The case for using utilitarianism in making moral decisions

The concept behind simple utilitarian thinking is that the good society is one that promotes human well-being and happiness and that right actions are those that maximize that total happiness of all persons affected by the action. This is the “principle of utility.” It means that in any situation one should identify all of the consequences of that action for human happiness, weigh the total impact of each option on happiness, and select the option that best satisfies the principle of utility. What one expects to find in a principle is something that points out some external consideration as a means of warranting and guiding the internal sentiments of approbation and disapprobation; this expectation is fulfilled by a proposition which hold up each of those sentiments as a ground and standard itself (Clark and Elliott 273). So the concept of utilitarianism is a suitable tool for making moral decisions.

Furthermore, the utilitarian view can be applied either to all spheres of practical life, or can be restricted to some particular sphere. Utilitarianism as a comprehensive doctrine expresses an outlook that can be applied to all practical spheres, for instance, both to the private actions of individuals and to the political structures of societies. Hence, comprehensive utilitarianism is the view that what makes actions right or wrong is determined by the utilitarian standard, and this very same standard also tells us which forms of government, societal institutions, laws and policies are just or unjust (Stewart 362).

By disclaiming any reliance on a priori knowledge, utilitarianism firmly affiliated itself to the empiricist side of liberal theory as developed by Hume. Yet the utilitarians were rationalists insofar as they believed that reason could disclose objective grounds for moral decisions. Their rationalism avoided the subjectivity of intuitionism by focusing on consequences rather than a priori assumptions. However, the assessment of consequences raised the thorny issue of interpersonal comparisons of utility. After admitting that utilities experienced by different persons could not be aggregated, the theory persuades that the opposite must be assumed (Stewart 367). The theory elides the issue of measurable and interpersonally commensurable utility by assuming a synchronization of interests throughout society. When interests are harmonious, free trade and a policy of laissez faire can be expected to increase utility. Original substantive proposals focused chiefly on jurisprudence and cases in which egregious unfairness or suffering could be mitigated by specific changes in the policy. This shows the broad scope within which the theory could be applied for making moral decisions (Clark and Elliott 288).

The appropriateness of Utilitarianism for making moral decisions is further supported by the fact that the theory includes all of the good and bad shaped by the act, whether arising after the act has been performed or during its performance. If the difference in the consequences of alternative acts is not great, some Utilitarians do not regard the choice between them as a moral issue. According to John Stuart Mill, acts should be classified as morally right or wrong only if the consequences are of such significance that a person would wish to see the agent forced, not merely swayed and exhorted, to act in the preferred manner (Stewart 360).

Works Cited:

Clark, Barry S., and John E. Elliott. “John Stuart Mill’s Theory Of Justice.(Critical Essay).” Review of Social Economy 59.4 (Dec 2001): 467(26).

Stewart, Debra W. “Theoretical foundations of ethics in public administration: approaches to understanding moral action.” Administration & Society 23.n3 (Nov 1991): 357(17).