Utilitarianism Essay, Research Paper
What things are good? What actions are right? Utilitarianism is a moral principle defined by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill that can help answer these questions. The whole basis of Utilitarianism is that pleasure is good, pain is bad and every action one takes should maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In this paper I will argue that although in principle this moral theory sounds great, in the practical business world, this theory fails to always result in the correct moral action.
Utilitarianism can be simply put as the theory that strives to result in the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In Utilitarianism, happiness is the only thing that is desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being desirable as means to that end. According to the theory, an action is good if it brings happiness. The foundation of Utilitarianism comes from the Principle of Utility. The Principle of Utility says that one should act in a way that will bring more pleasure and less pain. By the Principle of Utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. According to Bentham, we are all controlled by two masters, pain and pleasure. The theory of Utilitarianism says that we should act in a way that will maximize utility, which is really saying that we should act in a way that will maximize pleasure and minimize pain. An action is right if it brings goodness and prevents pain; it is wrong if it does the opposite. When Utilitarianism takes into account the value of pleasure and pain, it is not the pleasure or pain of just one person that is taken into consideration. Utilitarianism is concerned with the interest of the community and no one person s happiness is counted as more important than anyone else s. This is different from the theory of Hedonism, which underlies Utilitarianism. Hedonism says, things are good or bad only on account of the way they make us feel.
To determine how much happiness an action will bring, one must calculate how much pleasure it will bring and subtract how much pain it may cause. When this calculation is done, it is measured by four circumstances: intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty, and closeness/remoteness. The calculation must also take into account the pain and pleasure it will cause everyone whom this action will affect. In Utilitarianism no one is granted special consideration, everyone s pain and pleasure is weighted equally. The balance of pleasure and pain for each person affected is added together and the action that will result in the greatest amount of pleasure for each person involved is the right action. This is to say that if Mr. Smith, Mrs. James, and Mr. Harris are all trying to decide which restaurant to go to on their lunch hour, they should consider the amount of pleasure one restaurant will cause Smith and subtract the amount of pain it will cause him. This should be done for all three of them for each restaurant they are considering. When they are done, the restaurant with the greatest amount of pleasure for Smith, James, and Harris will be the right choice for lunch. Not only does this calculation find a restaurant for lunch, it also results in the greatest happiness for all the people involved.
A theory that strives to achieve the most happiness for the most people sounds like a great doctrine for people to base their decisions on, but Utilitarianism has many objections. The first objection is to Hedonism, which says things are good or bad based only on how they make us feel. In some cases, this seems to get things backward. There are many times when we are unhappy because something bad has happened. This contradicts the idea of Hedonism, which says something is only bad if it makes us unhappy. If you think a coworker is your friend, but in actuality, she talks about you behind your back, this is a bad thing. According to Hedonism, it is not bad since you don t know she talks about you and therefore it causes you no pain. Things such as friendship and love are considered valuable, not only as means to happiness, but as ends themselves. We think friendship is valuable independently, not because it makes us happy. We do not look for friends because we are sad and know that people who have friends are happy; we are happy because we have friends and consider their friendship valuable. If things really were good or bad based only on how they made us feel, then there would be nothing wrong with an employee sleeping with the boss to get a promotion. The act would bring pleasure to the employee both by the actual act and the promotion, so this would be allowed by Hedonism; in fact, this would be the right action to take.
Another objection is that Utilitarianism does not account for justice or rights. Utilitarianism states that happiness is the only thing that measures whether an action is good, so any action that results in greater happiness than unhappiness is right. Some actions that may seem unjust could possibly have good consequences, which would make them allowable, even necessary by Utilitarianism. For example, if a man is embezzling money from the multi-million dollar company he works for, then he donates the money to various charities, Utilitarianism says that it is right for him to be stealing because he is increasing the pleasure of all the people the charities are helping, which is greater than the pain caused to this flourishing company. In this way, Utilitarianism fails to take justice into account. It gives this man the impression that the right action is to break the law. In the same way Utilitarianism does not account for justice, it also does not account for human rights. We value rights such as the right to free speech, freedom of religion, the right of privacy and many other rights. Utilitarianism does not consider these rights, only the consequence that will result in the greatest utility. For example, if a woman fills out a job application saying that her reason for leaving her last job was over a sexual harassment issue and explains this hardship to her new boss, this is done in confidence. If her new boss then goes around and tells each person this hardship about their new coworker because the boss knows everyone will find it humorous, this woman is now the joke of the office, and her right to privacy has been violated. Since so many people got enjoyment out of laughing at her, the amount of happiness generated by her boss telling her secret is greater than the amount of unhappiness she is caused, especially if they all joke about her behind her back. Since Utilitarianism does not account for rights, the fact that her right to privacy has been violated does not matter. Her boss took the right action when he decided to spread her secret around.
Since Utilitarianism only looks at the consequences or results of an action, it is a completely forward-looking theory. It fails to consider anything valuable that may look backward. Things such as promises that were made in the past are not deemed valuable under Utilitarianism. For example, you as the manager of a large company promised Mr. Thomas he could have his daughter s birthday off to celebrate with her. A few days before her birthday you realize that there is a huge deadline that will not be met if Thomas does not work that day. Many other employees will have to work overtime to learn what Thomas does and do it for him so he can have the day off. Thousands of your customers will be disappointed if you do not meet the deadline. Since so much pain will be caused by Thomas having the day off, according to Utilitarianism the right thing for you to do is to make Thomas work and miss his daughter s birthday. The fact that you promised him he could have the day off doesn t matter because it is a fact about the past. Also, since Utilitarianism only looks at consequences, things like motive do not matter. A man who has been a loyal employee for 28 years accidentally deletes a huge quarterly report from his computer. Another man is angry with the company so he takes his quarterly report and purposely runs it through the shredder. According to Utilitarianism, since both actions have the same bad outcome, both men have committed the same crime. It does not matter that one did it purposely and the other had no intentions of hurting the company, but in our lives, motives do matter.
Maybe the best example of how Utilitarianism fails to bring about the right business decision is the difficulty to accurately judge happiness vs. unhappiness. The practice of this theory is to predict how much happiness will be caused by an action, but how can anyone be sure? You can never be certain about the future. An action that you think will cause much happiness could end up being a disaster and causing much unhappiness. Plus, since Utilitarianism takes into consideration the utility that an action will cause every person involved, it becomes even more complicated. While you may be able to determine that an action will bring you happiness or unhappiness, it might be hard to put an actual value on the amount of pleasure or pain something will cause you. It can be done though. It is much harder however to also apply these measures to someone else. Just because something causes you much pain, that does not mean it will cause someone else any pain at all. How are you going to measure this? The only true way would be to feel the other person s pleasure or pain, which is impossible, so you can see how difficult it is to assign these values to pleasure and pain to calculate utility. One of the best examples of how this calculation can be difficult is the cost-benefit analysis of the Ford Pinto. In the 1970 s, Ford made a small compact car called the Pinto. In an attempt to compete with Volkswagen and other small cars hitting the market at the same time, Ford rushed the Pinto into production in much less time than normal. Toward the end of this production process, Ford engineers discovered that in some rear-end collisions, the Pinto s gas tank, which was placed right behind the rear bumper, would rupture. Since they were in such a hurry to get the car on the market, Ford officials decided to release the car anyway. Ford did own the patent to a much safer gas tank, which they offered on some of their other cars, but they wanted to get the Pinto into the market as soon as possible, so they did not want anything slowing down their production. Over the eight years that followed, it was estimated that 500 burn deaths occurred to people driving Ford Pintos who would not have been seriously injured if the car had not burst into flames as a result of the gas tank rupturing. This number could even be as high as 900, according to the estimates. Instead of recalling and changing the design of the Pinto, Ford just kept paying out settlements to the families involved in these crashes. Ford paid out millions of dollars to settle these suits out of court. So many Pintos were involved in fiery crashes that it became an embarrassment to Ford. Nonetheless, the sub-compact car was a big seller for Ford, so they continued to make it. You may be asking yourself why, after eight years, Ford had not taken the steps necessary to stop their car from exploding in rear-end collisions. The answer is because Ford did a cost-benefit analysis, which assigned values to different things, including human life. Their analysis showed it was not profitable for Ford to make the changes. This is the way Ford came to the conclusion that it would not be profitable to fix the Pinto: First they figured that it would cost them approximately $11 to fix each car. They had about 12.5 million cars so the total cost to fix all cars would be $137 million. Then Ford estimated that there would be 180 burn deaths, 180 serious burn injuries and 2,100 burned vehicles per year. The next step was to determine how much they would have to pay in out of court settlements for each of these accidents. They estimated the cost of each vehicle to be $700, and the amount per injury to be $67,000. The amount they assigned to a human life was about $200,000. This amount was derived by adding the cost of the funeral, future productivity losses, medical costs, victim s pain and suffering, and a few other things. The amount assigned to the victim s pain and suffering was $10,000. When figuring out the cost Ford would have to pay in settlements, it came to (180 x $200,000) + (180 x $67,000) + (2,100 x $700). The total amount was $49.5 million. Since this cost was less than the $137 million it would cost to fix each car, Ford decided it was not profitable to fix the Pinto s gas tank. Many people object to the value Ford placed on a human life. The amount they came up with may have been a fair price to pay a family who already lost someone due to one of these tragic accidents, but can you really put a price on saving a life? The way Ford did their cost-benefit analysis is a way of applying Utilitarianism to business decisions. In this case, even though the calculations showed Ford the right action to take, it was not the best moral action. This is a great example of how Utilitarianism fails to result in the correct moral action for business decisions.
After reading all the objections to Utilitarianism, it may be hard to believe that people actually practice this theory. There are however some defenses utilitarians offer for their theory. Many utilitarians realized that their moral theory was failing in such areas as preserving human rights and justice. To correct this, they came up with a revised version of Utilitarianism. Their revised version is called Rule-Utilitarianism. The problem with classic Utilitarianism (Act-Utilitarianism) is that each individual action is considered right or wrong based on the Principle of Utility. As we saw from the examples above, using the Principle of Utility for each individual action sometimes results in a decision that common sense tells us is wrong. Rule-Utilitarianism fixes this by determining a set of rules based on the principle that will be able to judge a group of actions at a time. Instead, rules will be established by reference to the principle, and individual acts will then be judged right or wrong by reference to the rules. This way rules such as Do not lie, are always carried out and the Rule-Utilitarianism decision will often be the same decision that common sense would tell us to make. In this way Rule-Utilitarianism cannot be convicted of violating our moral common sense, or of conflicting with ordinary ideas of justice, personal rights, and the rest. Other utilitarians have realized that many Utilitarianism actions are at odds with our common sense actions and have come up with the conclusion, So What? J.J.C. Smart published An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics which outlines this response. He admits that Utilitarianism will not always result in the same action that common sense would, but does not see anything wrong with this. His basis for this is that our common sense is not perfect. Our common sense can carry prejudices that we have gained from our family, church, or general culture. There really is nothing that makes our common sense reliable, so why do we assume common sense actions are more reliable than Utilitarianism actions? Utilitarianism is not wrong just because it conflicts with our feelings. Smart even goes as far as to say that maybe it is our common sense feelings that are wrong and not Utilitarianism. In the example of the man embezzling money and giving it to the poor, our common sense tells us that it is wrong to steal; Utilitarianism says that it is not. When all those people would benefit from the charity, why is it our common sense reaction that stealing is wrong, should be considered right? Smith does not think it is and he does not see the need for Utilitarianism to be revised at all.
Although utilitarians have come up with good defenses for their theory, I still believe that it is not the practical moral theory for people in the business world to follow. There are too many things that will be ignored if a business chose to follow Utilitarianism. Any company should take into consideration the rights of their customers and employees; Utilitarianism does not always do this. There are just too many cases in which Utilitarianism will result in the incorrect moral action for a business to take. This is why in the practical business world, Utilitarianism fails to always result in the correct moral action.