Chat with us, powered by LiveChat 1. Explain what you find most problematic - Study Help
  

 1.  Explain what you find most problematic about utilitarianism. Make sure to refer to the texts, both Mill’s own introduction to the theory as well as the articles that criticize it. (150 word count) 

 2.  Share with the class any questions or points of confusion that still have about the readings for this week (100 word count). Make sure your question/point of confusion is grounded in the text: point to a specific passage or claim the authors make and attempt an explanation to address your own point of confusion. 

(Need this done by 9/18/21 @ 6:00pm)

The links below are what you use for the reading. If the links don’t work, let me know I’ll send them another way.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-the-philosophy-of-the-greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number-have-any-merit/

https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/calculating-consequences-the-utilitarian-approach/

80 Scientific American, May 2018 Illustration by Izhar Cohen

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine
(www.skeptic.com) and a Presidential Fellow at
Chapman University. His new book is Heavens on Earth:
The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.
Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer

SKEPTIC
V I E W I N G T H E WO R L D
W I T H A R AT I O N A L E Y E

You Kant
Be Serious
Utilitarianism and its discontents
By Michael Shermer

Would you cut off your own leg if it was the only way to save
an other person’s life? Would you torture someone if you
thought it would result in information that would prevent a
bomb from exploding and killing hundreds of people? Would
you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased
the overall well-being of the citizenry? If you answered in the
affirmative to these questions, then you might be a utilitarian,
the moral system founded by English philosopher Jeremy Ben-
tham (1748–1832) and encapsulated in the principle of “the
greatest good for the greatest number.”

Modern utilitarianism is instantiated in the famous trolley
thought experiment: You are standing next to a fork in a trolley
track and a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five
workers unless you throw the switch and divert the trolley down

a side track where it will kill one worker. Most people say that
they would throw the switch—kill one to save five. The problem
with utilitarianism is evidenced in another thought experiment:
You are a physician with five dying patients and one healthy per-
son in the waiting room. Would you harvest the organs of the
one to save the five? If you answered yes, you might be a psycho-
pathic murderer.

In a paper published online in December 2017 in the journal
Psychological Review entitled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm,” Univer-
sity of Oxford scholars Guy Kahane, Jim A.  C. Everett and their

colleagues aim to rehabilitate the dark side of utilitarianism by
separating its two dimensions: (1) “instrumental harm,” in which
it is permissible to sacrifice the few to benefit the many, and (2)
“impartial beneficence,” in which one would agree that “it is mor-
ally wrong to keep money that one doesn’t really need if one can
donate it to causes that provide effective help to those who will
benefit a great deal.” You can find out what type you are by
answering the nine questions in the authors’ Oxford Utilitarian-
ism Scale. I scored a 17 out of a possible 63, which was at the time
described as meaning “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant
be convinced that maximising happiness is all that matters.”

The cheeky reference to Immanuel Kant sets up a counter to
utilitarianism in the form of the German philosopher’s “categor-
ical imperative,” in which we can determine right and wrong by
asking if we would want to universalize an act. For example, lying
in even limited cases is wrong because we would not want to uni-
versalize it into lying in all instances, which would destroy all per-
sonal relations and social contracts. In the physician scenario, we
would not want to live in a world in which you could be plucked
off the street at any moment and sacrificed in the name of some-
one’s idea of a collective good. Historically the application of a util-
itarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they
believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures and accidents—bet-

ter to incinerate the few to protect the village. More
recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily
been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five
million (Jews:“Aryan” Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the
justification of genocidal murderers.

Yet if you live in Syria and a band of ISIS thugs
knocks on your door demanding to know if you
are hiding any homosexuals they can murder in
the mistaken belief that this fulfills the word of
God—and you are—few moralists would object to
your lying to save them.

In this case, both utilitarianism and Kantian
ethics are trumped by natural-rights theory, which
dictates that you are born with the right to life and
liberty of both body and mind, rights that must not
be violated, not even to serve the greater good or to
fulfill a universal rule. This is why, in particular, we
have a Bill of Rights to protect us from the tyranny
of the majority and why, in general, moral progress
has been the result of the idea that individual sen-
tient beings have natural rights that override the

moral claims of groups, tribes, races, nations and religions.
Still, if we can decouple the sacrificial side of utilitarianism

from its more beneficent prescriptions, moral progress may gain
some momentum. Better still would be the inculcation into all
our moral considerations of beneficence as an internal good rath-
er than an ethical calculation. Be good for goodness’ sake.

J O I N T H E C O N V E R S AT I O N O N L I N E
Visit Scientific American on Facebook and Twitter
or send a letter to the editor: [email protected]

sad0518Skpt3p.indd 80 3/15/18 4:14 PM

9/17/21, 11:05 AM Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach – Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

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Calculating Consequences:The Utilitarian
Approach to Ethics
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Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach


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Imagine that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gets wind of a plot to set off a dirty bomb in a major

American city. Agents capture a suspect who, they believe, has information about where the bomb is

planted. Is it permissible for them to torture the suspect into revealing the bomb’s whereabouts? Can

the dignity of one individual be violated in order to save many others?

Greatest Balance of Goods Over Harms

If you answered yes, you were probably using a form of moral reasoning called “utilitarianism.” Stripped

down to its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of

action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone

affected. So long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism does not

care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or coercion.

Many of us use this type of moral reasoning frequently in our daily decisions. When asked to explain

why we feel we have a moral duty to perform some action, we often point to the good that will come

from the action or the harm it will prevent. Business analysts, legislators, and scientists weigh daily the

resulting benefits and harms of policies when deciding, for example, whether to invest resources in a

certain public project, whether to approve a new drug, or whether to ban a certain pesticide.

9/17/21, 11:05 AM Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach – Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

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Utilitarianism offers a relatively straightforward method for deciding the morally right course of action

for any particular situation we may find ourselves in. To discover what we ought to do in any situation,

we first identify the various courses of action that we could perform. Second, we determine all of the

foreseeable benefits and harms that would result from each course of action for everyone affected by

the action. And third, we choose the course of action that provides the greatest benefits after the costs

have been taken into account.

The principle of utilitarianism can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham, who lived in England

during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bentham, a legal reformer, sought an objective basis

that would provide a publicly acceptable norm for determining what kinds of laws England should

enact. He believed that the most promising way of reaching such an agreement was to choose that

policy that would bring about the greatest net benefits to society once the harms had been taken into

account. His motto, a familiar one now, was “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Over the years, the principle of utilitarianism has been expanded and refined so that today there are

many variations of the principle. For example, Bentham defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure

and pain. John Stuart Mill, a great 19th century utilitarian figure, spoke of benefits and harms not in

terms of pleasure and pain alone but in terms of the quality or intensity of such pleasure and pain.

Today utilitarians often describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfaction of personal preferences

or in purely economic terms of monetary benefits over monetary costs.

Utilitarians also differ in their views about the kind of question we ought to ask ourselves when making

an ethical decision. Some utilitarians maintain that in making an ethical decision, we must ask

ourselves: “What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over

evil?” If lying would produce the best consequences in a particular situation, we ought to lie. Others,

known as rule utilitarians, claim that we must choose that act that conforms to the general rule that

would have the best consequences. In other words, we must ask ourselves: “What effect would

everyone’s doing this kind of action have on the general balance of good over evil?” So, for example, the

rule “to always tell the truth” in general promotes the good of everyone and therefore should always be

followed, even if in a certain situation lying would produce the best consequences. Despite such

differences among utilitarians, however, most hold to the general principle that morality must depend

on balancing the beneficial and harmful consequences of our conduct.

Problems With Utilitarianism

While utilitarianism is currently a very popular ethical theory, there are some difficulties in relying on it

as a sole method for moral decision-making. First, the utilitarian calculation requires that we assign

values to the benefits and harms resulting from our actions and compare them with the benefits and

harms that might result from other actions. But it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and

compare the values of certain benefits and costs. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to art?

And how do we go about comparing the value of money with, for example, the value of life, the value of

time, or the value of human dignity? Moreover, can we ever be really certain about all of the

9/17/21, 11:05 AM Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach – Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

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MARKKULA CENTER FOR APPLIED ETHICS

consequences of our actions? Our ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting

from a course of action or a moral rule is dubious, to say the least.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with utilitarianism is that it fails to take into account considerations of

justice. We can imagine instances where a certain course of action would produce great benefits for

society, but they would be clearly unjust. During the apartheid regime in South Africa in the last

century, South African whites, for example, sometimes claimed that all South Africans—including

blacks—were better off under white rule. These whites claimed that in those African nations that have

traded a whites-only government for a black or mixed one, social conditions have rapidly deteriorated.

Civil wars, economic decline, famine, and unrest, they predicted, will be the result of allowing the black

majority of South Africa to run the government. If such a prediction were true—and the end of

apartheid has shown that the prediction was false—then the white government of South Africa would

have been morally justified by utilitarianism, in spite of its injustice.

If our moral decisions are to take into account considerations of justice, then apparently utilitarianism

cannot be the sole principle guiding our decisions. It can, however, play a role in these decisions. The

principle of utilitarianism invites us to consider the immediate and the less immediate consequences of

our actions. Given its insistence on summing the benefits and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us

to look beyond self-interest to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions.

As John Stuart Mill once wrote:

The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not…(one’s) own

happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism

requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.

In an era today that some have characterized as “the age of self-interest,” utilitarianism is a powerful

reminder that morality calls us to look beyond the self to the good of all.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent the position of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

at Santa Clara University. We welcome your comments, suggestions, or alternative points of view.

This article appeared originally in Issues in Ethics V2 N1 (Winter 1989)

Aug 1, 2014

Ethics Resources Sections 

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