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Competing Views on the Application of Utilitarian Principles

Competing theories of morality are topics within the realm of philosophy that are often hotly debated by great minds in opposing camps. One moral theory which has been fervently backed both in support and opposition is utilitarianism, and its application in moral dilemmas. Within the two assigned readings there are two starkly contrasted views on the suitability and worth of utilitarian morals. The first reading is an essay written in support of utilitarian principles by Professor Kai Nielsen of Concordia University, entitled “Against Moral Conservatism”.

The second reading is a rebuke of utilitarian ethics by Bernard Williams, former provost of King’s College, entitled “Against Utilitarianism”. By creating fabricated scenarios within which an actor is faced with a moral dilemma with a limited number of possible decisions, both authors craftily extol the perceived virtues and weaknesses of utilitarianism. Defining Utilitarianism To put it plainly, utilitarianism is a categorical method which determines the best course of action in any given scenario by weighing the potential outcomes or consequences of an action.

The utilitarian mind makes decisions so to provide the most utility to the most people. The theory is predicated on the notion that there is little to nothing inherently or intrinsically good in any act. Any good that is generated from an act is the utility produced as a consequence of the act; maximizing utility is the ultimate aim. Utility, within this framework, is tricky to define completely, but John Stuart Mill defines it as “happiness” or “aversion to pain”. Mill elaborates on the difference between the two schools of thought on morals in his essay entitled “Utilitarianism”.

According to the one opinion, the principles of morals are evident a priori, requiring nothing to command assent, except that the meaning of the terms be understood. According to the other doctrine, right and wrong, as well as truth and falsehood, are questions of observation and experience. Nielsen’s Endorsement of Utilitarianism Kai Nielsen argues in support of utilitarianism by first describing a situation most likely intended to leave the reader slightly perplexed and inquisitive about his or her own notions of right and wrong.

He frames the situation of a ‘just war’, one in which total casualties and duration of the war can be minimized “if we deliberately bomb civilian targets” (1972, p. 2). The argument rendered here is whether or not it is morally right to bomb targets which are harboring enemy combatants but are also residences of innocent civilians, under the pretense that the war will be ended quicker (by bombing) and with fewer ‘innocent’ deaths.

Nielsen states that he doesn’t believe that it is “monstrous” to justify the killing of a few innocent civilians, including women and children, if it ultimately shortens the duration and total death toll of the war (p. 2). What he demonstrates in advocating for utilitarianism is that if the consequences of an act can be determined, including the consequences of inaction, then that knowledge is the best domain from which to draw moral conclusions.

He does not gloss over the fact that the killing of innocent people is a strongly opposed act and is highly undesired, but uses the aversion of that act to provide a potential justification to the killing of only a few versus the eventual killing of many more. Nielsen demonstrates his humane aversion to killing of the innocent by stating that “every moral man must be appalled at the…. punishment, torture, and killing of the innocent” (p. 2).

So the argument is made that if killing of the innocent is so morally antithetical then shouldn’t it be that the killing of far fewer innocent people is preferred to the killing of many more if it can be determined that one of those two potential outcomes will manifest. Initial Opposition and Counter-Opposition The basis of the counter-view to utilitarianism is based on moral principles unconcerned with the consequences of an act. Since utilitarianism concerns itself with the calculable outcomes of an act it does not hold that any act is good or bad in itself.

This is where opponents of utilitarianism find its belief system to be most troubling. The moral conservative, as Nielsen describes, may be categorically opposed to the killing of the innocent no matter what the circumstance is. So in its interpolation within the previous scenario, the moral conservative would disagree with the utilitarian course of action to carry out the killing of the few. Kai Nielsen defends utilitarianism against these claims by demonstrating that the consequences of an act can be affected by peoples’ initial and intuitive sentiments towards those acts.

Nielsen uses an argument that may be formed against utilitarianism through a clever example using the imagined imprisonment of an innocent man. In his example Nielsen fabricates a scenario in which: A magistrate or judge is faced with a very real threat from a large and uncontrollable mob of rioters demanding a culprit for a crime. Unless the criminal is produced, promptly tried, and executed they will take their own bloody revenge on a much smaller and quite vulnerable section of the population (p. 4) The judge within this scenario knows that the culprit is unlikely to be found before the crowd reaches the peak of their hostility.

The judge also happens to know an individual who is widely disliked for other reprehensible reasons, but who is not the actual culprit of the crime. The judge decides to frame this man as the culprit to pacify the mob and simultaneously execute a publicly repugnant man, even though the man is innocent of the crime he is being charged for. Nielsen appears to initially endorse the utilitarian position which would support the judge’s actions but then works within the principles of utilitarianism to show that the judge’s decision may actually violate the utilitarian code of ethics.

Keeping in line with the consequential platform, he argues that it is possible to view the killing of the innocent, although loathsome, man as a consequentially worse outcome than letting the mob run amok until they have satisfied their thirst for vengeance. He makes this conclusion by stating that “we have overestimated the corrupting effects of such judicial railroading” (p. 4). In other words, it may be worse to judge an innocent man guilty because it could cause widespread distrust in the judicial process and have far more dire effects in the long term than letting the crowd fulfill its bloodthirsty impulses.

In either decision made on consequentialist grounds, an outcome is rendered which is aimed at reducing the amount of suffering and dissatisfaction of all who are affected. Although it is very hard to determine exactly how to calculate units to measure pleasure and pain, it still stands that the utilitarian camp would rather wrestle with the issue of determining the best outcome than ascribing inherent values or evils in an action. Arguing Against Utilitarianism

Bernard Williams’ essay which he crafts to refute the merits of utilitarianism argues that “utilitarianism violates personal integrity by commanding that we violate those principles that are central and deepest in our lives” (cited in the abstract, p. 1). Williams begins his essay be reiterating the tenets of the utilitarian perspective and highlights its aim as producing a ‘state of affairs in the world’ (p. 2). Williams states that “from the moral point of view, there is no comprehensible difference which consists just in my bringing about a certain outcome rather than someone else’s producing it” (p.

2) This is Williams way of saying that the consequentialist does not evaluate the morality of an individual’s action, it is of no importance to him. To Williams, the consequentialist cares only about an eventual state in the world. In this breath Williams attempts to show that the utilitarian does not factor in the importance of character and integrity in an individual and that the utilitarian must discount his own feelings and dispositions towards things in certain circumstances.

“The reason why utilitarianism cannot understand integrity is that it cannot coherently describe the relations between a man’s projects and his actions” (Williams, p. 4). Williams harps on a perceived importance between an individual and his own ambitions and sense of himself. He feels that the utilitarian implications cause people to divorce themselves from their own sense of identity or integrity if they feel strongly about a certain issue. As an example Professor Williams frames a scenario in which an actor, Jim, is placed in a foreign country and finds himself tugged into a moral dilemma.

In this scenario Jim is told by a militia leader that if Jim does not kill one Indian within a group of Indians that the leader will assign one of his men, Pedro, to carry out the killing of every Indian who is lined up. In addition to the devised stimulus, it is added that Jim has a very strong aversion to killing, and would be deeply troubled if he was to carry out the killing of an innocent man. Williams formulates that the utilitarian would determine that Jim’s moral duty would be to kill one of the Indians, so to prevent the killing of the group of other innocents, and discount his own inner-repulsion to killing.

This is where Williams finds some trouble with the utilitarian perspective. By violating a very personal and deeply held sentiment or disposition Jim loses a sense of ‘integrity’, a concept which is not discussed within utilitarian literature. So the question is raised of whether or not the agent’s objections to a course of actions, which are determined to be those which produce the best utilitarian outcome, matter? Although Williams does not come to any definite conclusion he persists to refuse the idea that Jim’s own personal desires and sense of self ought not to be so readily violated so to produce the “greatest good”.

Professor Williams continues in delivering an additional argument brought forth by his proposed scenario derived from his disbelief that Jim’s refusal to kill one of the Indians is a final cause of a potential group slaying. Williams states that Jim could only be the direct cause of the entire groups’ killings if he forces Pedro to shoot after his own refusal (p. 7). This stance illustrates Williams’ other contention with utilitarianism, that the actions of an individual do not force the hand of another.

That Pedro had a corrupt and sadistic disposition is not the product of Jim’s refusal. Williams concludes from all this that “the undesirable projects of other people as much determine, in this negative way, one’s decisions as the desirable ones do positively” (p. 8). Conclusion It is clear from the readings that the two authors hold almost diametrically opposed feelings about the worth of utilitarian fundamentals. In addition to his advocacy for the weighing of outcomes, Professor Nielsen factors in the importance of action versus inaction in a moral agent’s undertakings.

He believes that anti-consequentialists evade moral duty by acting in a way that does not prevent greater suffering and death in certain scenarios. Meanwhile, Williams believes that by refusing to do a morally reprehensible act an actor may not necessarily be in the wrong even if the outcome of his refusal causes more people to die or suffer than would have had he accepted to do an act. At the heart of this issue is whether or not moral convictions or inherent “gut” feelings ought to be given little or considerable credence.

These sorts of feelings may or may not weigh into the utilitarian course of actions and calculation of overall good. As stated previously, the units of measurement for utilitarian pleasure and pain are very vague and interpretive. Both authors, although very passionate about their stances towards the issue admit that the other side raises compelling arguments which require further consideration of all the discussed principles and the application of actions in the real world as opposed to fabricated scenarios.

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