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Ethics: Where are you? part 8

July 2, 2010

The theory of utilitarianism is universal and states that everyone wants to be happy. People seek pleasure, not pain. Sympathy is innate and people work to help others feel happy. The path to happiness is not as important as arriving at happiness. Actions are morally right if the result is happiness. The moral community is composed of all beings with feelings. Utilitarianism is used by Boss as an ethical theory to show how moral dilemmas can be resolved such as in the debate over GM food, particularly Bt corn. In weighing the pros and cons of growing Bt corn, one must decide if the risks (safety/danger) outweigh the benefits (starvation/happiness).

Rule-utilitarianism is about following the rule that brings the most happiness to the most people. Act-utilitarianism is about judging the morality of an action’s consequences (p. 310). Rule-utilitarianism is concerned with rules “such as stealing and keeping promises” (p. 274). Act-utilitarianism is concerned with consequences of actions and does not judge the act itself even if the act is “lying, stealing, torturing, or killing” (p. 275). Mo Tzu’s notion of utilitarianism differs from the standard Western version in that Mo Tzu “emphasized the importance of actively working toward reform and a better society rather than just talking about theory” (p. 293).

Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism is that it is a tool of social reform and it states that all pleasures are equal. Bentham’s calculus is a formula he came up with that has seven factors that can calculate the amount of pain and pleasure generated by an action. These seven factors are “intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent” (p. 309). The ethical implications of his theory may help us make decisions about both individual and social (collective) action because of its “secure, scientific foundation for developing social policy and legislation and for critiquing the existing legal system” (p. 280).

John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism is that the morality of an action is based not only on pleasure, but the primary basis of “ensuring happiness is to respect the dignity and personal autonomy of others” (p. 289). The principle of nonmaleficence was more important than happiness resulting from an action. Mill’s belief in pleasure having more moral value in educated humans than non-humans or the mentally disabled may help us make decisions about both individual and social (collective) action when it comes to deciding whether those beings could be used in medical experiments.

Criticisms of utilitarianism include the idea of justice being impartial and not including “individual integrity and personal responsibility” (p. 310). Another criticism is that utilitarianism has a naturalistic fallacy in its theory because it goes from stating what pleasure and pain are to stating what the principle of utility ought to be. I use utilitarianism in my daily life each time I calculate if an action I take will result in happiness and whether it will affect mine or anyone else’s integrity.

Utilitarianism is used in our culture and society such as when politicians give speeches that urge citizens to vote a certain way because a piece of legislation will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Limitations of utilitarianism as an ethical guidepost or calculus include doing things for the greater good that have the potential to harm even one being or a small group. For example, to learn more about a disease, would scientists be right to purposely infect a small group of people in order to study the disease? What about war – we say that we go to war because we expect the result to benefit a great number of people, but what about the collateral damage – innocent civilians killed during the war?

Utilitarianism is the theory that humans want to be happy and actions that bring happiness are morally right. The principle of utility is aka the greatest happiness principle. The principle of utility states that an action is proportionally right to the amount of happiness it brings and vice versa, an action is proportionally wrong to the reverse amount of happiness.

English jurist, philosopher, and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed that utilitarianism is a social reform tool. Bentham stated that the principle of utility could be used to decide laws and legal issues. He devised a utilitarian calculus to determine the strength of the pain or pleasure resulting from an action. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) studied utilitarianism with Bentham and then devised his own version. Mill believed in the principle of utility, but he also believed that happiness should not be our only goal and our goals should include human dignity and integrity. Mill also thought the principle of maleficence was more important that the goal of happiness.

Mo Tzu (c470 BCE- 391 BCE) thought that utilitarianism was not about bringing happiness to just the individual but rather that the result of actions should be happiness or universal love to everyone regardless of social status.

Utilitarianism states the moral community includes all beings with senses and that all beings are equal. Prejudices come from ignorance and tradition and have no basis in rational thought. Utilitarianism has been used in deciding public policy but it has its critics. Euthanasia committed on humans is legally wrong, but is it morally wrong? The deciding factor, according to utilitarianism, is whether the person’s life is worth prolonging? In answering that question, one must also answer whether that person’s loved ones will suffer from the death of their loved one.

Criticisms of utilitarianism include the fact that in determining which action results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we are devaluing the worth of the people who will be harmed by such an action. Utilitarianism is driven by feelings of happiness and pain and not rational thought.

“The Infrastructure of Harassment: Bullying and Social Media” from

This article by Rushworth M. Kidder is about how bullying has been around for a long time, but in today’s digital world “bullies can punch their victims nonstop, 24/7, with taunts, insults, and threats.” Various reasons are given for the bullying, which include ego, control, envy, and attention. Bullying can be seen as a form of cultural relativism in which “morality is created collectively by groups and differs from society to society” (Boss, 2008, p. 9). Bullies pick on victims who they feel are not the same as the main group. What bullies lack is autonomy and self-realization. Instead, bullies do not think for themselves and depend on the opinions of others.

Kidder states that victims sometimes stood up to their bullies and learned moral courage. Victims must learn defense mechanisms to protect themselves from bullies, mechanisms which are “psychological tools for coping with difficult situations” (Boss, 2008, p. 40). Sometimes the victims walked away, but today with all the different ways we can communicate, bullies have lots of ways to get at their victims: “twenty-first-century style … emails, tweets, texts, YouTube postings, Facebook comments, and MySpace messages” (Kidder).

Known victims of social media bullies include teen-agers Phoebe Prince and Megan Meier who committed suicide as a way to avoid the bullying. Social reform and legislation can help the victims of bullies. States are developing anti-bullying laws, but will the laws make bullying go away? Boss describes ethical subjectivism as the theory that “people can never be mistaken about what is morally right or wrong because there are no objective or universal moral standards or truths … there are only opinions” (p. 77). Does ethical subjectivism describe the ethics of bullies? Social media makes methods of harassment easier for bullies to throw a digital punch, work in groups, and know what their victims are doing at all times so the victim cannot escape from those punches.

Social media on the one hand is useful because of its reach in communications, but on the other hand, social media is a powerful weapon when misused. Because social media is used by businesses, prohibiting social media use by school kids would “stifle their ability to join the working world after they graduate,” according to Kidder. That is why legislation without education will not solve the bullying problem. How do we change the moral and ethical culture in which bullying exists? Kidder states that “we need to so marginalize bullying that nobody, at any age, thinks it’s cool.” Are bullies followers of social Darwinism – survival of the fittest? (Boss, 2008, p. 110).

Education needs to take place in school, but also in the home and the community. Research on the cell phone use of 8- to 18-year-olds shows they send about 118 text messages a day. When those text messages fall into the realm of bullying, it is done “underground and out of sight” (Kidder). Parents need to be proactive in teaching social values when allowing children to have cell phones. Similarly, adults in the community ought to be models – both in action and words – of these social values in which respect is a highly valued virtue. Boss states that cultural relativism is the theory that “public opinion determines what is right or wrong” (p. 100). Cultural relativism does not excuse cultural practices such as slavery, and I think it does not excuse bullying.


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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011 9:57 pm

    Superb! Generally I never read whole articles though the way you wrote this information is simply amazing and this kept my fascination with reading and i also enjoyed it. You have great way with words-at all.

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