Essay: Morality and the Claims of Utilitarian

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¶ … morality and the claims of utilitarian moral philosophy, and discusses the question of whether moral sacrifice can be justified. Much has been written by myriad scholars and philosophers about morality and utilitarianism, and the best way to sort through those approaches is to carefully recount and critique what has been written and how one philosopher's viewpoint contradicts or embraces another seemingly valid viewpoint.

What is Morality?

Morality is a difficult word to pin down exactly; as this section of the paper clearly explains, morality -- and what is moral -- is an elusive concept. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) explains that "morality" can be used two ways: one, as a description as to how codes of conduct can be presented to society or to another group, or a code of conduct an individual would accept for his or her own behavior; and two, morality can be used "normatively to refer to a code of conduct that… would be put forward by all rational persons" (SEP, 2011, p. 1).

Delving further into the SEP narrative, morality can also be taken "…to refer to any code of conduct that a person or group takes as most important" (1). That could mean that morality could be linked with evil, with Nazism, or any other hideously unkind way of life. But others assert that morality only applies to "…those rational beings that have those features of human beings that make it rational for all of them to endorse morality" (SEP, 1). Anthropologists believe "morality" applies only within a specific society -- that is, whatever code of conduct put forward by any given society is in fact that society's morality. So, Hitler's bloodthirsty obsession with killing all Jews was his morality.

But moreover, "morality" most generally applies to a code of conduct put forward by a society and in each case the morally accepted norms in a particular society will differ to some degree with the morally accepted behaviors of a society in another geographical location. The morality of one society may reject homosexuality as immoral, and that particular society may claim that God has commanded that homosexuality is immoral and hence, that society is placing itself as though it were living by God's laws. That said, the implication is that all other societies that permit or endorse homosexuality are not obeying God and thus are not moral.

Other societies approach morality as being concerned with "…minimizing the harms, e.g., pain and disability, that all human beings can suffer" (SEP, p. 5). One could use the description of "morality" on page 7 as the most general and most widely accepted: "…morality is a code of conduct that is put forward by a society and that members of that society accept it as a guide for their behavior" (SEP, p. 7).

The Utilitarian Moral Philosophy -- Mill's Brief Biography

John Stuart Mill is regarded as likely the "…most famous and influential British moral philosopher of the nineteenth century," and his specialty was articulating his utilitarian moral theory and defending that theory as well (SEP, 2007, p. 1). Mill, an extraordinarily bright person, was pushed into the intellectual milieu at the age of three, when he began studying Greek; by age eight, he had studied Greek poetry and philosophy and by the age of 13 John Stuart Mill was editing his father's publication History of India (SEP, p. 3). Later in life he wrote that his training (he was pushed mightily by his father, James Mill) was too powerfully directed towards intellectualism and not enough attention was paid to his emotional needs and development (SEP, p. 3). As his life played out, Mill became an iconic advocate for liberal policies, including the rights of women and the right of individuals to regulate their own destinies.

The Utilitarian Moral Philosophy

Meanwhile, as to Mill's claims regarding his utilitarian moral philosophy, he believed that a utilitarian person must claim that "…happiness is the one and only thing desirable in itself," and while he insists that each person has "…an ultimate desire for her own happiness" he does not insist that each person's "only ultimate desire" is happiness (SEP, p. 7). Mill's well-known "Proportionality Doctrine" on happiness -- from the prospective of a noted utilitarian -- stands as a starkly succinct philosophical passage:

"The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals 'utility' or the 'greatest happiness principle' holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure [II 2; cf.II 1] (SEP, p. 10).

The theory put forward by Jeremy Bentham, another utilitarian with a slightly different approach to the philosophy, is known as "act-utilitarianism." Thomas Mautner describes Bentham's act-utilitarianism (AU) as: "…the value of the consequences [utility] of the particular act that counts when determining whether the act is right" (Mautner, 2008). In other words, it isn't just whether the act brings happiness or unhappiness, for Bentham, it is what results as a consequence of an act that determines, philosophically, if it is a correct action or not.

In Thomas Hill's peer reviewed piece ("Assessing Moral Rules: Utilitarian and Kantian Perspectives") the author reviews the "many objections" that have been launched against act-utilitarianism, including that AU "…leads to counter-intuitive moral judgments" (Hill, 2005). What Hill is saying is that by using AU as a "decision guide" the typical human's ignorance and "wishful thinking will often cause us to misestimate the expected utility of what we propose to do" (Hill, 161). Moreover, in the process of doing things that have positive consequences (not necessarily "happiness" per se) humans may judge that "…it is permissible to do things that are dishonest, unjust, ungrateful and disloyal…" because in many instances doing the honest, or just, or grateful thing will not maximize the utility that the person was originally seeking (Hill, 161).

Moral Sacrifices -- Can They Be Justified?

Jim Stuart writes in the Journal of Social Philosophy that there are often complaints about utilitarianism because it is supposedly "too demanding" -- it calls for a great deal of "individual sacrifice" (Stuart, 2004, p. 21). Stuart is alluding to the fact that an individual might be simply going after an "innocent personal project" that may have nothing whatsoever to do with bringing happiness (21). In this scholarly piece Stuart is actually comparing "virtue ethics" with utilitarianism, but in the process he brings up good points which allow a close examination of moral sacrifice.

For example, there is a moral dilemma facing Alice, a young woman who is a "promising philosopher" and is about half way through her doctoral dissertation. The dissertation is said to be powerful and potentially ground-breaking so she is intellectually enthused, and emotionally excited to be able to continue working on it in pursuit of her PhD in Philosophy. Alice has a dilemma because her mother, Marion, is suffering from a terminal illness; her mother needs constant, hands-on attention and care and will for the next few years (possibly as many as 10 to 15 years) until she passes away (Stuart, 23).

If there were siblings, there would be the chance that a brother or sister could lend a hand so Alice could finish her dissertation. But there are no siblings and Marion is the only close relative that Alice has. The choices in front of Alice are few: a) she could give up work on her dissertation (and postponing her doctorate) "…and with it a chance of a career in philosophy"; or b) she could continue with her dissertation research and leave her mother in the "…competent but less personal hands of professional health workers" (Stuart, 24).

Looking at this dilemma from a utilitarian's perspective, the question becomes, which of the two options for Alice will bring the most happiness? To wit, actions that produce the most happiness for the most people are good and actions that produce pain or unhappiness are not good. The moral issue presented in this particular case is ideal when it comes to the question of whether moral sacrifice can be justified. Stuart explains that by refusing to abandon her mother's extreme health problems Alice would be "…manifesting benevolence (charity) toward her mother," and because humans have "…special relationships with certain people" Alice has responsibilities to her mother that she clearly does not have to strangers (24-25).

From the point-of-view of Stuart, staying with her mother would be a "small sacrifice" for Alice but abandoning her goal of a PhD would be a large sacrifice. Indeed, notwithstanding the obvious virtues of giving up a career goal for one's ill mother, Stuart also notes that by developing her talents and "sticking at a long-term personal project with a worthwhile end" Alice is also in a position to be seen as virtuous. Shifting to Mill's utilitarian approach, how would Alice be making people happy by continuing with her studies and hiring… [END OF PREVIEW]

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