The approach of Utilitarianism is rather democratic in that it suggests that the greatest good or happiness is for the greatest number. However, it does provide the student with the prospect that...

The approach of Utilitarianism is rather democratic in that it suggests that the greatest good or happiness is for the greatest number. However, it does provide the student with the prospect that while all are valued, the minority or the one opposed to this view of the greater good is disregarded.

How can this view be squared as acceptable as an ethical position, and would it be more closely aligned with what we think would be a Christian ethical position?

Asked on by readeal3

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are a number of ways to respond to this question. 

First, we can say that utilitarianism really is consistent with democracy because democracy also disregards the desires of the minority.  In this way, there is no inconsistency between democracy and utilitarianism.  For example, I live in the state of Washington.  In this state, marijuana is legal and so is abortion.  A utilitarian point of view would say that these things seem to provide the greatest good to the majority and therefore they are good even if they make some conservative people very unhappy.  Democracy says the same thing.  It says that the views of the people who do not like marijuana or legalized abortion are not heard in my state at this point.

Second, we can say that utilitarianism can be squared with an ethical point of view only if you start with the “right” assumptions.  If we start with the assumption that the good of the whole society is more important than the good of the individual, then utilitarianism makes perfect sense.  However, there is no objective way to say whether this assumption is actually correct.  Ideas of what are or are not moral can only be decided by each individual and their conscience. 

Finally, we can argue the issue of utilitarianism and Christianity in at least two ways.  First, we can say that these two ethical systems are completely incompatible.  When it comes to morals and ethics, Christianity is not a democratic system.  No matter what people want or like, the word of God is what decides whether a thing is good or bad.  If, for example, God does not like abortion, then it can never be right, even if it makes all of the people in a society happier.  Second, we could argue that utilitarianism is compatible with Christian ethics if only people would understand the meaning of happiness properly.  You could argue that true happiness consists of having a good relationship with God.  In that case, true happiness for all people comes only from obeying God’s commands.  If this is the case, there is no discrepancy between utilitarianism and Christian ethics.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In utilitarianism, the morality of an action is determined by its resulting outcome, an outcome which is designed to effect happiness; it is a scientific method that tests actions and their consequences through the application of moral laws. In his "General Remarks" in which he prefaces his treatise on utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, contends that the morality of individual actions is not solely a question of "commonsensical observation." In this respect, then, the precepts of Christianity play significant roles in determining what is the greater good for the greater number. Nevertheless, utilitarianism is also naturalistic, applying natural laws to structures and behaviors.

Mill further explains that once the general happiness principle is recognized as the ethical standard, the authoritative position for an individual to act concurrent to that standard arises from the “natural” or “social feelings of mankind.” Another naturalistic motivator would be the angst created within the conscience of the individual when his actions come into conflict with such natural, social feelings. The ultimate provision, then, exists with an individual’s subjective desire to see that his or her duty and the “conscientious feelings of mankind” are in harmony. It is this area which poses problems for utilitarianism. For instance, Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the British utilitarian movement, discovered that there exist expedient men such as industrialists and entrepreneurs whose "greater happiness" conflicts with the greater good. Also, some people may not necessarily even strive for happiness as their wills may seek something else. Certainly, the unpredictability of human nature can interfere. 

As a literary example of the moral dilemmas that can occur with the concept of the "greater good," Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a short story entitled "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In this narrative people live happily in Omelas, except for one who suffers in order that they may have their utopian life. When youths are shown this wretched creature, there are those who suffer the angst of their consciences of which Mill writes; however, others reason like the expedient men that if this is the condition that must be for their happiness, then, with the "commonsensical" reasoning, they are satisfied and do not concern themselves with the suffering of one individual. Thus, while it has the Christian concern for moral law and what is good for people, it cannot factor in "the least of" the brethren. 

The problem that arises with the principles of utilitarianism is that it is a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. and cannot, therefore, encompass all individual motivations and needs. So, while the "greater good" and what is perceived as "the will of God," may be achieved and "be squared as acceptable" because of adherence to moral laws, there will always be the few who do not get served by the moral and naturalistic laws. 

[Please also peruse the "in-depth" link which provides "Answers to Utilitarianism's Critics"]

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