Introduction to Ethics Phil 140 @ Binghamton University, Win '11


Writing Prompt 3 – Utilitarianism

The moral element in Utilitarianism is that the only good is pleasure and the only evil is pain.  “The Greatest-Happiness pleasure holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.  By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”  Mill helps to define what pleasures are considered good and which are considered bad.  He does this by saying that an action can be judged to be morally good or bad based on the outcome, not the intentions or motives behind it, as well as the quality of said action.  The way in which we can determine this is though experience; that is how we can differentiate between higher and lower pleasures.  Those who have experienced more are greater judges of pleasure than those who haven’t.

"it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

Mill’s principle of utility is natural because it is grounded in the psychological faculty of desiring pleasure and avoiding pain.  Mill seeks concrete happiness.  The principle of utility establishes what is good because what is good brings about pleasure, while what is bad brings about pain.  Every human being desires happiness because every thing a human being desires is desired for its pleasure.  Mill shows that the principle of utility is necessary and that those things that are desired are parts of happiness and not a means to happiness.

The reason I believe motive is something important that is lacking from Utilitarianism is because we could have one person with good intentions, and another with bad, and they could end up with an equally morally good result.  I think the person with good intentions should be commended on their actions, while the person with bad intentions should not be praised for what he has done, despite the goodness of the outcome.  To “confound the rule of action with the motive of it.”  Ethics is supposed to tell us what our duties are, “but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty.”

Because I feel that motive should be more heavily considered when determining moral goodness, I think the discussion of foot binding is relevant here.

While foot binding was introduced as a practice with the intentions of doing good for all parts involved, it has not turned out to be as such.  In fact, it is to my understanding that Mill began to write in favor of greater rights for women, so he most likely would argue against the practice of footbinding.  He talks about the role of women and how it needs to be changed.  Mill believed that there were certain facets of a women's life that were hindering them: society and gender construction, education and marriage.  Society and gender is particularly relevant because of the injustice it creates in the balance of roles in society.

The way in which I see the topic of foot binding relevant is because it has to with the moral element, which is the only good is pleasure, and the opposite of pleasure is pain.  Mill would argue that foot binding is not morally good because of the way it effected women.  Granted, the society that these women who were put through foot binding looked upon it as a beautiful thing, but at what price will we put on beauty extremes?  As someone pointed out in another post, if the Chinese society were to change their ideals of what they considered beautiful, then the issue of foot binding could possibly no longer be an issue.  The moral standard here is that the Chinese society has a skewed view of what they consider beautiful.  The more they come to experience, the more likely their image of beauty will change, and the more likely it will effect the women of their nation in a more positive manner.

The moral element in question here is that of pleasure/pain.  Women are without a doubt in pain over this practice, with the motive behind it being "beautiful."  The problem with this moral element is that it is varying across the board for who it is effecting.  As noted, women are in pain because of it (meaning it is not of moral goodness), while for the men in the society, it is aesthetically pleasing to them (morally good, but of a low value, for they have no other ideals of what is beauty, and beauty itself is of low value to begin with anyway).  But then we also have to consider the relevance of the practice in regards to the time period and cultural values.  Back when it was heavily practiced it may have been seen in general as morally good, but today when we have reevaluated gender roles in society, we see that it is not.  In today's time, reflecting on the practice of the past, the moral standard, which is the ability of one to experience pleasures of lower and higher utility is not that helpful.  In the Chinese society in the past, it was not open to introducing new ideals and aspects of what beauty is, and therefore the experience level for these pleasures was quite low, which means their ability to judge was impaired.

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  1. Essentially it seems like you’re saying you want the full Utilitarianism entree with an added side dish of Deontology. However, if you look at it, is the whole bad guy does something good by accident => morality increases, so bad? If bad people failed at being bad all the time and ended up doing a lot of good things, would it matter if we labeled them as moral people? If a hard working waiter was so clumsy that he continuously destroyed stacks of plates and sent food flying from tripping a lot, wouldn’t you get angry and see him as less good than he really is (you can still see him as good, but maybe not as good as you’d want)?

    • I wouldn’t say that if a bad guy does something good by accident, and morality were to increase, that the situation were bad. What I mean to say is that in comparison, if the same situation to occur with a good person doing something good on purpose with the same result, I think the good person should receive more credit for their actions then the bad. I guess as you said, my ideal ethical theory would be Utilitarian with a little Deontology on the side.
      In your example with the waiter, I wouldn’t see him as less good, at least not in regards to what I was trying to explain above, because his intentions are not to purposely destroy the plates and send food flying.

    • This is an interesting question. When I wrote regarding virtue ethics this was a question I thought about a lot… Do the intentions of a person really matter? Or does it just matter that they have done something good and someone else benefits from it? I think it is desirable for any person, bad or good, to do good things but the whole idea behind morality is that it links intentions and action, in my opinion.

      • I think a Utilitarian would argue that it only matters that they have done something good. I agree that it would be desirable for all people to do good things, but I still find it hard to judge the morality of these individuals without their motive being considered (I guess that is more based on Deontology.)

  2. I don’t know if I agree that beauty is definitely a low value pleasure. The sight of an aesthetically pleasing woman could be looked at in the same regard as a fine piece of art or landscape. I think you cover this thought by making a statement about the time period standards, but this brings a trade off into the picture. If beauty produces a high quality pleasure, would Mill believe the pain was worth it? What if the woman goes through the process of foot binding but still doesn’t secure a pleasurable life? I argued that the latter situation should still be consider moral, even if no pleasure comes from foot binding, as long as the sole intention was to promote the greatest happiness principle

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