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 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.


Group 1: Cognitive Disability, Misfortune, and Justice (Utilitarianism – Norman da Nubcaek)

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The reading was about determining the morality of giving the cognitively impaired special compensation.  According to Utilitarianism, doing so would only be moral if it increased the utility of the general public.  Factors to include would be the utility produced if the cognitively impaired received compensation, the utility lost due to the cost of that compensation being deducted from others who could use it, and the utility produced/lost when the cognitively impaired receive special treatment.  We'd have to compare the net utility produced compared to not giving special compensation.  Like before, this cannot be easily determined as we cannot easily compare the utility produced by the cognitively impaired to that produced by a person with the standard cognition as they are not the same people.  The people who can do the judging must have experienced both sides with both options to properly provide input.  Therefore, the only people who can have a say are those who were normal at first and "measured" utility produced/lost for each option in different (but similar) cases, but later became impaired and then measured again using their new mindset (This can also be done by people with the reverse in that they gain regular cognition after medical care).  Edit: Even this is not perfectly adequate as even humans with normal cognition have their own life circumstances and no human could have experienced them all, but this is generally the case for any situation. Since this case does not mean life or death, there is no easy side the Utilitarians would take as this does not mean we're killing off the impaired by denying them compensation, but I would say that they would agree that giving the cognitively impaired special compensation would be moral as long as the resources were available.  If they weren't, then it becomes much more debatable as the Utilitarians may favor the normally cognitive as they would be better suited to increasing utility in their lifetimes.

The author of the reading, Jeff McMahan, is a bit one sided on the matter towards not providing special compensation to them in most of the reading as doing so would mean we would also have to compensate all creatures with lower cognitive capacities than the standard human.  This would mean we would have to compensate creatures like worms or lizards.  He discusses other cases such as where people who lose more upon becoming impaired would feel more unfortunate and would feel that they would be more deserving of compensation, but the main portion was on the case where providing compensation to the impaired would mean providing it to non-human creatures as well.  On the last paragraph, however, he takes a clear stance that we should help them as they have relations to their family and friends, and thus by helping them, we are helping their family and friends.  This would work very nicely with Utilitarianism as this would mean increasing the utility produced by the family and friends as well.  However, McMahan's reason only provides one factor in the measuring of the quality of the net utility produced in providing aid to the cognitively impaired versus not doing so for Utilitarians.  As long as the utility produced by providing compensation is greater than the utility produced by not doing so, Utilitarians would agree with McMahan in that doing so would be the better choice, but this is purely circumstantial as (at least if we're talking about financial compensation) the amount of compensation would differ and the amount that could have been used for others would vary along with it.


Group 1: False Autonomy of Forced Choice (Utilitarianism – Norman da Nubcaek)

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I feel that paragraph 53 has the most to do with Utilitarianism.  The passage describes how sometimes the disabled are encouraged to believe that their deaths would benefit their loved ones because they would no longer be a burden upon them.

According to Utilitarianism, a person's suicide would be considered morally right if the the action's result promoted optimal utility.  The passage talks about how a person's death could even be considered a gift and thus, increase happiness.  If the person's death would minimize the pain of those around him (in addition to ending his/her own pain from societal problems) and even make them happier, as in the example, rather than what living as long as possible would do, then Utilitarians would say that suicide would be the better choice.

Determining this morality, however, is incredibly difficult as Utilitarianism is heavily based on the results.  If you exclude miracles in religion, no person is capable of seeing how his death will affect the general populace and then comparing it to how living his life out will do.  According to Mill, those who are to make the judgments on the quality of choices are those who have experienced both choices.  In this case, it is impossible as even if there was a life after death, unless spirits had a means to communicate with humans, we have no way of sharing the results of death with the living.

According to Gill, the morality of suicide for the disabled should be viewed in the same light as those for all other groups and can really only be determined when the victim is capable of attaining all alternatives and is not coerced into thinking that they should do so which is near, if not, impossible in these current times.  It must be noted, however, that Gill does not take a stance as to when suicide can be moral (but by the context of the reading it is heavily suggested that she finds it to be the wrong choice most of, if not all, the time, especially when people opt to live once they receive the aid and independence they deserve).  She is merely discussing the prejudices the disabled have and how their social circumstances prevent them, for the most part, from making a perfectly rational autonomous decision on the matter.

As for the stance on suicide by utilitarians, they would probably go with living as the better choice, given that they have and know of the alternatives they have the right to, as death would prevent further choices in life where they could continue to increase overall utility of the general populace.  However, as I've said before, determining the quality of the utility produced by the choices is pretty much impossible as no one is capable of experiencing both, weighing the utility produced, and conveying the results to the those who need to make said choice.  They may have loved ones who will perform the choices and allow you to experience what the others would feel, but they still do not experience the effect of continued life or death on themselves, which is a core factor as the question only comes up when they themselves are experiencing pain from society's prejudice.  Plus, the future is not set in stone (at least it hasn't been disproven since no one can time travel at the moment), so no one can really make a decision as to which choice is better in Utilitarianism.


Writing Post 02 – Utilitarianism (Norman da Nubcaek)

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Utilitarianism is based off the idea of utility.  Mill defines utility as pleasure and the absence of pain.  Furthermore, Mill states that Utilitarianism follows the Greatest Happiness Principle where actions are considered moral when they tend to promote happiness and deter its opposite, and immoral when the opposite occurs.  The ultimate goal is to maximize the overall utility of the world or universe.  Utilitarianism's main focus of judgment is the result of our actions, and not so much on the motives behind them (although acting in accordance with Utilitarianism without succeeding can provide its own form of happiness).  These actions are judged mainly based on the quality of the utility that it would provide, which is based off the preferences of the general populace, at least of those that are affected.  If the majority prefers one result over another, then it would be considered of higher quality, and our choices should always be aimed at the action that produces higher quality utility.

The main issue I find with Utilitarianism is the morality of those who act against it, but end up with a result that is in accordance with it.  According to Mill, if the result is the same, then the morality of the actions are the same no matter the motive behind it.  This also means that a man who acts with motives of equal strength in "goodness" as another, but produces a result of much lower quality utility, then the man would be considered much less moral.


Jan 4th: Utilitarianism, Part 1

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I have decided to discuss paragraph 26 of What Utilitarianism is:

In the paragraph, Mill discusses one of the many views of the opposition to utilitarianism: utility as expediency.  When he talks about expediency, he talks about how utility is used to serve one's own interest, regardless of its effect on everyone else.  He provides an example of a minister who sacrifices the well being of his nation for the sake of his own place in society.  It was of only his benefit to do such an action.  Since it was as such, he establishes this as an example of an expedient and goes on to say that the expedient is a branch of the hurtful or pain rather than utility.  To continue, Mill works with lying, a prominent expedient that people use "...for the purpose of getting over some momentary embarrassment, or attaining some object immediately useful to ourselves or others" (Line 11, Paragraph 26, Mill).  He talks about how happiness is highly dependent on being trustworthy and honest and how easily trust can be broken with any lie.  Violating that trust, Mill finds, is the same as acting as one's worst enemy.  Despite the severity Mill places on such an act, he also discusses the possibility of exceptions where the general happiness of all would grow, such as "[hiding]... bad news from a person dangerously ill" (line 30, paragraph 26, Mill).  At the end of the paragraph, Mill states that if anything was good about utilitarianism, it would be that it's good for determining which choices would be better as to increase the overall happiness of everyone or to minimize overall pain.

This passage is important because it builds on how utilitarianism focuses on increasing overall happiness and minimizing overall pain.  Most of the other paragraphs discussed increasing happiness in general, minimizing pain in general, and self-sacrifice for the betterment of others.  However, this one discusses the option to sacrifice the well-being of others for overall benefit.  Things like razing an entire city to prevent the spread of a deadly disease sounds horrible, but if it would save the entire nation or even world from falling, then although there would probably be no happiness, it would minimize pain as only a single city would fall instead of thousands of them.  When talking about lying, Mill brings up the question of when the pain that results from telling the truth outweighs the pain that results from lying.  This is the key point of the paragraph.  The only time a supporter of utilitarianism would commit to using an expedient is when the choice to do so would be more beneficial to the overall utility of everyone.

Overall, according to Mill, making decisions that cause any pain  to others should, for the most part, be avoided, save for the few rare exceptions where the utilitarian way of life is still fulfilled.