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Commitments of Utilitarianism

Commitments of Utilitarianism

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Given a situation, identify the commitments of utilitarianism

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Source: Image of Socrates, Creative Commons, TABLE BY GLENN KUEHN

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'm Glen, and this ethics tutorial is on the commitments of utilitarianism. As we move through the tutorial, let's keep a few things in mind, such as the definition of utilitarianism, the principle of utility, also let us remember the definitions of permissible and impermissible actions, and the categories of permissible actions.

In this tutorial, we're going to cover the commitments of utilitarianism including methods for evaluating actions-- in other words, everything that goes along with permissible and impermissible evaluations-- and then we're going to look at a situated example to see how utilitarianism interprets that situation.

Now, according to utilitarianism, we are committed to evaluating actions solely based on the utility of the action that is whether or not it promotes happiness and decreases unhappiness so looking at permissible and impermissible actions and the different classifications let's examine some examples on the following table. We can see that, under the heading of Given Utilitarianism-- we have these five different categories.

A permissible action could be stealing food to save a starving family. In the given circumstances, this could be permissible. Impermissible actions would be torturing animals for fun, this decreases total utility. An obligatory action could be complimenting someone on a job well done if I have no other agenda. Neutral action could be reading a recipe. It has a zero impact on utility. And then a supererogatory action could be donating blood every eight weeks. This goes above and beyond what is obligatory. So these are the different commitments of utilitarianism, according to the principle of utility.

And quickly reviewing a few of these categories, we can see that stealing food is permissible, in this case, because it does not decrease total utility. Commenting someone on a job well done is obligatory because it increases total utility. And donating blood is supererogatory because it maximizes utility.

Let's look at a situation and some possible actions in that situation, and how utilitarianism would evaluate them. Let's say you're a line cook in a restaurant, and there's a whole world of actions that might be available to you here. So let's say the chef asks you to work overtime, and you do so because you have no other obligations. This would be an obligatory action because it increases total utility.

Another obligatory action could be washing your hands and using sanitizer when you change touching foods or you take off gloves. A supererogatory action could be washing your hands and using sanitizer every time you touch anything. That could also be a little bit OCD. If you drop a lambchop on the floor, rinse it off, and then serve it, this would be impermissible because it decreases utility-- it is unsafe. Wearing a skull cap instead of a chef's hat is permissible. You need to do it. But the choice of hat itself is just simply permissible. You're not obliged to wear one or the other, you're simply required to restrain your hair.

And a little bit more complicated one-- let's say you're asked to prepare 15 whole lobsters which you must kill by boiling them. Well, this is permissible, but it is not necessarily neutral, because you are killing live beings. And it has been proven that crustaceans, do in fact, feel pain. So it's a little bit difficult to figure out. Not all cases are clear cut. But the world of actions available to you as a line cook do fall into different categories for permissibility and impermissibility according to utilitarianism, based upon the overall happiness and unhappiness that could be created.

In this tutorial, we have seen some of the basic commitments of utilitarianism and how it evaluates actions based upon permissibility and impermissibility, and then under the separate categories of permissible actions. And we looked at a situated example in the kitchen as a line cook to see how utilitarianism would estimate the happiness or unhappiness of possible actions.