Phil 101 Wk 9 -...

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Lecture: Some potential problems with utilitarian theory, food for thought Open boats and utilitarianism and potential problems In the twentieth century it became clear to philosophers attracted to utilitarianism that there were severe problems inherent in the idea that a morally right act is an act that makes as many people happy as possible. One flaw is that, it is conceivable many people will achieve much pleasure from the misery of a few others, and even in situations where people don’t know that their happiness is achieved by the pain of others, that is still an uncomfortable thought. J. S. Mill himself was aware of this problem and allowed that in the long run a society in which a majority abuses a minority is not a good society. That still means we have to explain why the first cases of happiness occurring from the misery of others are wrong, even before they have established themselves as a pattern with an increasingly bad consequences. In a sense, Mill tried to address the problem, suggesting that utilitarianism be taken as a general policy to be applied to general situations. He did not, however develop the idea further within his own philosophy. Others have taken up the challenge of the uncertain future. Remember that utilitarian theory relies on consequences to judge the rightness or wrongness of an action. Of course we can’t claim that an action has any consequences before we actually we have taken that action. The consequences we are evaluating are hypothetical; they have yet to occur. How can we decide once and for all whether an action is morally good if the consequences are still up in the air? 1)make an educated guess and hope for the best 2)act and, 3)wait to see the results. If we’re lucky and wise the results will be positive as what we hoped for. But suppose they aren’t. If we intend to create beneficial consequences for as many as possible it is a process that a utilitarian will approve of. But the true value of our action is not clear until the consequences are clear. You may intend to create much happiness but you may still be foiled by forces beyond your control. In that case it is the end result that counts and not your fine intentions and calculations. Critics of utilitarian theory say that it is just not reasonable to use a moral system that doesn’t allow us to know whether our actions are morally good in the first place. In essence, you may be responsible for unforeseen circumstances…for may this seems like a problem. What do you think? Now look at your responses to the open boat situation. How many of you made choices that reflected an attempt to create the greatest good for the greatest
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number? If you did this, what choices did you make and how certain were you that these consequences would occur? If you were wrong about the consequences and you, for example, ended up killing people or allowing people to die, would you be willing to be held responsible? Many people would not, some might, but not many.
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This note was uploaded on 03/16/2011 for the course PHIL 101 taught by Professor Online during the Fall '09 term at Pierce College.

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Phil 101 Wk 9 -...

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