Utilitarianism as an ethical theory sample essay
Utilitarianism is the view that an act is right if it equals the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarians describe moral actions as actions that boost something good and lessen something that is bad. Virtue, knowledge, and goodwill are all good but they are only good if they give people a pleasurable existence. Pain is the only thing that is intrinsically bad. Utilitarians focus on the result of an act instead of the inherent nature of the act. An example would be an individual throwing their garbage into the ocean.
Utilitarians would say throwing garbage into the ocean is not necessarily bad, but the effect it leaves will cause harm sooner or later and that is what is bad. I do not think that utilitarianism can be an ethical theory. It is simply too difficult to determine whether the utilitarian theory can be justified. The dilemma of trying to focus on a positive outcome or focusing on the actions that we take in order to accomplish the greatest good is too hard to measure. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialist theory. The consequentialist theory says moral rightness is determined solely by the consequence of your action.
If an act maximizes the good then it is good. A utilitarian will support the decision of an action that will produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. However, this is misguided in principle. For example, say a terrorist has ten hostages he is going to execute. He says to you if you kill one hostage he will let the other nine go. What should you do? You could make the argument that killing an innocent man is wrong, but you could also argue that you are bringing more happiness because you are only killing one person.
If you kill nobody though you have sentenced ten people to die so it is a double edged sword. Another example is a murderer in a small town. The sheriff of the town is hard-pressed to find whoever the murderer is. He wants to please the majority of the town so he finds an innocent bum and frames him. A utilitarian says convicting the innocent bum for murder is right because it makes the rest of the innocent people sleep better at night.
So he acted as a utilitarian would, but was that the right decision? One could make the argument that the sheriff was wrong for framing the bum because now the bum is being accused of several murders. In addition he has violated the bum’s values and integrity. My argument is that the sheriff should do what he thinks is morally right because he alone will be held responsible for his own actions. A different scenario would be a group of people whose happiness is based on the misery of other people. An obvious example of this would be slavery. The slaves do not have the same benefits as other people who are more prosperous. According to utilitarians this would be morally right.
If the happiness of other people comes from taking advantage of people less fortunate, then it would be a morally decent thing to do. In this setting utilitarianism does not work because the people who owned the slaves did not want to live the same way the slaves did. Now if people took a stand against slavery because they had integrity and because they observed the act as being morally wrong, then utilitarianism might work. However, people may eventually experience more harm then good because they are unhappy with the thought of other people having to suffer.
It is because of this utilitarianism does not work since people have integrity, values, and moral beliefs that are next to impossible to ignore when making decisions. When faced with a moral dilemma, utilitarians recognize the proper considerations, but do not give a realistic way of making the right decision. Utilitarianism requires that an individual consider not just the amount of pain or pleasure, but the quality of the pain and pleasure. John Stuart Mill suggests in order to tell apart different pains and pleasures we should ask people who have experienced both which is more pleasurable or more painful.
This solution does not work. An example of why it does not work would be a situation where someone is being tortured for days or being blown up by a bomb. Obviously no one can try both so you cannot ask somebody to describe it. Utilitarians think justice is good for promoting happiness and consider standards to be important, but do not offer any method of deciding on certain exceptions. It offers no method for comparison. They say it is generally good for society to reward people for doing right and to punish them for doing wrong.
However, the problem with utilitarianism as a method for decision making is there is not enough information available to judge different situations. The utilitarian would probably consider the death of many being worse than the torture of one. In the end, utilitarianism does not help in making the moral decision. They think a person’s ethical decision-making should be based only on the amount of happiness the person can receive. There are many problems with Mill’s theory of utilitarianism. First, Mill says all ethical decisions should be based on pleasure.
But he thought pleasure was the only requirement for happiness. This is not true. Pain ultimately affects happiness because it is an obstacle everyone needs to overcome to gain pleasure. If someone tries to avoid pain in their life, how will they know what true pleasure feels like? Pleasure comes after experiencing pain. If a person always wins at everything, do they feel pleasure each time they win? Or does it become something they just expect will happen? If there is a person who loses at everything they do, will their happiness be greater when they finally win?
The pleasure of the second person outweighs the feelings of happiness the first person had because he or she knows how it feels to be defeated. The second person knows the pain that is received because of failure so he will recognize the joy that comes with winning. Another question related to that is asking if it would be better for the second person to compete against people who are not matched in skill just so he can always win, or should he compete against individuals who are equally matched? Both of these examples show that pain can ultimately cause pleasure, and in some cases the presence of pain will increase the feeling of happiness.
What is pleasure for one could be pain for another. Who is right and is wrong? A problem develops because there is no set definition to what is pleasurable or painful. The final disagreement with Utilitarian states that if someone saves a person who is drowning, the rescuer did what is morally right even if his intentions were wrong. If the rescuer saves the person, only to make the person die of a greater pain, Mill still believes the rescuer to be morally right. The difficulty in deciding if the person’s intentions are moral is that there is no way to know for sure.
No matter how many other people think you are morally right, if you know in your heart that you are wrong, then there is no way that you can be moral. Although Mill has made good points he did not accurately describe the criteria for happiness, and because of this, and not knowing what will be the greatest happiness principle in a given situation, it does not appeal to us in everyday society. Ethical thinking should not be based just on pleasure. Pleasure is important to happiness, but everyone must deal with pain to be truly happy.
Good and bad constantly affect each other, but the relationships between the two are complete opposites. To find happiness, the two sides must find a balance. This does not mean pain has to be a routine part of life, but it should not be avoided. If someone tries to avoid pain, they could end up passing up pleasure. Pain is a part of life just as pleasure is. To reap the benefits of one, there must be consequences given to the other. If a person deals with pain that come from hard work, dedication, and perseverance, then the benefits will be that much better.
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