Happiness principle that forms part of Bentham’s idea of utility is to some extent flawed because I do not think happiness can be measured. The definition of happiness is subjective and different for everyone. We have contrasting methods of measuring the achievement of happiness. Moreover, if unanticipated considerations cause all of our actions to not go as planned, even though we were endeavoring to act according to Bentham’s theory, wouldn’t all of us be considered immoral, since the consequence would be great pain?
Additionally, the Greatest Happiness principle permits us to cause pain to others, as long as the majority of a community becomes happier. Slavery, abuse, bullying, rape, and murder can be justified under utilitarianism. Murderers could justify their action by simply killing all of those who opposed them.
Also, if you think about it, his principle makes it acceptable for America to steal hundred million gallons of oil from the Middle East. Let’s imagine that the government has shared with all Americans that they will no longer have to pay for income tax because of the extra income that has been earned from oil. This maximizes the greatest happiness and utility for all Americans, and thus this makes the act of stealing tolerable.
Moreover, because Bentham’s theory only takes into account the most happiness possible caused by a moral action, it neglects minorities. For example, in Singapore, the Sikhs are a substantial minority in a population of mainly Chinese and Muslims. If someone were to annihilate all the Sikhs for the happiness of the Chinese and Muslims, then according to Bentham’s theory, the majority of the people would be happy. In this sense, this theory is flawed because although a certain action may cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number of the people (Chinese and Muslims), the Sikhs will be unhappy.
Similarly, for Kant, fully ignoring the consequence of a moral action is not a worthy idea, because sometimes, in situations, we may have more than one duty or obligation to perform, and his theory doesn’t explain what we should do in a situation when we can only fulfil one duty. Moreover, what if we are not capable of reasoning well? Are we going to depend on someone else to help us determine the action we are going to take?
To decide what is right or wrong in our lives, I think that we should first define the scope of our dilemma, take into account the advantages and disadvantages in both course of actions, and only then we should apply the appropriate theory to justify ourselves.
McCormick, Matt. Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics. 2001. Internet Encyclopedia of PhilosophyWeb. 10 Dec 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/>
Wolff, Robert Paul. About Philosophy. Massachusetts: Pearson, 2012. Print.