Utilitarianism and moral choices

Chrisie asked:

Utilitarianism weighs the moral worth of actions based entirely upon the amount of pleasure (or pain reduction) that results. Outcomes, or the consequences of actions are the determining factor of morality and not the intention of the person before (or even while) the act is being performed. Discuss whether a moral position that is entirely based on evaluating the consequences of actions provides an adequate foundation for making moral choices. Is more needed or not?

Answer by Peter Jones

Utilitarianism is not so one-sided as it might appear. If we act to increase the well-being of others then this will require assessing the outcomes of our actions and attempting to maximise their benefit to others. We are basing our action on predicted future outcomes but those actions are motivated by good intentions right now. If our actions have counter-productive consequences, as is so often the case for well-intended actions,  then it remains the case that they were well-motivated and will be defensible on the ‘day of judgement’ if there is to be such a thing.

The problem is that we cannot know which actions will be beneficial or harmful unless we have a thorough grasp of how the world works. Very rarely does anyone have a grasp of this so we have to make do with guesswork. Our idea of what will benefit someone else may therefore be utterly wrong.  For instance, if we give money to a beggar they may use it to kill themselves with heroin or to to buy a meal and improve their health. If we don’t know which it is going to be then out outcome-based decision procedure runs into trouble.

So I would say no, utilitarianism is not an adequate method for decision-making but is just one aspect of the procedure. We would help others more by pursuing a thorough understanding of ‘life, the universe and everything’ for without this we will be a bull-in-a-china-shop causing havoc by trying to be helpful. in the same way, we do not perform heart-surgery on others to save lives before we have had a medical training. Our intentions might be good but our reasoning would be ridiculous.

Utilitarianism is what ethics is all about since it is for the sake of its outcomes that we perform ethical actions. But what would we say of someone who with the best of intentions helps an old lady across the road without first checking that she wants to cross it? Our ethical responsibility must include coming to an understanding of the situation.

So utilitarianism will always be a factor in our decision-making but it describes only a part of the process. If we are ill-informed then we are not able to assess the utility of our actions.  Hence in mysticism and much of religion it would be for their utility that we perform ethical acts but our global ethical responsibility would be the acquisition of knowledge, selflessness and compassion in order that our ethical acts may be effective. If we ignore these areas of practice and knowledge then we can be as well-meaning as we like when we act, we are still shirking our ethical responsibilities. If we do not think carefully about what we are doing then again, our lack of attention to the situation might count against us when later, in hindsight, we judge our own actions. For this reason in Buddhism there is more to this than motivation. A lack of mindfulness and care may be a more important ethical issue than the outcome of our actions, which are largely unknowable in advance anyway.

2 thoughts on “Utilitarianism and moral choices

  1. A major problem with utilitarianism is that it can logically be used to justify all kinds of stuff like: ‘If I steal $1,000,000 from Warren Buffett, happiness will be increased because I will be far happier and the chances are he will not even notice it is gone, and even if he does notice, he is not likely to be much perturbed by its disappearance.’ So, if you had a government with utilitarian laws, theft would be both rampant and, very often, ‘legitimate’.

    1. I think if you examine this situation closely you’ll find that it is not an application of utilitarianism. You would need to combine to with the Categorical Imperative. But hey, maybe it would be better for us all if stole the money. Superficially your argument seems fairly sound. .

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