The word ethics was derived from a Greek term “ethika” which means morals. Ethics is thus the systematic reflection on what is moral where morality is comprises of opinions, decisions and actions with which people express whatever they think is right. Therefore, ethics is not a manual containing answers on how to act, but is a search for the right kind of morality. Ethics is categorized into two; descriptive and normative ethics. Descriptive ethics involves description of an existing morality and about its facts, whereas, normative ethics indicates whether morality is right or wrong. The latter is best described by its components which are norms, values and virtues (Kerridge, Lowe & McPhee, 2005).
Ethics have several theories attached to it and are divided divided into two fundamental types. The first category is based on the notion of selecting one’s actions in accordance to standards of duty or obligation that refer to the nature of the actions and the motives that are held by those performing them called deontological theories. Deontological as a term implies necessary or binding. The other category is based on the notion of choosing one’s actions so as to maximize the values that are supposed to be consequences of those actions. These are referred to as consequentialism derived from the Greek word “telos” and means aim or purpose (Kerridge, Lowe & McPhee, 2005).
Utilitarianism is derived from consequentialism. Consequentialism is also known as teleological theories, hold that an action is morally right either if a person doing it brings about the best achievable consequences in the situation, or if such action is of a kind which would have the best attainable consequences if everyone did it in the same way or situation (Patrick, 2006). According to Patrick (2006), it is the goodness or the badness of the consequences of actions alone that determine whether they are right or wrong, but not anything intrinsically good or bad about the actions themselves. For instance, there would be no universal moral prohibition against deliberately killing a fellow human being if by so doing it produces a tangible balance of good over evil than any other course of action open at that time. This leads us to saying that these theories, in order to produce good consequences they use the notion of utility and hence the utilitarian theories.
Basic Concepts Underlying Utilitarianism and How it Helps in Making Ethical Decision
Although Utilitarian theories are a component of consequential theories, they have their own constitution. Their components are inclusive of a theory of value, a principle of utility, and a decision procedure. To start with, there are several theories of value that individuals hold. Such individuals are referred to as Utilitarians. Some of these theories are; hedonism which refers to equating good with pleasure and bad with pain.; Eudemonism is a similar way of comparing good with happiness and evil with unhappiness.; Agepeism equates good to live and bad with hate; Values pluralism which holds that there exists many good, including pleasure, happiness, friendship among others and should not be regarded as opposing importance or priority; and lastly agathism which states that one should view good as an indefinable, intrinsic traits of various situations and states and evil as an indefinable (Henry, 2006).
According to Henry (2006), the principle of utility states that an act is right only if it causes the greatest increase in the universe of consequential good of all the available alternative actions, or a major decrease in evil consequences of all the existing alternatives. To some extent, the utility is a function of every consequences of the act whether direct or indirect and not necessarily the ones that people can foresee. It is therefore quite practical for one choose an act that has the best foreseeable good as opposed to bad. For instance, if one’s calculations depicts that there are two likely causes of action, one of which will have stronger utility than any third alternative, but which are equal to each other in such value then they are both considered permissible and therefore the choice between them is not a moral matter (Henry, 2006).
The third constituent of utilitarianism, the decision procedure laments on the way the judgment is done that a particular act is relative maximum utility or minimum disutility. Using this procedure as base, utilitarian theories are further subdivided into two; an act utilitarian theory which directs one to find out for each alternative possible act in the situation, what its net utility function is (Henry, 2006). It therefore means a person is only right if he/she does the act with greater net utility than any other alternative. Consequently, taking any of these alternatives would be definitely wrong since it would not be maximizing the balance of positive over negative value (Henry, 2006).
The second subcategory of Utilitarianism is a rule utilitarian theory. It holds that generally human beings should tell what do in situations through appeal to a rule like telling truth. These rules are designed by a retrospective calculation of which possible rules have the highest utility. In practice, it is easy to obey a rule such as telling the truth since it greatly helps to have the rule even if telling the truth may not result into greatest utility. However, rule utilitarian rejects the situation-by-situation calculations of act utilitarian since they doubt a person’s ability to predict accurately the consequences of his/her actions in an efficient and reliable manner (Benthen, 2009).
Problems Presented by Utilitarianism Theory
Even though utilitarianism is viewed as the foundation of modern economics and a belief that human beings should try to maximize their utility, if followed to the letter, can cause disasters to the people themselves. For example, utilitarianism it cannot differentiate the root sources of utility. According to Patrick (2006, the fact utilitarianism shows that “utility is utility” no matter what it comes from, it is a bit alarming and an urgent need to differentiate between the sources of happiness is vital. In a sensible moral calculation, obtaining pleasure from harming others is never equivalent to getting pleasure by helping others.
Moreover, utilitarianism does not take care of the environment. Since only humans beings can decide on what has value implies that any intrinsic value of non-humans can only be granted by people. For instance, if a hunter obtains utility by killing an animal, we see that cost benefit analysis does not give any weight to the animal’s interest. Lastly, in utilitarian calculation, people are required to assign values to the importance and harms from their actions in comparison to those from other actions. However, it is impossible to measure and compare the values of some benefits and costs such as assigning a value to life or an art.
In conclusion, it is difficult to rely solely on utilitarianism to make moral decision. As such, deontological theory has found much support as far as making ethical decisions are concerned. In fact, it advocates for equality on every being, whether human or animal. It holds that an action is morally acceptable only if it is required by a duty, or permitted by a duty and should not be in conflict with any other action required by any other duty.