Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 6: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

In part one of this series I pointed out that there are really two modes of moral reasoning. The first is consequentialist moral reasoning. Here morality is located in the consequences of an act. Right or wrong depends on the outcome. The second is categorical moral reasoning. Here morality is located in certain categorical duties and rights, regardless of the consequences or outcome. A little more on these systems, because everybody, whether they recognize it or not, uses one of these ways of making ethical decisions – and its good to know this, because if you live and breathe, you have to decide between right and wrong; good and evil every day.

The most prevalent form of consequentialist moral reasoning is Utilitarianism. This is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure. Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” and is also known as “the greatest happiness principle.” Utility (the good to be maximized) has been defined as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain). It is not inaccurate to describe utilitarianism as the ethics of majority rule. This is the most pragmatic way of deciding between right and wrong, and the allocation of resources, and therefore it is the most pervasive in our society. Our government uses a utilitarian ethic in making decisions – what will be most beneficial for the most number of people? It’s very democratic. Majority rules. Let’s look at an example: A doctor has five patients. Four are dying and need organ transplants NOW (one has a bad heart, one has a failing kidney, one only has a quarter of a lung, and one’s liver has been pickled). Only one “patient” is perfectly healthy. What would a utilitarian ethic demand? The doctor should kill the healthy one, take their organs and give it to the other four, right? That way one will die and four will live. Isn’t that better than four dying and only one living? It’s simple math. But what’s the problem? What if the one person would rather live? The problem with an ethical system that tries to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number is that it tramples on the rights and ignores the value of individual people.

Categorical moral reasoning, often called deontology, or moral absolutism, sees certain principles (often revealed in religious codes) as far greater than the circumstances of life, and the need for utility. There is definite truth, and we can come to know it. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and we can know the difference.

So, what do you think? Which is preferable? More importantly, which do you employ in your personal life, family life, and professional life?

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