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July 24, 2021 / Congau

Foundations of Utilitarianism and Deontology

Utilitarianism professes to give ethics a foundation: It is happiness. The distribution of the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people is the measure of the ethical worth of an act. That may be well and good, but it does not explain why I should bother about being ethical and care about your happiness at all. It would surely be a nice thing to do, and you in particular would approve of my action, but what is there in this incomprehensible universe that can reasonably make such a demand on me? 

The greatest happiness principle is in harmony with the fact that we all want happiness. That is simply an analytic truth (inherent in the definition) since happiness is defined as “that which we want” without specifying what exactly it might consist of. Perhaps we could then rephrase it as an encouragement to give to people what they truly want. However, that only slightly shifts the problem: “Why would I care about what you want?”

One might think that since we are presumably all born free, we are at liberty to care about whatever we wish, and if that includes reducing the freedom of others, that might not be such a nice thing to do, but it wouldn’t count as a fundamental reason. It’s nice to be nice, but not strictly necessary. 

Some ethicists consider this general admonition to be the best we can do: you are strongly recommended to take your fellow humans into account, but if you simply refuse, nothing will convince you. 

A deontologist, on the other hand, a follower of the branch of ethics that holds that definite duties decide what we must do, has an edge on the utilitarian in this respect. Duties are as such fundamental: They are not asking for your agreement; they command and the origin of the commandment is necessarily to be found beyond the obedient subordinate. If God is the commander, nothing could of course be more absolute and fundamental and it is not up to you if you want to comply with the precepts. But of course, if you are in doubt as to what is really God’s order, you have not reached any farther. 

Deontological theories have ways of determining what our absolute duties might be. Most famously Kant tells us that we are obliged to obey the laws that follow from being rational creatures. If such laws could really be formulated, there should no doubt that a foundation for ethics has been found, but for one that is skeptical of the morality that emerges from Kant’s system, there is reason to suspect that something has gone wrong. At the very least we thought ethics consisted of being nice to people but the follower of a Kantian law cares more about obeying its letter than worrying about actual people who might suffer from our action.

If ethics has anything to do with kindness, a cold law, however fundamental, is likely to fail. Where then is the foundation of ethics?

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