During the greater part of this year, across the world, there have been several restrictions on the activities of people, often preventing them from their regular activities that were thought implicit in their freedoms.
The basis of such decisions is often the principle of utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is a theory, which advocates actions that foster happiness or pleasure and opposes actions that cause unhappiness or harm. When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole. Utilitarianism would say that an action is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society or a group.
“The greatest good for the greatest number” is a maxim of utilitarianism. The 18th and 19th century British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the key proponents of this philosophy. Utilitarianism holds that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce sadness, or the reverse of happiness—not just the happiness of the actor but that of everyone affected by it. At work, you display utilitarianism when you take actions to ensure that the office is a positive environment for your co-workers to be in, and then make it so for yourself.
The three axioms of utilitarianism :
- Pleasure, or happiness, is the only thing that has intrinsic value.
- Actions are right if they promote happiness, and wrong if they promote unhappiness.
- Everyone’s happiness counts equally.
The limitations of utilitarianism:
- A limitation of utilitarianism is that it tends to create a black-and-white construct of morality. In utilitarian ethics, there are no shades of gray—either something is wrong or it is right.
- Utilitarianism also cannot predict with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad—the results of our actions happen in the future.
- Utilitarianism also has trouble accounting for values like justice and individual rights. In contrast to the utilitarian concept, deontology is ethics of duty where the morality of an action depends on the nature of the action, i.e., harm is unacceptable irrespective of its consequences. This concept was introduced by the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant and hence widely referred as Kantian deontology. The decisions of deontology may be appropriate for an individual but does not necessarily produce a good outcome for the society.
To appreciate this, it is interesting to watch this video by Michael Sandel of Harvard University : What is the right thing to do? : https://youtu.be/kBdfcR-8hEY. This is a longish video, so I would suggest that you view the first 20 minutes for now. If you find this interesting, you can go ahead and see not only the rest of the video, but the entire series.
One of the examples in the video is when a hospital has four people whose lives depend upon receiving organ transplants: a heart, lungs, a kidney, and a liver. If a healthy person is waiting for his check-up in the hospital, his organs could be harvested to save four lives at the expense of his one life. This would arguably produce the greatest good for the greatest number. But few would consider it an acceptable course of action, let alone an ethical one.
So, although utilitarianism is surely a reason-based approach to determining right and wrong, it has obvious limitations. Michael Sandel has very well explained the ideas of consequential and categorical approaches to moral reasoning.
And here is what Mahatma Gandhi suggested.
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
– One of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought.
It would seem that in these days of Big data, Artificial Intelligence and hyper-personalisation it may be more appropriate to apply Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman than the perceived good of many in utilitarianism.