Capital Punishment and Utilitarianism
by emmerzpianogmailcom (student)
Act Utilitarianism follows the idea that the principle of utility should be applied to each individual situation uniquely. This means the greatest happiness for the greatest number. An Act Utilitarian would suggest that when faced with a moral choice a person must decide which action will lead to the greatest happiness. Bentham, who is widely considered the father of Utilitarianism, was an Act Utilitarian. He believed that the pain and pleasure of an action determined its morality. Morality concerns principles that distinguish between right or wrong behavior. Bentham said, "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do". This indicates that humans are just like animals as they respond similarly to pain and pleasure.
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In previous times, to determine the morality of an action people had accepted the views of priests and other authoritative figures. However, Bentham questioned whether they always suggested the moral path to follow. Bentham therefore decided to give people a way to work out the morality of their actions themselves. This is featured in his felicific calculus.
A moral dilemma is a question of whether a certain action is moral or not. I will be discussing the moral dilemma of capital punishment.
There are two ways to solve moral dilemmas; the first would be to approach it from a deontological manner. This would determine that murder is morally wrong and therefore capital punishment should not take place because it is the intension of killing another human being.
The other way to solve a moral dilemma is to examine it from a consequential view. This view would question whether the capital punishment would benefit society. Utilitarianism follows the view that an action is morally good if it produces beneficial results. The two are therefore compatible.
Bentham’s felicific calculus can be used here. The calculus is split into seven areas and I will discuss three of these with regards to capital punishment. Intensity, which is how strong the pleasure, is, the pain caused by the offender would be incredibly great and therefore his action is morally wrong. This would indicate that capital punishment would be a good verdict. Another feature of the felicific calculus is propinquity, which is how near the pain or pleasure is. The pain that the offender has caused would have been very close to when the decision was made and subsequently capital punishment would be the result of the action.
The final point that I will discuss is certainty. Although capital punishment cannot be certain to cause pleasure, the potential pain that will be avoided will be great providing capital punishment as a good verdict. The other four features are duration (how long happiness will last), extent (how widely it will spread), purity (how little pain is caused) and fecundity (whether it is likely to lead to additional pain).
To conclude, it is clear that there are different views on whether capital punishment would be good or bad and that highlights the main problem of act of utilitarianism. This problem being that happiness is subjective and you cannot predict the consequences of your actions, consequently we cannot determine whether capital punishment is right or wrong.