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Basing Moral Beliefs on Utilitarianism

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Basing Moral Beliefs on Utilitarianism
Works Cited Not Included
Should our moral beliefs be based on the utilitarian principle of
securing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? In
order to answer the question above, first of all it is necessary to
clarify what utilitarian principle is. The utilitarian principle is
one of many theories to answer the ethical nature of human being.
Being of the most influential western philosophy thoughts, the
utilitarian approach is defined as an ethical theory that holds that
an action is right if it produces, or if it tends to produce, the
greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people affected by
the action. Otherwise the action is wrong. (Business Ethics 1999)
Utilitarianism is a philosophy which has been around for centuries,
and is still active and popular in the modern world. It is important
not only in philosophy itself, but also in areas such as economics,
politics, and even people’s daily life. To some people, Utilitarianism
seems to be the only ethical philosophy which is obviously correct. To
others, it seems to be quite misconceived, even wrong. There have been
many arguments raised about the utilitarian principle, amongst them,
one of the most famous and influential theory, which is a contrasting
thought to utilitarian, is argued by Kant, saying that the basic moral
values should be applied universally, and the principle is that one
will act in the way he expects everyone else to act. Should our moral
beliefs be based on the utilitarian principle, or Kant’s or the
others? How has utilitarian principle been applied and what are the
problems and critics of utilitarian view?

-- Main Body --

According to the definition, the utilitarian theory is an ethical
theory that holds that an action is right if it produces, or if it
tends to produce, the greatest amount of good for the greatest number
of people affected by the action. Otherwise the action is wrong.
(Business Ethics 1999) To put this more simply, it is a moral
principle that when a course of action produces greatest balance of
benefits over harms for everybody that are affected. Then this action
is morally right, otherwise, it is wrong. Therefore, utilitarianism
focuses on the consequences of the course of action, rather than the
process, and how the action is done. As a result, whether the good or
benefits are produces by lies, manipulation and so on, will not be
taken into account.

Many people often use this moral principle in making daily decisions.
When people are asked to explain why they feel that they have a moral
duty to make a decision, or perform some action, it is often been
answered as they pointed out that there will be benefit come out from
it, or the harm can be prevented. Business managers, governors, as
well as the other professionals also use this theory when they are
making decisions, for example, whether to employ new staff, whether to
ban smoking in public places, or whether to invest in a new market. It
is clear that utilitarian principle is used widely and related closely
to people’s daily life. Before make a decision, people always weigh
between positive or good outcomes and negative or bad outcomes, and
more likely, the decision will be the one which will produce more
positive outcomes. According to utilitarianism, if the good
consequence is overall greater, then the decision is morally right.
Otherwise it is morally wrong. It is natural for a person to focus his
goals on things that will bring him happiness and pleasure, or at
least less harm.

The utilitarian principle is applied everywhere in people’s life. For
example, a university student doesn’t attend a lecture. The reason is
that he has got something personally and important to do. The
consequence of this action is that provides convenience for the
student, and nobody else is affected negatively. Another example could
be many people download software, music, or movie from internet, for
free or very small amount of money, and those downloaded contents are
illegal. However, there are still many people who buy legal software,
cds, and go to cinemas. It seems that those companies owning the
copyright are not quite suffering from the illegal copies. A final
example which is probably most well-known is the Nike and Gap one.
Nike and Gap are claimed to employ children workers, give low wages
and, even exploiting employees in some South East Asia countries. In
fact, not only Nike and Gap, many other manufacturing firms also
produce in these poorer countries. There have been a lot of debate
over the issue, are they doing the right thing? By setting factories
in those countries, firstly Nike get cheap labors, and also low cost
facilities. Furthermore, Nike may get easy access to those potential
markets, such as China, India and so on, as they can sell the products
in the place where they are produces with reduced distribution cost.
For the countries that Nike are operating in, they get foreign
investments, and more job opportunities. People may prefer to work for
such multinational companies rather than local ones, as many large
companies have strong financial basis that is likely to guarantee long
term and stable job, rather than those that are relatively small, but
may have the risk to lose job at anytime due to the instability of the
company. Overall, Nike and other similar companies seem to benefit
from investing in poorer countries. They could attract more consumers
as their products can be sold as lower price, as a result of the low
cost of the production. The countries also seem to accept their
entries. The utilitarian principle can be applied into politics as
well. Governments evaluate and implement the decisions that will
produce the greatest happiness to people. These are few examples of
how utilitarian principle is applied, and such examples can be found
in many other areas of people’s life.

Now, Should our moral beliefs be based on the utilitarian principle of
securing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?
This is not a question that can be simply answered yes or no. As a
moral principle, it is inevitable of being criticized and questioned.
Are those examples are morally right? If not, what are the objections?

While the utilitarian principle has been used widely and popular,
people often argue that it is not possible to depend on this one
single principle when facing a moral decision. Kantianism is another
philosophical theory regarding to human being’s ethical behaviour.
Being a opposite theory to utilitarianism, it requires people to do
what they expect others to do. Therefore people’s behaviour should be
based on the universal law. The second aspect of Kant’s theory is that
focus on the motivation and willing, whereas utilitarian theory focus
more on consequence. Looking back to the downloading illegal contents
example, although the action can provide convenience and reduced cost
to people, which is a good consequence overall. However, the intention
of the action is wrong, therefore according to Kant’s theory, the
action is wrong. Comparing two theories, Kantianism seems to be more
rational, where there is a universal law, e.g. people shouldn’t lie,
and organizations should treat workers well. Utilitarianism on the
other hand has no universal law on which morality is bases, therefore
each situation is judged individually.

The utilitarian principle requires that we first evaluate both the good and bad consequences of an action; then we determine whether the total good consequences is greater the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally right. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally wrong. This process is more subjective and can not be universally applied whereas Kantianism can be. Also, one's person determination of what produces the greatest consequence may not be same another person's, therefore this theory is inconsistent and a universal law cannot be applied from it. Kantianism is more consistent of a theory and can be universally applied to people. It is more rational because even if the consequences of the action aren't necessarily the best, the person who performs is still right to perform the action because it is their duty to do so and the action is followed by the universal law. Therefore, ethically and morally they are doing the right thing. Kantianism reminds us the question: Should we just focus on the positive outcome or should we also focus on the actions we take?

Except Kant's opposite theory to utilitarian theory, there are some
other criticisms and objections. One of the most common criticisms of
the utilitarian principles is that it sometimes produces consequence
that is in contrast with people's "common morality". This simply means
an internal moral feeling of people, where sometimes people know what
is right or wrong instinctively without any consulting or hesitating.
Looking back to the examples, people will usually say that not
attending a lecture is incorrect, and more morally, exploiting workers
is wrong.

One of the other problems with the utilitarian view is that although
it helps with making decisions in the situation which the consequence
are actually known and how everyone will be affected. However, this is
often unknown, and sometimes there is no way of knowing. This may
apply to many complex situations such as Nike’s. As one of the largest
multinational companies, Nike should have carefully evaluated the
outcome of using low cost labours. However, they didn’t realise that
the people’s reaction would have been very serious, such as the
demonstrations, which have certainly affect the reputation of Nike. As
a result Nike should have done various actions to retrieve the cost,
such as improving the working environment of the workers and so on. In
reality, when weighing the good and bad outcomes, it is often
impossible to calculate all the consequences.

If all the above considerations are taken in to account, then the
utilitarian principle is apparently not, and cannot be the single
answer for people's moral beliefs. However, looking at all the
examples mentioned above, should the student attend the lecture but
dismiss his personal thing which may be important? Should people
download software instead of spending 200 pounds to buy same software
– e.g. Microsoft price its Windows operation system at similar level
in many developed and developing countries, which some people may find
it very expensive and unacceptable. Or should Nike stop using low cost
labours, but high cost workers that may cause the rise of their prices
and many other problems such as unemployment in the developing
countries? Are they wrong or right? These questions are still hard to
answer, but it is clear that the utilitarian principle definitely
plays an important role in our moral decisions.

-- Conclusion --

In conclusion, utilitarianism provides us an appropriate way when
people face moral dilemmas. Nowadays, people are becoming more and
more different from one to another, and more characterized. As a
result, people may focus on considering themselves. However, this
could not be the answer "yes" to the question - Should our moral
beliefs be based on the utilitarian principle of securing the greatest
happiness for the greatest number of people? If solely based on the
utilitarian principle, the answer is no. There is not a single answer
to the question, as there is probably no one ethical theory that
everyone can agree in the world.

In order to seek happiness, the opposite side should not be dismissed,
instead of that, there must be a suitable balance between them, and
also a balance between what is "good" and what is "right". If a person
performs an ethical action, but the intention is immoral, then more
likely, the person is not considered as ethically correct, thus people
must not only act right but also think right, in order to be true
"right". As the utilitarian principle is being used, especially in
dealing with complex problems, it is necessary to take careful and
objective evaluation of the consequences; and it also remind us that
we should not only consider ourselves, but always look beyond it to
the good of all the people.

Utilitarianism, far from being a self-serving approach to moral
issues, demands careful, objective, impartial evaluation of
consequences. It is a widely used – but often misused – approach to
moral evaluation. A powerful tool of moral reasoning, it is a
technique well worth mastering. (Business Ethics 1999)

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