Utilitarianism versus deontology

Jerica asked:

Discuss the chief advantages and disadvantages of utilitarianism and deontological theory. Think specifically about how the theories would work in a concrete situation. Provide a concrete example to support your response.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Jerica, notwithstanding the fact that this seems suspiciously like an assignment question, I believe the two theories do merit some discussion. However, while I will give some detail on the shortcomings of both theories, as we are discussing ethical theories, drawing on these examples, I suggest that you seek specific concrete examples yourself.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that argues that an action is right if and only if it conforms to the principle of utility. Founded during the Victorian era, its founder, Jeremy Bentham, came to believe that there was a need for society to rely on reason rather than metaphysics. The central tenet of utilitarianism is what is called the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’. Because the human beings are rational self-interested creatures, says Bentham, they seek to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Thus, a morally acceptable action is one which results in the greatest possible happiness within a given set of circumstances.

Set against utilitarianism is deontology. Deontologists are concerned with the concept of duty. That is, they are concerned with fulfilling (what they believe is) their moral duty – whether or not it makes people happy. In short, deontologists hold that right actions are defined by duty. Once we know what it is that we are duty bound to do morally, then we can carry out this ‘natural’ right action regardless of the consequences. What matters, they argue, is that we do what is right what is right, and what is right is that which conforms to moral law.

One of the leading exponents of this theory is Immanuel Kant. For Kant, right actions are those which are done purely and simply from a sense of duty and not by following impulses, inclinations, or adherence to the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’. Human beings, says Kant, are, by nature, rational beings and as such need have a rational basis to their lives: they need to know what make right actions right. Ethics, he maintains, is concerned with identifying moral imperatives, and providing rational explanations as to why we should obey them.

Central to Kant’s duty ethics is the view that right actions are those actions that are not instigated by impulses, inclinations or desires, but by practical reason. Right action is right only if it is undertaken for the sake of fulfilling one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s duty means acting in accordance with certain moral laws or ‘imperatives’. To help us identify those laws which are morally binding Kant has provided us with the ultimate calculus: the ‘categorical imperative’ which states ‘Act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. To the categorical imperative, Kant offers a codicil which relates specifically to human will, ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’.

Whilst deontology, or ‘duty ethics,’ can be said to hold considerable merit, in that it advocates that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means to ends, I would argue that, as an ethical theory, it fails in that it looks on people, not as sentient beings, but as duty automatons. Moreover, any ethical principle, such as the Greatest Happiness Principle, that advocates that the happiness of the majority takes precedence over the minority cannot be counted as a reliable ethical model.

2 thoughts on “Utilitarianism versus deontology

  1. The problem, in my opinion, of finding the downfalls in moral theories is that one can only use moral theories to determine whether moral theories are ‘right’. For example the first site on the google search page of “deontologist vs utilitarian” (http://www.equip.org/articles/ethics-theories-utilitarianism-vs-deontological-ethics/) says that utilitarianism is wrong because “utilitarianism can be used to justify punishing an innocent man or enslaving a small group of people if such acts produce a maximization of consequences. But these acts are clearly immoral regardless of how fruitful they might be for the greatest number.”

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