I started off my education in the Life Sciences. Because of my stereotypical STEM-attitude, I tricked myself into thinking that the more “abstract” branches of Philosophy such as Epistemology (the study of knowledge) or Metaphysics (the study of existence) were a bunch of BS. Ethics, with its more applied subject matter, seemed a lot more important for me to study. Ethics was my gateway into these other fields, and Philosophy in general. If Ethics hadn’t lured me in with her sweet siren call of Trolley Problems, I wouldn’t be the person I was today.
Ethics? More like Ethiccs
Ethics is the study of what morality is, or what one should do in a given situation. Some Philosophers think that this question is impossible, for two very different reasons. The first camp thinks that there is no such thing as morality. There is no “right” or “wrong” in the universe, meaning our actions are arbitrary. This is known as Moral Anti-Realism. On the other hand, some philosophers think that there is an idea of objective morality, but we have no way of accessing it. They argue that we have no way to tell whether or not we’re acting morally. This is known as Moral Skepticism.
If I were to take either of these positions, this post would be really short! Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing that remains to be seen. For the most part, when you start studying Ethics you’re introduced to these theories as a sort of box-checking exercise, where the professors feels obligated to mention that they exist. You spend half a lecture talking about why they’re boring, then spend the next twelve weeks talking about the sexier topic of Ethical systems. In honour of that great Ethics educational tradition, I’ve given you like one paragraph on these topics and will spend the next few weeks talking about the sexier topic of Ethical systems.
Accepting the Consequences – Utilitarianism
The first Ethical system you are probably introduced to is Utilitarianism. This theory relies on one little principle, the appropriately-named Principle of Utility, which states that you ought to “Always act so as to maximize total pleasure and minimize pain among yourself and others”. The overall balance of pleasure against pain is referred to as Utility, hence the name Utilitarianism. This little statement contains some interesting claims that we need to unpack.
First, it argues that all of our actions, in all circumstances, should try to maximize happiness. Ethics just boils down to a complicated math problem, where you weigh the pleasure you generate from an action against the pain that it generates. So the theory goes, if you could be completely aware of all of the consequences of an action, it’s possible to always figure out the moral thing to do.
Second, it is completely neutral about your own happiness and the happiness of others. It’s a theory that advocates self-sacrificing behaviour, so long as that sacrifice benefits others to a greater degree. BRB gonna call my mom and tell her thanks.
Third, it cares about total pleasure and pain. This includes future consequences as well. So while you tell yourself that staying up late to watch Netflix the night before an early interview is pleasure-generating in the moment, one always has to consider all of the consequences of your action.
Fourth, you should act to maximize, happiness, not merely offset it. Let’s suppose you’re in the situation to give someone either a small benefit or a big benefit while not causing pain in either situation. Giving them a small benefit would actually be immoral. Even though your action creates more pleasure than pain, there was an option available to you that could have been even more beneficial.
Finally, the theory only cares about the consequences of an action. Whereas other theories we’ll be looking at will care about your motivations, attitude, or intentions, all you have to do to satisfy Utilitarianism is end up doing the right thing. These sorts of ethical theories, appropriately, are called Consequentialist theories.
Utilities Not Included
Naturally, a system as simple as Utilitarianism isn’t without its issues.
First and foremost, its existence as a Consequentialist theory means that it can generate surprising and unintuitive situations. Let’s say that someone shoots someone in a mugging situation. The victim is then brought to the hospital, and while getting an x-ray to assess bullet damage the doctors discover a nasty-yet-operable tumour. If the mugger hadn’t shot this stranger, the victim would have likely died in a matter of weeks. The Utilitarian would seem to have to say that the Mugger was right to shoot this stranger, as there was no other way for the Mugger to possibly save this man’s life.
Utilitarianism can seem to cause other unintuitive situations. Imagine that a building is burning and a random person is trapped inside. The firefighter, acting as a good Utilitarian, reasons that if she saves the stranger’s life then she would likely die herself. There’s no indication that this teenager will do much good for the world, compared to all of the future potential rescues that the firefighter will be able to achieve later in their life. If we imagine that the average person will do less good in their lifetime than a firefighter, it seems practically impossible for the Utilitarian firefighter to risk saving anybody unless they can be certain that the victim is a better person than they. The Onion has a great video on this:
Finally, it seems like being a Utilitarian is tough. You have to constantly be calculating and re-calculating to ensure you can be doing the best possible thing at any time. Brushing your teeth? I bet if you spent ten fewer seconds brushing you’d be able to spend more time volunteering at the soup kitchen. On your way to the soup kitchen and spot a confused tourist? Quick, ask yourself if taking fifteen seconds to help give them directions outweighs the benefit of spending that time helping out the food-insecure. Spending too long weighing these options? If you came up with an answer faster then you’d be able to do even more good, so stop thinking about it now!
A Rule of Thumb
The Utilitarians aren’t without their own way to defend against these problems. They suggest that a society adopt rules (AKA laws) to guide moral behaviour. These rules will allow people to act morally most of the time. This view is called Rule Utilitarianism, as it applies the Principle of Utility on the level of rule-making rather than individual action. Adopting Rule Utilitarianism seems to satisfy all of these previous critiques.
As a society, we make a rule against muggings. If we were to follow this rule, we would be better off. Sure, some people would never find out about their nasty-yet-operable tumours in this new world, but the benefits of banning muggings far outweigh the one-in-a-million chance of a mugging leaving the victim better off. Sorry, Frasier’s Dad.
We make a rule that governs professional conduct, meaning that firefighters have to save people. If we lived in a world without this rule, then the institutions of the fire department wouldn’t exist, as nobody would fund an organization that doesn’t save people. A world in which good firefighters occasionally die to save total schlubs is a better world than one without any firefighters at all.
Following these rules will allow you to do the moral thing most of the time, and strict adherence to these rules would allow for a better system than one where everyone is constantly judging and second-guessing themselves. Having people taking justice into their own hands and act against the rules in these corner cases, the Rule Utilitarians argue, will cause greater problems than simply following them.
Of Little Consequence
Utilitarianism is an interesting Ethical theory. It’s really accessible, and makes a lot of intuitive sense. Make people happy, don’t make them sad. Got it. Still, there seems to be a lot missing from the picture. It seems weird to describe people as acting morally when they do the right thing by accident or for the wrong reasons. Why focus on happiness? Don’t we value other things like truth, or trust, or privacy, regardless if they make people happy or not? In the weeks to come, I’ll be giving a breakdown of other Ethical theories. Stay tuned for a discussion of Kantian Ethics, Virtue Ethics, and Feminist Ethics. In the meantime, be good to one another, whatever that means.