John Doyle Ethics 215w Utilitarianism vs. Kant
What is Utilitarianism? It is one of the many approaches to moral problem solving. It has been and does continue to be the most accepted solution for moral dilemmas. This approach begins by looking at the problem and then examining the different answers. The Utilitarian view would be to find the solution that carries the least amount of damage to all involved. It is more than finding the least amount of hurt; it ultimately looks for the solution to give the most happiness to all parties. The solution must look at the overall problem and find the solution that would create the most overall happiness. This is a lot easier said than done. That is because while looking for the most overall happiness there is also the small amount of unhappiness that has to be taken into account. There are times when both parties cannot be satisfied by an answer. What if the problem has eight people who can be made happy and only one person who will be unhappy? Then, according to Utilitarianism, the happiness of those eight people outweighs the unhappiness of the one. But whose choice is this to force unhappiness on someone against their will. This is where the ethical dilemma is created. Immanuel Kant had a different approach to moral issues. His deontological view looks deeper into morality and says reason should be the focus of our decisions. Kant had a certain way to examine issues to see which choice would be the moral decision. The first part of this is considering a sense of duty. “An action must be done from a sense of duty, if it is to have moral worth.” (Kant, 302) A simple example would be the salesman and his duty to keep prices the same no matter who he is selling to. The second proposition of morality is that of the general rule which makes this action moral and not the end result which one is trying to achieve. The actual decision has to be looked at and not the consequence of this action. The last part of his plan is “duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law.” (Kant, 305) There must be a level of respect for practical law and this can only be exemplified in rational beings. This is how he determines if an issue is moral.
The next part of deciding upon a moral decision according to Kant is to look at the categorical imperative, or the importance of each decision. “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Kant, 306) One needs to view the consequence connected to your moral decision. This would be how those involved are affected and if they deserved this consequence. One should not look at other humans as means to achieve your own end. The moral decision should become something universal that can be used at anytime in related situations. This is a very basic explanation of Kant‟s ethics and I will attempt to explain this further with an example. Now, suppose we are to look at a moral dilemma and compare Kant‟s deontological ethics with utilitarianism. We shall look at the well known example of the overweight man who is blocking the opening of a cave. There are a dozen scuba divers who went into a cave and one of them got stuck in the entrance. Now it is getting late and the water is rising so that soon the whole cave will be underwater. The air is running out of the tanks and these scuba divers will have only an hour once the cave is totally underwater. What should they do? There are two options, to either all die, or to blow up the overweight man so they can all get out. The utilitarian would weigh the pleasure versus pain issue on both decisions. If all these scuba divers were to die and the overweight one were to live then the (score) of this would be 1-12. If instead the overweight man was to get blow up and everyone else makes it out alive the pleasure to pain ratio would be 12-1. The decision then would have to be for a utilitarian to blow up the overweight man and save all the others. Now comes the question of how can a value be put on a life, even if it is to save other lives. If the overweight man were someone famous and the other scuba divers poor bums would his life take precedence over the others? Kant‟s method under this dilemma would be to first look at the choices. They ultimately come down to either save the overweight man or blow him up. These can be considered as actions „A‟ and „B‟. Next would be to put these actions into general rules (known by Kant as maxims). When in these situations, I should do this. (Handout) The next step according to Kant would be to see how these options weigh against his categorical imperative. How much importance can you put upon each decision? If you are to choose decision A and save the overweight man then can you say that one should always
save an individual person even if you sacrifice a dozen others? Let‟s look at option B of blowing up the overweight man. If there is someone in the way should it is a universal law to blow him up to save others? If one were to look at the second formulation of his imperatives the results are basically the same. Look at saving the trapped scuba divers as the end result and do not look at blowing up the trapped man as the means to this end. According to Kant the decision now should be over. It is not a universally moral thing to sacrifice the one man to save the others. “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become universal law.” (Kant, 311) How is it possible to make this decision into a moral law? There is no way you can say that in any situation when people are trapped it would be ok to kill one of them so that they can all get out. Under this argument it is an irrational decision and one needs to look at the overall pleasure to be achieved by the decision. Kant's Deontological ethics works in generalized areas. If the issue is something that has a habit of reoccurring then his way makes sense. But when it is a once in a lifetime decision this is not so. I would have to say that in life I have become quite the utilitarian. I always try to maximize each other‟s pleasure and weigh both sides to see which decision should be made so the most overall happiness is achieved. An example from my personal life concerns my ex-wife and my children. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving they are supposed to go back around noon. Their mother asked if I would like to keep them later since they did not have school on Thursday or Friday and were home with her. My response was that who would be able to do more with them, with which parent more overall happiness would be achieved. The reason of asking this was that I was offering her to take the kids to her parents and visit her family, while I would have just stayed home and not done anything for the holiday. I ended up keeping them till Saturday night but my attempt was to make the most out of the Thanksgiving holiday for them.