Utilitarian Ethics–a Tall Order

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Let’s face it folks. We live in a broken world. Let’s not get into who broke it, but we can all pretty much agree things are far from ideal, or perfect, or even as good as they could be. So how do we make it better? We ask ourselves the question made famous by Jeremy Bentham and his protege (and admirably early feminist) John Stuart Mill, the forefathers of Utilitarian Ethics. The question is this: What action will bring about the greatest good for the most people?  This approach is also known as consequentialist or teleological ethics–the focus is on the outcome of an action. It is a good, or moral, action if it beings about the most good possible for the most people.

Englishman, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), believed that pleasure or happiness was the “substance” that should be measured in this equation. To evaluate the moral merits of one action over another action, you assess how many people would be made happy, or be given pleasure by each action. Bentham wrote, “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…”

Bentham’s thinking was heavily influenced by the enormous social upheaval that gripped 18th century England.  He witnessed tremendous affliction all around him and sought a basis for morality that was both practical and social in nature. Bentham’s claim was that all acts and institutions must justify themselves by their utility—hence, the label “utilitarian.”

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was Jeremy Bentham’s godson and Bentham was a close friend of the Mill family. Though in basic agreement, as Mill developed his thinking, he came to believe that Bentham was wrong on one important point. Bentham believed that any kind of happiness was of the same value as any other kind of happiness. Mill argued that some forms of human pleasure was of higher quality than others, and therefore worth more in the utilitarian equation. He argued for the betterment of all humankind.

People are social beings. We tend to want to be in harmony with our fellow human beings.  Mill believed that at our core, people want the best for each other and are inclined to promote the common good. Wouldn’t it be nice if he was right about this??

Modern day utilitarians no longer try to quantify or qualify pleasure in a specific equation. They simply assert that morality is based on finding outcomes that will increase the common good, and decrease human suffering.

In contrast to deontological approaches (see the DUTY blog), utilitarians abandon any claim to moral certainty, because as I noted at the beginning, we live in an imperfect and fluid world. How could anyone assume moral certitude in an uncertain world? The best we can hope for is finding the greatest balance of good over evil in a world that has no perfection, no absolute goodness.

Many social reform movements can be seen as expressions of broadly-defined utilitarian thinking.  The welfare of the weak and disenfranchised members of society is counted as having equal weight and import in the overall fabric of society.  For instance, John Stuart Mill along with his wife, Harriet Taylor, was an early and articulate advocate for equal rights for women.

He wrote “…the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

Democracy, as a form of government, could also be seen as an expression of utilitarian orientation. Robert Bellah and his co-authors have pointed out that the right to vote in a democracy is one in which we ask the individual to assess and support the common good.  If a politician makes decisions based only on personal gain, we consider that politician corrupt (or at least, we used to…). This is equally true of the voter who votes not for the common good, but for their own personal gain. As moral citizens in a democracy, we are charged to evaluate and support what is best for the whole community.

In summary, utilitarian morality requires that we consider the outcome of our actions, and act to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is immoral not to do so. This requires us to go beyond our own desires and preferences, and act in ways likely to enhance the lives of everyone around us, close by and far-flung. We are increasingly connected globally as a human community. floating along on our little blue earth. The moral challenge, to consider the common good, has never been more complicated, nor has ever been more crucial.

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It’s All About Duty

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Why, oh why is Dr. Bossypants yammering on about morality…?? Three posts already, and more to come. Ugh. It can be SO boring. Yes. True. Boring. And vital. Do you want to survive as a species or not? Well. Then…

Onward in our journey through the land of morality. Someday, maybe soon, you’ll use this blog to scold or defend yourself. It will all be worth it. Today, we’re looking at morality through a lens called Deontological Ethics, a lens provided by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Kant was the original “just do it” moral philosopher.  Regardless of how one feels about it, and regardless of outcome, there are moral duties that are applicable at all times and in all places. Some actions are morally wrong, no matter where or when they are enacted, and some are right. No weasel clauses allowed.

Kant also understood that we are mere mortals, incapable of always doing the right thing. He insisted that we at least be aware of when we are failing. For example, Kant argues that lying always causes some damage, even if that damage is no more than the liar knowing that he is choosing to do something wrong. But Kant also knew that people lie. He did not expect humans to completely stop lying, but he did urge people to consciously admit that they weren’t making a moral choice.  For Kant, lying was never, under any circumstances, morally correct.

Of course, the big question is this:  How do we know which actions qualify as always morally correct?  Kant came up with a guide for judging moral actions. He called it the Categorical Imperative–the ultimate yardstick for checking the morality of the action.  One of his formulations of the categorical imperative is this:

So act that you could will your action to be a universal law for all humankind. This is very similar to Jesus’s instruction: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or remember when your parents said, “Now how would you like it if everybody acted like you’re acting?”

Another take on this imperative is this: So act as to treat humanity, whether yourself or another person, as an end-in-itself, never as a means only

Kant argued that even though there will be compelling practical or emotional factors in a given situation, it is our duty to consider the action through the lens of “always, everywhere, for everyone.”  Regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of the outcome, there are moral actions that are always right or always wrong.

Kant also believed that ethical principles apply to anyone capable of deliberation and reason. He believed there were three ways rational beings could interact with their duty, but only one would yield moral behavior.

  • They could act in ways that are clearly bad: actions such as lying, cheating, stealing, or torturing people.
  • They could act dutifully, but only for the show of it. Not because it is simply the right thing to do.
  • They could act from, or because of their duty–doing the right thing for the right reasons.

Only the third is a genuinely moral action. If you do the right thing for the right motives, then you have acted morally.  In fact, the less benefit you derive from doing your duty, and the less you actually want to do it, the more you can be sure your action is truly moral.

So, to sum up this stern Kantian input: You cannot use other people as a means to your own end. You must always evaluate your actions and act in ways that you would want everyone to act, in all times and in all places. An you simply cannot make yourself an exception to the rule.

Character and Virtue

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As promised, Dr. Bossypants is now going to drag all willing readers through a whirlwind of simplified moral philosophy. Why? Because it is GOOD to think about these things. And you can impress your relatives with some of the big words. And frankly, there’s a chance we’re regressing a bit on the moral front these days…

There are many ways to approach morality and we won’t cover them all. After dipping into a few, you might even want to make up your own theory or moral code. Potential ingredients will be readily available in my next three or four blogs.

For today, we’re talking character. How would we define a good person, and what does it take to become one? A lot of very smart people have taken a run at this, but Aristotle (born 384 B.C.) gets credit for a very thorough effort.

Aristotle believed that humans are meant to grow into their full potential, which will bring about what he called eudaimonia (roughly translated as so f**ing happy and fulfilled that you and everyone around you thrives. We can trust each other. You know who you are and why you were born. Life is good.).

So how do we achieve this state of happiness?  By becoming what we are meant to be, which absolutely includes being virtuous. You know how good you feel when you make yourself do something loving even if you don’t want to? Well, Aristotle believed: 1) Each of us has unique potential to contribute positively to society as adults, and 2) To be fully human is to be virtuous.

So what’s virtue? It’s the sweet spot between extremes. Truthfulness is a virtue, situated between boasting and false modesty. Courage is a virtue, situated between cowardice and being rashly stupid. Generosity is a virtue situated between being stingy and giving so much away you impoverish yourself (or giving to show off, rather than giving from a generous heart). You get the drift. I love the following (paraphrased) Aristotle observation, and use it regularly to help John with his public speaking:

Those who try to be too funny are thought to be vulgar buffoons, trying for a laugh at all costs…even to the point of hurting others. But those who can’t tell a joke, or won’t laugh kindly at someone else’s joke are uptight and socially inept. Those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted. They are flexible, and such flexibility reveals character.

How do you become virtuous? You choose it, and you practice. You emulate people who embody the virtue you are practicing. And you ride herd on your nonvirtuous impulses. You may find it difficult to be kind and nonjudgmental in the morning. Do it anyway. Over time, it gets easier. You may be tempted to tell lies. Don’t.

If Aristotle’s thoughts were reduced to bumper stickers, they might include: Hang in there; Moderation in all things; and Be all you can be. Good character doesn’t just happen. It’s a constant challenge.  He wrote, “…the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature.  Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit.”

Humans often lack willpower.  Doing the right thing is not always simple or easy. Some philosophers believe that if we deeply and completely know what is right, we will always do it, but frankly, I doubt it. Humans are famously able to rationalize their actions when they know the right thing to do, but fail to do it. This is called moral incontinence.

Although losing control and pooping your moral pants isn’t admirable, from an Aristotelian point of view, it is not as bad as deliberate wrong-doing. There is a significant difference between the person who knows what is right, intends to do it, but is overcome by fear or desire, and a person who intentionally pursues excessive gain or lies repeatedly. Someone who intentionally chooses to do the wrong thing to get quick gratification or self-gain has little hope of becoming virtuous, little hope of becoming deeply happy or fulfilled. And rather than contributing to the good of society, is likely to have the opposite effect.

There you go. Virtue ethics is about the person, not necessarily a given action. It is about choice and practice. That’s character ethics in a nutshell. Dr. Bossypants hopes you will google character or virtue ethics (or even break down and read a book) and thus expand your understanding of this particular way to think about morality. Remember. It is GOOD to think about these things.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights

In Dr. Bossypants’s recent efforts to revisit basic ethical thinking, it seems important to take a glance globally. The human community has witnessed and participated in horrific acts of cruelty towards each other that boggle the mind and breaks the heart into pieces.

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Photo from: http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-us-refugees-asylum-20150904-story.html

The human community has witnessed and participated in horrific acts of cruelty towards each other that boggles the mind and breaks the heart into pieces. This morning, Amnesty International revealed ongoing practices in Syria that sickened me and ruined my admittedly privileged breakfast. How can we, as a species, keep forgetting? How can we take part in such violence?

After World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt and others took the lead in crafting a document to declare basic rights for all humans. It isn’t perfect, but it is an important marker.

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”  As part of this self-styled ethics series, with hopes and prayers that we move towards our positive potential as humans, I am pasting the whole darn thing right here in my blog, hoping you might use it to impress your friends and neighbors at your next dinner party. Here it is:

PREAMBLE

  • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world
  • Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
  • Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
  • Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
  • Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
  • Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
  • Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Dr. Bossypants wishes everyone the wisdom, love, deep peace, and ferocious courage needed to stand against all forms of torture, violence, genocide, and hatred.

Morality and Culture

Dr. Bossypants in disguise, exchanging ideas about ethics with Tibetan school counselors

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As a psychologist, professor, counselor educator, author, gardener, citizen, jogger, neighbor, mom, wife, sister and daughter, I have a lot of ethical and moral guidelines to pay attention to. These different identities matter to me, and I want to be considered a good representative of each group. (Cue applause from students, clients, spouse, children, readers, carrots and onions.) I also believe life itself is a gift, and we’re each meant to live good, fulfilled lives—authentic expressions of our unique selves.

Just as ethical practices and codes define a profession, moral rules define human culture. As soon as babies are born into their respective cultures, moral instruction begins. As children (and their consciences) develop, they become increasingly aware of the rules for conduct in their family, community, and society.

When I teach ethics, I ask students who taught them about right and wrong. Who taught them what to value, what to strive for, and who to strive to be? Some occasionally cite a religious authority, but the vast majority name parents, grandparents, siblings, or other family members. Sometimes, teachers or coaches make it on the list as well. These early figures are very influential.

Obviously, human morality intersects directly with multiculturalism. If behaving morally is part of the definition of being human, and at least some moral rules vary across cultures, cross-cultural encounters might be confusing or even disturbing. We may be tempted to dehumanize others or judge them as immoral. This brings us to this question:

Are there universal morals?

Humans are, to add a bit to the psalmist’s observations, fearfully, wonderfully, and diversely made. If there’s a Creator, it’s clear the Creator loves diversity. Cultures definitely have differing definitions of morality. But…if morality is intended to point us towards the best of what it means to be human, could we hope to find agreement across cultures regarding certain aspects of morality?

There are natural tensions between diversity and commonality that parallel the intellectual tension between relativism and absolutism. As someone once said, “Everything is relative, and of that, I am absolutely certain.”

Here’s what Dr. Bossypants thinks: As ethical grown-ups, we don’t need to deny our shared humanity in order to celebrate and honor diversity, and we don’t need to fear or minimize diversity as we recognize our commonality. This might seem contradictory, but that’s part of what it means to be fully human.

A moral life will encompass many uncomfortably paradoxical or contradictory situations, such as:

  • I excuse myself for not doing the right thing, but I don’t excuse others.
  • There are two “right” things to do, or none–the choice is between the lesser of evils.
  • If I do the right thing, I will hurt those I love.
  • The right thing to do will turn out to be wrong and harmful because of an inadequate judicial system or lack of funding.
  • If I tell the truth, I will hurt someone’s feelings or even endanger others.
  • Sometimes, something is the right thing to do in one culture, and the wrong thing to do in another. Thomas Jefferson said, “The same act, therefore, may be useful and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced.”

In moral matters, humans use both mind and heart. Some are inclined to set their moral compass by intuitions and a deep, gut level sense of morality. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Others use the human gift of rationality. They reason their way to a moral choice. Either way, the human condition is such that we will never achieve perfect consistency. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In upcoming blogs, we’ll take a look at Dr. Bossypants’s shamelessly simplified take on various moral philosophies and how they might shed light on the task of being fully, wonderfully human.

For now, we’ll close with this great quote by Barry Lopez from his book Arctic Dreams:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind:  how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

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