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Applying Utilitarianism

Applying Utilitarianism

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Given an ethical dilemma and how most people would evaluate it, determine how it would be evaluated by a utilitarian.

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Hello. I'm Glen. And this ethics tutorial is on applying utilitarianism. Before looking at the content, let's keep a couple of things in mind, specifically, the definition of utilitarianism, the definition of utility, and the idea that good is proportionate. So while we have the basics of good and bad, we also have more or less, and better and worse.

Example of good and better would be something that's good is complimenting someone on a good job, something that's better is complimenting someone on a good job in front of a mutual supervisor. This is better because the total probable utility is increased in quantity because the compliment is heard by a person of importance, so it is naturally better.

An example of something that's bad and worse would be-- bad is calling someone a racial slur, and far worse would be calling someone a racial slur on Facebook. Here the total probably utility is decreased in a greater amount than simply calling someone a racial slur, because the greater quantity of people is reached by that racial slur.

In this tutorial, we'll be showing how to apply utilitarianism to decision-making. So there will be lots of examples-- examples of intuitive, counterintuitive, and ambiguous results, and then the general shape of an ethical verdict on three contemporary ethical issues. And after we're done with that, reflect and see that if we accept the conclusions on those three issues, then we would probably tend to accept utilitarianism, and if we don't like them, then we'll probably reject utilitarianism.

Let's look at some examples of intuitive, counterintuitive, and ambiguous results of actions according to utilitarianism, keeping in mind that given utilitarianism, we're trying to abide by utility and increase overall happiness. and decrease unhappiness. So under intuitive results, let's see that overeating at a typical meal, Thanksgiving notwithstanding, but over eating at a typical meal is not a good thing, because it decreases utility, it makes us unhappy. And being polite by opening a door is generally intuitively good.

Two examples of actions with counterintuitive results, ones that generally don't make sense, would be that stealing someone's pen without getting caught would be OK. Utilitarianism would kind of say that's OK, as long you don't get caught, because it increases happiness, but it doesn't seem right. Another counterintuitive example would be breaking voting laws to vote as many times as you can for your favorite candidate, again, as long as you don't get caught, utilitarianism kind of says that this should be something you should do, but it doesn't seem right.

Two examples of actions with ambiguous results could be the following. One is running marathons, this is something that I do and will continue to do as long as I can. It has good results in that it improves cardiovascular health and general health overall. However, it also has bad results in that it causes a lot of pain, stiffness, soreness, I lose occasional toenails, and you get blisters. So there's both good and bad. It's ambiguous.

Another example could be cleaning your plate at dinner. If you grew up being told to clean your plate, eat all your food. Well, it's good of course to eat all that you're given or eat all that you take. You learn social propriety that way. However, if you take too much or you're given too much and you're forced to eat it, that could cause you to be sick. So there are ambiguous results to that one as well.

Now how utilitarianism might approach three contemporary issues can be seen in the following. And let's keep in mind that in utilitarianism, we are trying to estimate the possible consequences, and so there's always an element of guessing. Even though we might be 99% sure of the possible consequences, we are never really at 100%. So sometimes we do not have entire clarity. We want practical certainty. What are we willing to act on?

So a couple of issues-- one would be physician-assisted suicide. It's not entirely clear how utilitarianism might fall down on this one. But it certainly would take a lot into consideration. Because what is the good happening here, if the person wishing for the assisted suicide is under great pain and suffering, and they have a terminal illness, no hope for recovery, short time to live. It seems fairly clear that utilitarianism would say that it would be permissible, at least, if not obligatory for a physician to aid in that patient's death.

However, it's also cited that there's the Hippocratic Oath-- above all else, do no harm. However that only applies if harm is equated with death. It's not clear. So utilitarianism comes down in different ways on this one. One that might be a little bit more clear is abuse of animals. This would be impermissible. Clearly abusing animals, dogs, cats, your pets, and other animals is impermissible because it causes greater physical harm. It may or may not cause emotional harm, and it's hard to measure that one, but clearly the physical harm is impermissible.

And then preservation of the environment. This is something that utilitarianists would probably say is obligatory because the environment, having a suitable environment, is something that is applicable to all living things, not even just humans. We want to have a nice place to live that is suitable for us as living beings, and so the benefit, the overall good utility is increased for all. Utilitarianism clearly would say that we should act towards preserving the environment.

In this tutorial, we looked at methods of applying utilitarianism including intuitive, counterintuitive, and ambiguous results of actions. And we also looked at the general views of how utilitarianism would approach three contemporary ethical issues.