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Utilitarian Vs. Kantian Ethics

Autor:   •  November 29, 2018  •  1,898 Words (8 Pages)  •  111 Views

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Even if the individual had offered to sacrifice themselves, a Kantian would be hard pressed to justify killing them. There is no obligation to do it. There is nothing in our society as humans that would see murdering some random person as good.

Consider another example – imagine if you were living in Singapore during the World War II. Your very close family friend and neighbor, Mr. Tan, who is Chinese, has lost his home due to a bombing and he and his family have come to ask if they can stay with you for a week. You agreed to house him for a week and all seems to be going well until one day you find out that the Japanese soldiers have a clue that there is a slight chance that Mr. Tan and his family might be living with you. They have come to your home to look for Mr. Tan and his family.

If the soldiers find out that Mr. Tan is living with you, they will arrest him and possibly separate him from his family forever. They might even cause potential harm to his family. The question then is, what are you morally obliged to do? In this situation, you have two options; you can either lie to the Japanese soldiers saying you have no idea where Mr. Tan and his family are residing, or you can admit that indeed – they are living with you.

A utilitarian would say that you should not tell the Japanese soldiers that Mr. Tan and his family are living with you because that action does not produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. By lying, you could potentially save Mr. Tan and his family’s life and, as a result, a utilitarian would say that lying will maximize utility. Therefore, the utilitarian theory implies that the only outcome of an act fixes its moral value.

Kant’s view on this would be a little more complicated. Since his theory is based on the will behind the action, and if it follows a human duty, you could be pressed to say that both actions are “right”. If you lie and say that Mr. Tan and his family are not there out of your duty to help friends in danger, it is morally justifiable. If you say that Mr. Tan is there fulfilling your duty to your government and its enforcers, your action is justified. In other words, the consequence of your action does not matter, all that matters is that the act telling, or withholding, the truth is justifiable in either case.

The example above brings up a big problem with Kant’s theory. How does one determine which duty/maxim/ideal is the proper one to uphold? As there is no one ideal that you can always uphold, how do you know when to choose which duty to uphold.

My opinion is that lying is acceptable when protects yourself or others from potential harm. If someone was holding a knife to your neck, asking you if your favorite color was red, and if you know for a fact that saying yes would save your life, even though your favorite color is purple, would you tell the truth? I would lie, because I value my life more. While lying is generally immoral, as with any other general concept, there are always exceptions.

I think that the greatest happiness principle that forms part of the utilitarian theory of utility is to some extent flawed because happiness can’t be quantified. The definition of happiness is subjective and different for everyone. We have contrasting methods of measuring the achievement of happiness. Moreover, if unanticipated considerations cause all of our actions to not go as planned, even though we were endeavoring to act according to a utilitarian view, wouldn’t all of us be considered immoral, since the consequence would be great pain?

Additionally, the greatest happiness principle permits us to cause pain to others, as long as the majority of a community becomes happier. Slavery, abuse, murder can all be justified under utilitarianism. As long as the needs of the many are met, what matters the hardships of the few.

Also, if you think about it, his principle makes it acceptable for America to steal hundred million gallons of oil from the Middle East. Let’s imagine that the government has shared with all Americans that they will no longer have to pay for income tax because of the extra income that has been earned from oil. This maximizes the greatest happiness and utility for all Americans, and thus this makes the act of stealing tolerable.

Similarly, for Kant, fully ignoring the consequence of a moral action is not a worthy idea because, in some situations, we may have more than one duty or obligation to fulfill. His theory doesn’t explain what we should do in a situation when we can only fulfil one duty, or have to choose between. Moreover, what if we are not capable of reasoning well? Are we going to depend on someone else to help us determine the action we are going to take?

To decide what is right or wrong in our lives, I think that we should first define the scope of our dilemma, take into account the advantages and disadvantages in both course of actions, and only then we should apply the appropriate theory to justify ourselves.


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