Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Basic Strengths and Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

For the A2 exam it is still important to have a few strengths and weaknesses of certain theories to draw upon. When an exam asks you whether x is the best/most useful/reliable/helpful/whatever approach to business/sex/environment, you'll need to assess the theory's strengths (if you're going to support it and criticise another theory) and weaknesses (if you're going to destroy it (and I mean destroy) and argue for another theory).

By each point I've suggested how strengths/weaknesses may apply to environment/business/sex issues.

The main strengths are as follows:


  • Utilitarianism is egalitarian and allows us all personal autonomy - it is not legalistic like deontological ethical theories
    • in terms of sexual ethics, this is good - it is fair to believe that we are autonomous regarding sexual issues. They're (obviously) private and intimate and so should arguably not be governed by a rule-based ethic
  • The consequentialist nature allows us to apply util to our own situation and also, unlike deontological theories, looks onwards and into the future
    • in terms of business ethics, this is good for looking towards the future of a business
    • in terms of environmental ethics, this is good for looking at the planet's future - sustainability in particular (this also applies to business ethics)
  • Calculating the greatest happiness for the greatest number seems rational and calculable 
    • often in the business world it is easy to have a rational and calculable theory which can be used to work out problems
  • Utilitarianism focusses on pleasure, which is consistent with what humans desire. We want pleasure, which makes this theory more realistic than many others
    • realistically, in modern society sex is mostly based on pleasure. Utilitarianism is therefore practical in tackling the important of pleasure - it is a realistic approach to sexual ethics
  • Utilitarianism gives value not just to humans but to other species too, especially in the case of benefit utilitarian Peter Singer
    • environmentally, Singer's approach (including quotes such as "speciesism draws an arbitrary line" and "I don't think ethics is just for humans") seems fair in protecting animals, and even Bentham suggests equality for animals ("not can they talk, nor can they reason, but can they suffer?")

The main weaknesses are as follows:

  • The Hedon Machine weakness states that we don't actively pursue pleasure alone - this is a very primal and callous view of humanity
    • if businesses seek pleasure alone, they may exploit people and use immoral means to reach pleasure, which can damage reputation. The cheating and pleasure-based company Enron saw this when it suffered corporate collapse and had many of its executives jailed
    • some theories, such as situation ethics and virtue ethics, will argue that seeking pleasure alone re. sexual issues rules out love, commitment and care
  • Consequences cannot be foreseen, and so actions may be taken which are not for the 'greater good' at all - it is all a matter of chance and probability
    • this is a weakness for all three - if you can't tell what will happen in the future (say, for example, the end of a relationship/extinction of a species/collapse of a business), how can you possibly base a theory on what will happen in the future?
  • Intuitionist W. D. Ross refers to utilitarianism as "a single factor theory". By this he is criticising its narrow, one-track nature as explained above
  • Utilitarianism ignores the motives of actions, so long as the end is good
    • sexually, this could mean that immoral means could be taken to obtain pleasure, so long as the pleasure outweighs any pain
    • in terms of business ethics, this could lead to companies doing good things (such as endorsing Fair Trade) in order to look good as opposed to doing it because it is fair or right
      • in particular, Kantian ethics and virtue ethics will oppose this
  • Utilitarianism exploits the minority
    • in terms of business, this would mean that a company could morally use sweatshops in order to appeal to the majority in terms of selling cheap produce
  • Bernard Williams argues that utilitarianism denies us of moral integrity, and suggests that we can easily do callous things - such as steal, cheat or even murder - for the greater good
    • in business, the corporate collapse of Enron can be seen as how a utilitarian approach to business hindered moral integrity. The same goes for the incident with the Ford cars - morals were ignored to favour pleasure
  • The Hedonic Calculus is hard to use and apply
    • for business, environment and sex this is an issue. Practically, you need a theory which can be easily applied. Bentham's Hedonic Calculus provides several issues
  • Louis Pojman (ethical egoist) argues that utilitarianism employs an idealised view of justice. He gives the example of a doctor who has five patients who are all in desperate need of different organs, otherwise they will die. A healthy man walks into the hospital for a check-up. Pojman argues that it in theory utilitarians would kill the healthy man to allow the five men to survive. In reality, however, this offers a remarkably "cavalier attitude to justice"
  • Virtue ethicist Anscombe says that "Bentham and Mill don't notice the difficulty of the concept of pleasure."












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