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.

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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Ethics 101

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”          Franklin D. Roosevelt

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My favorite course as a professor was my Professional Ethics course—not necessarily an opinion shared by my students, at least initially. But many warmed up to it as the weeks went by. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand right, wrong, and shades of gray. So, I’ve decided to blog about morals and ethics for a while because our current social order seems perilously bereft of basic moral or ethical understandings. I’ll be drawing from my ethics text, and though I doubt our publisher (Wiley) actually minds, I mention this so I won’t be accused of plagiarizing myself or John, my humble, handsome co-author.

The struggle to define the rightly lived life and the best ways to live together as a human community is an ancient one. The Rig Veda, the Torah, the Greeks and Romans, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius—some of these dating many centuries B.C.—are examples of thoughtful people wrestling with how to be good, fulfilled human beings, functioning within a healthy community. As Robert Wright notes in his book, The Moral Animal, we are social beings. Psychologically, spiritually, and physically, our survival depends on getting along with other humans to some extent. Customs or rules for how to best treat each other are evident in even the most loosely defined communities.

In case you were wondering, the terms morals and ethics have similar origins; the word “morals” is derived from the Latin word, mores, which means manners, morals, or character.  The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, or custom.

Although there is overlap in meaning, in general, morals and morality have become more closely associated with values and matters of conscience, while ethics has come to be more linked to the professional world. For example, professions have codes of ethics, but not codes of morals. Also, academically, ethics is the study of morality, much like political science is the study of politics, or theology is the study of religion. Thus, college courses in ethics are common, but you might do a double-take if you were required to take Morals 101—or even worse, Morals for Dummies. Then again, this might not be a bad idea.

Morality is the story of what it means to be fully human, realizing all that is good and true in human potential. Moral knowledge is essential for the healthy functioning of any community.

When you study to become a professional, you learn the skills of the trade. Dentists study medicine and then learn all about teeth. Teachers study their subject area and specific skills for teaching others. (Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders were required to learn all about effective governance?) But beyond the skills, professionals also learn the ethics of their profession. That is, what is the best, highest, most effective way to use the knowledge that defines the profession? Usually, these ethical rules are determined by the professionals themselves, and express the heart of the professional endeavor and identity. There are codes of ethics for attorneys, architects, chemists, counselors, dentists, nurses, scientists, zoologists, engineers, and many more. Some argue that without a code of ethics, a profession has not yet fully come into being.

If professionals decide to ignore or violate their particular ethics code, they run the risk of being shunned, sanctioned, or removed from their profession. And I would argue that when basic morality is ignored or violated, a human has lost an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Ah, but here’s the rub: How do we define what’s moral? What rules, guidelines, codes, or ways of being do we collectively endorse for the good of the community, and for the good of each individual?

Well, tune in next time. I’ll offer my own Bossypants-style summaries of how some very smart people have approached those questions. And in the meantime, feel free to consider how you, your very own self, might have come to believe whatever it is YOU believe about right, wrong, fulfillment, happiness, and the best ways to get along with each other.

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“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity. “        Michelle Obama