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


Writing Prompt 03 – Utilitarianism (Norman da Nubcaek)

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Utilitarianism is based off of the Greatest Happiness Principle which states that actions are considered moral when they promote utility and immoral when they promote the reverse.  Utility itself is defined by Mill as happiness with the absence of pain.  The main elements of this philosophy are one's actions and their resulting utility.  A person is considered moral when their actions tend to promote utility of the general public in accordance with the Greatest Happiness Principle.  However, just an action increasing utility does not necessarily imply a moral action.  In order for the action to be moral it must be the optimal choice in increasing utility and minimizing pain.  Since it is difficult to determine the superior of two vastly different results, Mill provides us with a system to determine which choice would have the higher quality.  This system has the proper judges of the actions determine which they prefer.  Whichever is preferred by a majority is considered the action with a higher quality result and thus would be more moral to perform than the action with a lower quality result.  In the result of a tie, both choices are considered equally moral.  The judges for the actions are those who have had sufficient experience to be able to give a preference.  They must have experienced the utility of outcomes to a certain extent in order to properly weigh them.

There are many issues with Utilitarianism, mainly on the Greatest Happiness principle, including the inability to see the future and perfectly determine the consequences of any action, the allowing of malignant practices for the sake of increasing overall utility, the allowing of defying of societal laws for the sake of increasing overall utility, and its disregard of motive.  The last one we can discard for now as it would turn this into a Deontology post instead.  An example taken from our readings is that of foot binding or bodily mutilation for the sake of beauty.  Depending on the views of society, this can be considered moral.  Imagine if the world's population were split 50-50, but with one side have 1 or 2 more people.  If everyone on the side with the extra people preferred mutilation for the sake of beauty (assuming that everyone was capable of proper judgment), then no matter what the other people thought, Utilitarianism would allow it.  This is also true even if there was a law placed by society as society's happiness is more important than its justice for Utilitarians.  As for the indeterminate future, when considering foot binding, it is generally done by mothers to ensure their daughters attain a proper husband.  The assumed utility produced would be caused by said attainment, but in the case that she is incapable of doing so, the mother's choice has become immoral as the utility desired was never attained and excruciating pain was inflicted upon the daughter.

The Greatest Happiness principle in general is good, but it has many flaws as any ethical systems does.  Due to our inability to perfectly predict the future according to our actions (assuming he future is capable of being altered with our actions), the results we desire are capable of, and often do, fall short of what was intended.  If unforeseen parameters caused all of our actions to backfire, even though we were attempting to act in accordance with Utilitarianism, we would all be considered immoral as our results only caused pain.  If this happened to everyone in the entire world, then no man could be considered moral.  The Greatest Happiness principle also allows for us to cause pain to others as long as a majority of the people become happier.  We could essentially just steal resources from smaller foreign countries and drive them to poverty as long as more people benefit than lose.  Things such as slavery, bullying, rape, racism, and murder could be justified under Utilitarianism as long as the majority prefers it.  Murderers could justify their action by simply killing all of those who opposed them.  Once their numbers became the majority, murdering became justifiable as moral.  Lastly, the Greatest Happiness principle eliminates the usage of the laws provided  by our government.  As long as the person's actions increase general utility, then it does not matter how many  laws are broken in the process.  We could all go speeding down roads and ignoring traffic signals/signs to our full enjoyment despite there being speed limits as long as few people cared and most people would be having a blast.

All of these examples display cases where the Greatest Happiness principle would "fail".  It fails in the sense that the standard of what is/isn't moral can be easily changed in society's eyes, and as long as the results produced are in accordance to what the majority prefer, then all preset laws and individual preferences would be considered invalid and can legitimize practices that we currently see as immoral.


[Group 2] The Unadorned Feminist (Deontology-Ryan)

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From the perspective of Kantian ethics feminine adornment is neither denied or commanded by the standard of moral judgments - the categorical imperative. First of all, it is important to point out, that the categorical imperative cannot think in the conditional of feminism. The categorical imperative is supposed to grasp universal moral laws rationally for all rational beings. With that said, it is clear, on the one hand, that an attempt to universalize the maxim "do not self-adorn" would result in a contradiction. For, as Richards points out (and Kant would agree), to deny self-adornment is to deny beauty in humans, and to deny beauty in humans is to deny beauty as such. However, an attempt to universalize a maxim that one ought to self-adorn, would also fail the test of universality. This is because self-adornment, to a large extent, seems like a rather amoral concern. We can easily conceive of a morally good world (one where people act from universal duty imposed by the categorical imperative) in which most people do not care much about self-adornment.

Whereas Kant's morality is rationalistic and universal, Richards' morality is naturalistic, as well as conditional, in that it recognizes gender difference. She conceives of beauty as something that everyone values all other things being equal. For Richards, feminists who intentionally try to look ugly, while they have the good intention of weeding out guys who only care about sensual pleasure, end up weeding out not only the guys who only care about sensual pleasure, but also those who value other things more highly. Certainly, feminists agree that women ought to be treated as ends and not as sex objects (this is a reasonable feminist principle). However, self-adornment does not preordain that one be treated solely as a sex object; in fact, the refusal to self-adorn may result in ceding the possibility of happiness for a woman (which is why it cannot be a reasonable feminist principle). Richards asserts the adorned feminist will just have to exercise careful discretion in each particular circumstance. Since self-adornment, all other things being equal, makes it more likely for a women to find the right man (which for a heterosexual female a serious relationship might be a constituent part of happiness), Richards thinks that it is a good thing in general. Humans naturally prefer beauty in their partners and for this reason the denial of feminine adornment cannot be a reasonable feminist principle.

Richards and Kant reach different conclusions. For Kant, self-adornment can only be conceived as a hypothetical imperative ('x' for 'y') and thus is an amoral concern. For Kant, the good life is not about happiness, but rather about doing what is right* (acting from rationally conceived universal moral law). Furthermore, it seems dubious as to whether the categorical imperative is amenable to gender difference since it can only think in unconditional and universal law that could apply to all rational beings. For Richards, happiness seems to be a component of the good life, and to deny happiness (which some do, by asserting that women ought not to adorn themselves, under the pretense of feminism) is bad. Richards' account is more naturalistic, in that it recognizes the role beauty plays in human relations and theorizes from this empirical observation. Richards' account also does not attempt to conceal gender difference, but rather embraces as a morally relevant concern.
*Kant does think that those who live the moral life do deserve happiness, but the moral life is not itself conceived in terms of happiness.


Group 1: The Unadorned Feminist (Utilitarianism – Norman da Nubcaek)

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In the reading, Janet Radcliffe Richards discusses the morality of self-beautification.  The main issue was how a number of feminists believed that doing so was immoral as it degraded oneself and promoted the males' superficial desires.  Richards criticizes those views and provides counterexamples to some of the reasoning.  Some topics covered were deliberate de-beautification for the sake of repelling the superficial men and attracting "nice" men purely on internal beauty, equating beautification to degrading packaging, and the thought that a man would feel cheated if he finds an attractive woman to be unattractive under all the make-up and such.

For the case of Utilitarianism, the answer seems pretty obvious in that Utilitarians would want people to make themselves attractive.  If making oneself beautiful increases overall utility, then by all means go for it.  I don't think many, if any, people would feel bad if someone made him/herself more beautiful.  If anything, members of the opposite sex would generally enjoy the eye candy.  It may even be considered virtuous to make oneself beautiful when it is a burden to do so.  As for the issues brought up, de-beautification could even be considered immoral when someone is hard to look at (although this is a bit extreme) as it would cause people "pain" when viewing as beautiful itself means pleasureful to the senses, so right off the bat Utilitarians would shun the idea.  When saying that beautifying oneself is the same as packaging oneself as a commodity, which is degrading, and thus would be considered immoral, Utilitarians would disagree as it is merely an opinion and one viewpoint.  One viewpoint itself cannot determine if something is moral or not.  Only the preferences of all the proper judges (Edit: who are generally the entire public) can decide that.  If they do not believe it is degrading, then it is not immoral to them.  Also, the mere "thought" that the action was immoral could cause those who liked to make themselves attractive pain and could be considered immoral.  For the final issue I brought up, that again would be debatable by Utilitarian standards as that is an opinion and men may or may not feel "cheated".  As Richards brought up, it could even be an indication of a greater beauty in the form of a talent in aesthetics.  Edit: Even if the reasoning for the last two issues were true, the motives behind the action are irrelevant to Utilitarians as it is purely consequential and whatever maximizes the general utility would be considered moral.  They are unconcerned with the "why" someone would feel pain and are only concerned with the fact that the person experiences said pain.

Utilitarians and Richards would agree in that beautifying oneself is moral or at least amoral as even Richards said that doing so would be fulfilling sensual pleasures.  By doing so, happiness/utility is increased, thus making the activity moral.  Edit: In the case that Richards finds it amoral (as I never saw a definite stance in the reading), Utilitarians would disagree on that it's generally amoral, but would become unconcerned as long as the actor chooses to do so anyway (usually by preference) as it would still be acting in accordance to Utilitarianism.