1. An introduction into utilitarianism
In the realm of normative ethics, utilitarianism is one of the most fundamental approaches to tackling questions of morality and philosophy. In essence, it proposes that the most ethical action is the one that maximises total utility on the society level. It disregards motive, and considers actions purely from a consequentialist view, which is diametrically opposed to the Kantian view of ethics.
The classical view of utilitarianism was pioneered by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which interpreted utility as hedonistic. This hedonism does not bear the severe negative connotations of modern society but instead, merely denotes pleasure and happiness in living one’s life. However, Bentham did consider the malicious pleasure of sadists as utility, which often takes the guise of “ignorance is bliss”. For those who are familiar with the movie “The Matrix”, Bentham’s version of utilitarianism would support the view that humans have a moral OBLIGATION to choose to be inserted into the matrix if they experience a happier life in the matrix than in the real world.
This hedonistic interpretation of utility was attacked by G E Moore, who makes the proposition that “good” should be considered an intrinsic value, which exists in isolation from the beholder. In his view, pleasure, which very much requires consciousness to experience, is not truly a measure of utility. Furthermore, Moore puts forth an “organic unity” model for considering utilitarianism. In principle, it states that a body is more than the sum of its parts – e.g., a leg is worthless in isolation but may gain value when it becomes attached to a body. Thus, in isolation, a beautiful object may increase utility by X and experiencing beauty may increase utility by Y; but someone experiencing the beauty of this object will gain an increase in utility much greater than X+Y. Returning to the idea of The Matrix, Moore’s utilitarianism would suggest that the moral obligation is to pull people out of the matrix, regardless of the loss of pleasure living in a made-up world could provide.
Building on the two very different utilitarian frameworks discussed above, the following analysis serves to point out flows within utilitarianism. It becomes divorced from a specific model and criticises certain premises of utilitarianism in economics and philosophy.
An illustration of utilitarianism is present in economics through societal welfare functions. The utilitarian societal welfare function is denoted as Usociety = sum (individual utility), where there is a total of n people in the society and each Ui is the utility of that individual consumer. The application of the philosophical ideas in the area of economics is the implication that a morally good policy would be one that increases Usociety. Already, it has become clear that equity concerns exist in a strictly utilitarian world, since as long as the upward distribution of happiness is greater in magnitude than the loss of happiness of those already destitute, the society would be better off under this framework.
Beyond the economic implications that utilitarianism pose, its divorce from psychological factors also provides potential for the subjective justification of selfish acts as benefitting society. Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment” provides an enlightening example of this principle. The protagonist is a young, broke law student in Saint Petersburg named Raskolnikov, who was living in extreme poverty. He was indebted to an elderly and immoral pawnbroker, whom he planned on killing and then robbing as it would not only relieve him of his debt, but also provide the necessary resources for him to perform great deeds that rival that of Napoleon. He justified this act both verbally early in the novel, and later it was revealed he had written an article titled “On Crime” in University that takes a utilitarian view which he believed justifies his murder. The content of the article centres on the existence of “great men” or “geniuses”, who will achieve great things that benefit all of mankind, and as a result, they have the moral right to break certain legal or even ethical boundaries levied upon them by the rest of mankind. Hence, in his mind, the increase in utility that he could create as a “great man” would outweigh the decrease in utility from the pawnbroker’s death. However, once he committed the actual murder, his conscience did not allow for him to take on the impersonal consequentialist view of a pure utilitarianist. This anxiety eventually drove him mad to the point of physical illnesses that he could only start recovering after admitting his crime to the police.
This story illustrates the slippery slope of self-aggrandisement that can result from the use of utilitarian principles to justify certain actions. Whilst obviously fiction, the mere existence of such a line of reasoning that could be considered sound poses an existential risk for the legitimacy of utilitarianism. Yet, the dialogue that is created by considering the ideas described by Dostoevsky and other prominent authors and philosophers may serve to counteract this grim outlook and help perfect the concept of utilitarianism.
2. A hypothetical analysis: the train track dilemma
Hypothetical questions are a great food for thought – so is the classic train track dilemma: you can choose to divert the tram from the main track, saving five people on the track, but killing a person who happens to be on the other track. As difficult as it is to make up the decision, there are many reasons and perspectives which one could use to support each option. One of those is the effective altruism and utilitarianism approach. According to Effective Altruism (2020), effective altruism is the most effective way to benefit the welfare of others. It represents the option that maximises benefit, where everyone’s happiness is worth the same and no one’s is worth more (Driver, 2014). With no extra information about these six strangers, based on the utilitarian approach five people’s happiness outweighs the other one person’s count of happiness. Alternatively, utilitarian also disregards intent and focuses on consequences, hence good consequences is equal to good actions. The answer is easy – you would choose to pull the lever – but is this in all ethical? Can you really quantify the good of a person?
The utilitarian approach also frames the question, that if an individual sacrifice generates more benefits overall, is it then acceptable to sacrifice the one person and pull the lever?
Another version of utilitarianism is the rule utilitarianism where ‘people should live by rules that, in general, are likely to lead to the greatest good for the greatest number’ (CrashCourse, 2016). Rule utilitarianism puts it on a grander scale and thinks for the long term, where there will be less utility, when innocent people are sacrificed merely for the short term ‘greatest good for the greatest number.’
Ultimately, the train track hypothetical remains a dilemma as each choice holds its ethical values. This dilemma projects an outlook on ethical balance in real world situations, such as the events of lockdowns.
3. A real-world decision: the lockdown policies
In addition to political interests, utilitarianism is another important moral principle that was taken into account by governments whiling making their decisions about lockdown policies. It suggested the view that a small group of people’s interests may have to be sacrificed for the benefits of the majority. However, under the pandemic situation, such sacrifice does not simply refer to the daily decisions such as whether to save today for future happiness, but is relevant to actual human lives. Therefore, a more careful consideration was required on whether to ease lockdown and to what extent.
The downsides of lockdowns are apparent. Our utility and happiness decrease due to the restriction of movement, loss of jobs, increase in financial pressure, higher risks of exposing to mental health issues, etc. Having said that, actions are also taken to ease the resulting difficulties, which include corporate subsidies, emergency grants and a more lenient bankrupt law. Despite the (financial and social) costs associated with such policies, the costs would be arguably greater if no lockdown were imposed during the pandemic. For instance, the number of infected and death cases may soar in the absence of restrictions. This would have posed significant stress on patients as well other people involved, hence lowering total utility. Furthermore, increasing number of covid-19 cases also revealed negative externalities such as heavier burden of healthcare system and a dangerous environment. Thus, when there is no apparent benefit for lockdown, it would be proper to weight the costs and minimise the unhappiness according to utilitarianism.
As the situation becomes better, restrictions are eased progressively. This helps to achieve higher individual utility and social benefits. To be specific, people are able to return to work or find a job, receiving wages and reducing financial pressure and hence, increase their individual utility. Companies are expected to operate in a smoother way and gain more profits with higher productivity. The government has less financial burden and the country may experience a faster economic growth. Lifting lockdown fosters many groups’ interests. But, at the same time, we also have to keep in mind that there are still some cases when lifting lockdown, which causes their families to suffer. Hence, it is important for government to weight the sum of overall gains and loss and achieve a balance when making the decisions about easing lockdown.
CrashCourse. [CrashCourse]. (2016, November 22). Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36[YouTube Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-a739VjqdSI
Dostoevsky, F. (1866). Crime and Punishment (Ed. 1). The Russian Messenger.
Driver, J. (2014). The History of Utilitarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/
Effective Altruism. (March1 2020). Introduction to Effective Altruism. https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/introduction-to-effective-altruism/
Miller, J. (2021). General Equilibrium – Exchange, Intermediate Microeconomics ECON20002 Lecture 9 Semester 1 [Lecture Notes].
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (22-Sep-2014). The History of Utilitarianism. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/.
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