Utilitarianism vs. deontology

Our yesterday’s guest Jānis has produced an interesting overview of the concepts of utilitarianism and deontology that we encountered in the debate about euthanasia. Check out what he has to say, since these concepts should lie in the toolbox of every debater:

I have the honour to present to you a couple of rather important concepts, concerning the nature of ethics and morality.

Most of the moral philosophers can be assigned to one of two schools of ethics: moral absolutism (with most moral absolutists focusing on deontology) and consequentialism (with most consequentialists focusing on utilitarianism). There are other approaches to ethics as well, such as moral nihilism and virtue ethics, yet my suggestion would be: “Don’t bother, unless the nature of morality is your true calling in this life.” Deontology and utilitarianism are more than enough for debating.

Deontology – Greek for “the science of duty” – suggests that there is a clear set of morals, according to which we should act (for example, the Ten Commandments or the Declaration of Human Rights). Rooted in logics, holy scriptures or widespread agreement, the deontological maxims define which actions are moral / immoral, regardless of the consequences, thus focusing on the means, not the ends. For example, “Thou shalt not kill” or the corresponding “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person” would suggest that killing a person is immoral, even if by doing so you save other people. Immanuel Kant’s the man for you, if you’re interested in this approach (check his ‘On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives’ for a case study).

Utilitarianism, on the other hand, claims that every action should be judged, focusing on the ends. It claims that the action, resulting in the greatest happiness amongst all people, should be treated as the ethical. For example, if lives can be saved, killing the potential murderer could be considered morally right. This approach seems to be more common nowadays, as the “cost-benefit” discourse has become dominant in all social sciences. John Stuart Mill (I love the old man) with his “Utilitarianism” is the way to go here.

All right, having understood both concepts, here comes the fun part: which one to trust? Both have faced heavy criticisms. Deontology can be blamed to tie the hands to those that would prevent injustice done to innocent people. Utilitarianism can be too obscure at moments, as it can act only if the agent, facing the choice, is aware of all the consequences of his actions and all external factors.

The same example: a murderer is about to attack 5 helpless persons. You’ve got a gun. Deontologists would say that “murder is wrong” and thus you should not attack the murderer, even though it results in other deaths. Utilitarianists would encourage the assassination of the murderer. However, imagine that each of the five “helpless persons” turn out to be mass murderers later on. This changes the utilitarianist approach a bit, doesn’t it?

Therefore: A) the philosophy of morality gives a load of possible solutions / schools. Choose wisely.

B) If in doubt, go utilitarianist. Proving unchangeable maxims in a debate is harder (not to mention time-consuming) than claiming that we should aim for maximum happiness.

C) Have a read on these topics. More fun than accounting, take my word for it.


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