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Utilitarian Vs. Kantian Ethics

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Utilitarian vs. Kantian Ethics

The utilitarian theory of ethics evaluates the moral correctness of a decision based on its outcome, while the Kantian theory, formed by Immanuel Kant, is based on the deontological moral duty theory which evaluates the moral rightness of an action no matter what the consequences of it are. 

Modern utilitarian theory, which evaluates actions based on their consequences, has its roots in Jeremy Bentham. He believes that an act is considered “right” if it generates the most utility for the greatest number of people affected directly or indirectly by that action. Bentham defines utility as the property in any object that tends to produce benefit, good, pleasure or happiness or averts the happenings of pain and unhappiness to the party where interest is considered. There have been other prominent utilitarians aside from Bentham, such as J.C.C. Smart, who is considered a preferential utilitarian. Smart’s theory is that people will act for the betterment of those involved in the action. No matter which theory is ascribed to, utilitarianism bases its understanding of “right” and “wrong” on consequences. 

All utilitarian theories (act, rule, hedonistic, ect.) need to look past just the action to see the consequences of the action in order to tell if the action is justified. On the other hand, Kant proposes that only duty and rules should govern our actions, as consequences are beyond our control. Kant’s theory of ethics is known as Kantian ethics and it is a deontological theory, as deontology is the study of the nature of obligations, and it is a normative ethics position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule. Now this may sound like rule utilitarianism, but it is not. Kant’s theory holds that an action is either “just” or “unjust” without any regard to the consequences of that same action unlike rule utilitarianism in which you follow the rule to have a good outcome, whereas Kant doesn’t care about outcome just intentions. To Kant, the only good thing in the universe is good will. If we are able to comprehend the term ‘good will’, then we can understand the main idea behind his ethical theory. But what exactly is good will and how can you encourage it?

The easiest way to think about good will is to think about the intention behind an action. Take, for example, a shopkeeper who charges slightly below standard price during an emergency. If the shopkeep does this only to get more business for himself, he is not acting with good will. If on the other hand, the shopkeep lowers prices to align with the duty that one must help others in times of crises, and for no other reason, then he is in fact acting with good will. In order to have good will one has to act in accordance to a duty or some kind of maxim. What is a maxim? It is an idea that inspires people to act, or not to act.

Kant’s ethics is guided by the fundamental principle called the categorical imperative. Kant’s famous statement of this duty is: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, some idea that must always be obeyed, no matter what, and is always justified as an end in and of itself.

Consider the following situation: There are ten dying patients in a small clinic in a village who have a rare blood disease and they urgently need blood transfusions from a healthy individual with O negative blood. Coincidentally, a healthy individual with no friends or family walks into the clinic for a routine check-up and the doctor finds out that the healthy individual’s blood type is O negative. The doctor is faced with two options; she can either kill the healthy individual to save the other ten dying patients, or she can allow the ten dying patients to die and let the healthy individual live. In this situation, what is the doctor morally obliged to do?

A utilitarian would first consider the outcomes of both actions and evaluate how much pleasure or pain either action will cause, while a Kantian would consider the action of killing someone and evaluate if the action is morally “right” or “wrong.

Utilitarian ethics takes no account of intentions of our actions, and as a result, the unethical intention of killing the healthy individual can be justified. Utilitarians believe that an action is “right” only if it produces the most happiness and the least pain for the greatest number of people affected directly or indirectly by that action. They would say that the doctor is justified in killing the healthy individual because the utility gained by the ten patients, plus their friends and family, vastly outweighs the utility lost by the one person with no friends or family.

Conversely, before Kant decides if killing the healthy individual is moral or immoral, he would consider if killing the healthy individual will respect the goals of humanity. He would want us to act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never just as a means. Kant’s theory suggests that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences. Even in in cases where the action would bring about more happiness than the alternative. Therefore, the doctor would not be morally justified in killing the patient.

In the example above, it can be said that the Kantian response seems intuitively right as killing the healthy individual just because he can save ten other lives violates the goals of humanity. Furthermore, in real life, no doctor would want to take on the responsibility of killing an innocent person, regardless of whether they would save the lives of ten other patients. The law will ensure the doctor gets arrested for murder and it is not the doctor’s legal duty or responsibility to kill the healthy individual.



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