"Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."
Terence Landman Monday 22 August 5pm Student Number: I.T.P. Essay. Term 3
“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”
In this academic essay there will be an in depth look at the words of Mill, in terms of actions and their labels of either right and wrong, and those connotations to happiness and, so to speak the reverse of happiness. There will be an attempt through various different channels, to illustrate the absurdity of utilitarianism, in the sense of its mere provisional assessment of promoting happiness. Furthermore this essay will also emphasize the fact that happiness is subjective and the ripple effects this would have on the utilitarian theory. Lastly this essay will deal with the complications utilitarianism might have on an individual’s fundamental rights and the fact that though it is sometimes our duty, in terms of moral ‘rights’ to act in accordance to a utilitarian, this doesn’t mean that we need adopt the principle or be forced to always adhere to its policies.
In chapter two, ‘What Utilitarianism is’, Mill makes the statement and claim that morality is based on the foundations that the right thing to do on any occasion is that which aims to give the maximum happiness for all concerned:
“… Actions are right in proportion, as they tend to promote happiness, wrong, as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” (Mill, Utilitarianism, p.697)
This may also be expressed in the simpler phrase: “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Teach yourself Philosophy, Mel Thompson, p149) Mill takes it one step further, by saying that morality requires impartial consideration of the interests of everyone involved,
This is a preview of the whole essay
“As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires [an agent] to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” (Mill, Utilitarianism, p.702).
And it is thus that our own decisions and interests can only be considered in contrast and similar weight to that of other people.
In grasping this crude and make shift overview, I would like you to consider the following example which is at first believed to embrace and support utilitarianism, but ultimately shakes its foundations:
“Imagine you are the doctor in charge of two seriously ill patients. One has terminal cancer, and will die shortly. The other has a heart condition that soon will become fatal if a replacement heart is not found quickly. You discover that the heart of the cancer patient would actually make a perfect donor heart for the heart patient. So you can save one of these two lives by killing one patient and giving his heart to the other. Or you can do nothing, with the result that both lives will soon come to an end. What shall you do?” (The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, p184)
The answer to the utilitarian is very simple. He/she believes that you should kill the already dying cancer patient, as his life is already sealed, in order to save the other patient’s life, and in doing so you will not only save one person from dying, which they argue was inevitable, but you will also maximise happiness, in a poor situation as much as possible. It is better, so to speak, according to the utilitarian to have one grieving family, rather than two. But the question one should consider is; is the cancer patient not a victim and worse yet, a pawn of a grave and moral injustice? Do human beings not have moral rights, the most fundamental of all being the right to life? Does the cancer patient then not have the right to life that the process of utility cannot infringe on, regardless of how long that life might be?
Utilitarianism might morph itself in a cunning way and adapt to this response in terms of rule utilitarianism. In accordance to this offshoot of utilitarianism, the rule utilitarian would object by saying that killing the cancer patient might very well result in less happiness, and that one should rather adhere to the set of rules that have been established i.e. Thou shall not kill, because this will lead to the general greater happiness. Though this may seem a plausible and sound response, why are we bound or obliged to follow a rule/rules, even in a situation that will result in less happiness? It would be ridiculous to insist that we tell the truth to a serial killer who demands to know where one’s children are hiding, even if the truth does, in general lead to increased happiness (The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, 185) Surely it would be wrong to tell the truth under these circumstances?
The utilitarian may create a counter example to the idea that we all have a fundamental right to life (this was discussed a little earlier) and in doing so they may believe that it shows that this would even create happiness to the utmost, with the least drawbacks:
“You know that a submarine crew is, due to an equipment malfunction, unwittingly about to launch a nuclear strike that will result in the deaths of millions of innocent people. The only way of adverting disaster is to send a missile to annihilate the submarine and its crew. What should you do?” (The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, p188)
The utilitarian will argue, and rightfully so that the ‘right’ thing to do is to destroy the submarine. The implication this has is that in doing so they undermine the right to life of the crew, but they also prevent a disaster from occurring. It is thus that the utilitarian will argue that it is legitimate to undermine the right to life of certain people if it maximizes and promotes happiness, which the example shows has clearly been done.
However to accept that there are situations in which it may be right to kill the innocent, to save life does not require that one adopt the principle that one should always do so. Nor does it require that one embrace utilitarianism. One may reject utilitarianism precisely because one recognises obviously and intuitively that it is wrong to murder a cancer patient to save a heart patient. (The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law, 189)
On a different front, it seems utilitarianism overlooked several problems that seem to be perched right in its very own backyard. Utilitarianism craftily hides the fact that in its assessment, it’s always only provisional. This places a great deal of tension on the theory because what previously was thought to maximise happiness, is now called into question. Consider the following example: Say on one particular day you happened to save a child from drowning. In accordance to utilitarianism this action would be right, as it would tend to promote happiness, so to speak, in comparison to allowing the child to drown, which would create a great deal of contempt and unhappiness. However consider that when this child grows up, he grows up to become a serial killer. This suddenly and drastically affects the validity of the theory, largely because it is incapable of calculating the effects of happiness in comparison to unhappiness an action might have. It is thus that the theory is only provisional, and this makes it highly impractical. (Teach yourself Philosophy, Mel Thompson, p149)
Secondly, another serious point that the utilitarian conveniently overlooks is that happiness may not be objective and other people may not want what you deem to be their happiness or best interests. It is also important and valid for us to ask, how does one judge objectively between the pain inflicted on a single individual and the resulting happiness derived from that action on many other people? (Teach yourself Philosophy, Mel Thompson, p149) In bringing these various points home consider the situation of an unborn child known to be seriously handicapped but capable of survival. Is the potential suffering of both the child and parents, due to the handicap, such that the child’s birth does not add to the sum of happiness? And possibly even more important than the previous question, who can possibly objectively make such an assessment? (Teach yourself Philosophy, Mel Thompson, p150)
Therefore in concluding we cannot place moral value on the amount of happiness an action creates, because we are incapable as human beings to make that calculation and determine the happiness or unhappiness an action creates. Furthermore utilitarianism has overlooked the possibility that happiness may be subjective and that other people may not want what you deem to be their happiness. And lastly it is clear that human beings are packaged with some intrinsic human rights, such as the right to life, and though sometimes it’s our duty to forego these rights, such as in the example of the submarine, this does not require that one adopt the principle that one should always do so. It is then with this that we can deduce that actions are not right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness, but rather a culmination of various different factors, both seen and unseen.
Teach yourself Philosophy, Mel Thompson
The Philosophy Gym, Stephen Law
Reason & Responsibility, Joel Feinburg & Russ Shafer – Landau