Rachels, Ch7: The Utilitarian Approach
- Moral theories: Are theories that specify right and wrong action
- Moral theories considered so far:
- Subjectivism: The morally right act (=MRA) is the act I (the speaker)
- Cultural relativism: The MRA is that act required by a society's
- Divine command theory: MRA is the act commanded by God
- Ethical egoism: MRA is the act that best promotes the agent's self-interest
- Rachels finds all these deeply problematic
- Utilitarianism: MRA is the act that brings the greatest total amount of
happiness (balance of happiness minus unhappiness) into the world
- One moral rule central to utilitarianism:
- Principle of utility: Maximize happiness (utility)
- Imagine a world with as much happiness as possible; your job as a
moral agent is to act so as to bring us as close as possible to this
- To act correctly, follow these procedures:
- One: Look at all available alternative actions
- Two: For each, calculate the degree of happiness they produce (for
- Three: For each, subtract the degree of unhappiness or suffering they
produce (for everyone affected)
- Do the action that has maximizes this total (or minimizes the
negative, if all alternatives have negative results)
- Any other action is wrong.
- Questions to test understanding of utilitarian
- Act A makes 10 people happy and act B makes 3 people happy, does
it follow you should do act A?
- No: Need to consider degrees of happiness
- Should you give 40 students one dollar or 1 student 40 dollars?
- Should we build a road through a wilderness area?
- Ban gay marriage? Makes 80% of people somewhat
happy, and makes 5% miserable
- Pure democracy goes with the greatest number;
utilitarianism allows strength of preferences to be
included in the decision
- Act A makes 10 people each 10 units happy and Act B makes 3
people 20 units happy, does it follow you should do act A?
- No: Need to subtract the unhappiness caused (act A might also
cause 15 people to be 5 units unhappy and B might have no
- Act A makes people overall happier than act B, does it follow you do
- No: Must include the happiness of everyone affected (it
could be that act A causes great suffering to sentient animals)
- Example: How does the road through the wilderness affect the
interests of sentient animals?
- Act A brings about more total happiness overall into the world than
act B, does it follow that one should do act A?
- No: Must consider all the alternatives; Act C might maximize
total happiness more than A
- EXAMPLE: MATT DONNELLY'S EUTHANASIA
- Facts: Has cancer, will die in one year, in constant pain, sometimes
excruciating pain (lying in bed with clenched teeth sweating), didn't want to
live in pain for a year as was going to die anyway, begged his brothers to
- One of them--Harold--killed him with a pistol shot
- Did Harold do the right thing?
- No? Why? Because "intentionally killing innocent people is always wrong"
- Utilitarianism does not accept such inflexible rules
- Utilitarianism suggest he did the right thing
- The act brought about the best overall consequences in terms of
maximizing happiness (and minimizing suffering)
- Matt Donnelly thought he'd be better off dead
- Others suffering is also minimized by his death
- A world in which there was no suffering Matt Donnelly was a better
world in terms of overall happiness
- UTILITARIANISM SUGGESTS REFORM OF LAWS THAT HINDER
- Laws preventing euthanasia
- Laws regulating sex among consenting adults
- If such behavior does not harm others and contributes to the
satisfaction/happiness of those involved, they should be
repealed as they stand in the way of maximizing happiness
- EXAMPLE: TREATMENT OF NONHUMAN ANIMALS
- Traditional view of animals
- Here for our use, resources for human ends, "lower is here for the higher
- They have no moral standing of their own
- Do not count morally in their own right
- Humans can treat them in any way they want if it its to our
- Why is cruelty to animals wrong on this view?
- Not because the animal counts or not because it wrongs the
- But because it has negative effects on human welfare
- Makes those who are cruel to animals likely to be cruel
- Upsets some humans
- Why should I not shoot my neighbor's dog?
- "Not sin of murder, but sin of theft"
- Not wronging the dog, but my neighbor
- Traditional view seems extreme, but it clearly guides our treatment of
- We eat them, we make them subjects of experiments in labs, we use
their skins for clothing, and their heads for wall ornaments, we make
them objects of amusement in zoos and rodeos, we hunt and hook
them "for the fun of it"
- Why don't animals count?
- Have no souls
- Not rational
- Can't speak
- Can't act morally
- Aren't human
- Utilitarianism view of moral status of animals
- What matters is only whether animals can be happy/unhappy, whether
they feel pleasure/pain (are they sentient beings?)
- If a being can suffer or experience happiness
- Morality requires us to take this into account
- Since the goal of morality is to maximize happiness
- The same reason for why it is wrong to torment a human applies to why it is
wrong to torment an animal:
- They suffer and morality requires us to alleviate this
- For utilitarians, humans and nonhuman (sentient) animals both count
- In the same moral category
- Suffering/happiness of one counts equally with similar suffering/happiness
of the other
- Human's special capacities (e.g., their intelligence) make them
subject to happiness and suffering that animals can't experience
- Morality requires us to consider these forms of
- So equal concern for the similar suffering of animals does not entail
humans and animals should be treated in the same ways
- Many factual difference between them that can justify differences in