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Utilitarianism and Kantianism - an example case

Updated on March 23, 2017

Sheriff Case Study

It is 1873 in the Wild West of America. The sheriff of a small remote town has arrested a man suspected of murdering a child. A mob gathers outside the courthouse and they threaten to break in and lynch the suspect without trial. If they don’t get their way they will riot and many people will be killed including the sheriff and his deputies. The sheriff ponders what to do as the first gunshot shatters a courthouse window.

Intro

Both Utilitarianism and Kantianism are complex and neither have definitive answers to how you should react to situations. For each of these moral views there are various possibilities depending on which kind of stance you take. In Utilitarianism there are many principles which on occasion appear to contradict one another. Attempts have been made to rank these ideas but still there is no certainty about what is rated the most important. There are also Act and Rule utilitarianism to take into account; Act looking at each situation separately and examining the consequences of each possible course of action, Rule believing there are set rules of general conduct to follow which tend to produce good consequences. It is similar for Kantianism as there also appears to be many conflicting ideas in it. However, within Kantianism there are certain rules which are thought to be negative and which Kantians attempt to abstain from at all times whether they are considered to produce good consequences or not.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism dates back to early Greek philosophers however the philosophers most famously associated with it are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism is primarily concerned with providing a mechanism for deciding what to do in given situations. The consequentialist principle is the first factor to be considered in the utilitarian point of view. This is when the moral rightness of an act is determined by the consequences. This means that the sheriff should do what he thinks will have the best results. He could therefore do whatever he thought would save the most people which would mean handing over the accused man to the mob. If it is a certainty that the mob will riot the in giving the man up the sheriff is also preventing the death of many rather than only the death of one. He could also though judge the best results to be those which prevented the mob from killing a possibly innocent man and so his handing the man over on the basis of this principle would rely on whether the sheriff was certain of the mans guilt or not. If the man is handed over and was in fact innocent it would mean that a murderer is still on the loose who may not be found because the people would think they had already lynched him. The second of these principles is the hedonic principle. Hedonism refers to the view that pleasure or happiness is the only thing worth valuing. Although hedonism usually refers to people who like to spend their time eating, drinking, partying and being generally indulgent in pleasure, philosophers would term hedonism in a broader sense. In this term hedonism is not only in reference to bodily pleasures but also to intellectual and aesthetic pleasures such as reading and admiring art. Based on this the sheriff must do what he thinks would generate the greatest happiness; this would probably be handing the man over to the mob. This would result in the happiness of the mob who have got what they wanted in lynching the man and as they are the majority their entire happiness could be considered to exceed that of the accused man. The death of only the accused man would also save the grieving of more families especially if the accused man were to be found guilty and hanged anyway.

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham

Bentham's Hedonic calculus

Bentham’s hedonic calculus attempts to make it easy to rate and compare conflicting pleasures. They are rated in terms of intensity - how intense the pleasure will be; duration - how long the pleasure will last; certainty - how likely the pleasure is to happen; Propinquity - how immediate or remote the pleasure is; fecundity - how common the experience is; Purity - how likely is it to be followed with pain; Extent - how many people will experience the pleasure. In this case the hedonic principle would be used to compare the pain of the accused man dying with the pleasure of the mob killing him. The mob lynching the accused man is certain to end in pain but, other than in the case of purity, it seems the other criteria are in favour of giving into the mob. Measuring the purity would though only result in not handing the man over if he were innocent and if not too many would die as a result of the mob and the attempts to allow him to go to trial. So in certain instances even this could favour handing the man over.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism

Within utilitarianism there are two lines of thought; act and rule. An act utilitarian would be more likely to hand over the accused man because this would be the best result after looking at all possible consequences. A rule utilitarian though would be less inclined to hand over the accused man to the mob because it may contradict rules followed by a rule utilitarian. One of these rules would be doing what is best to save a life and so the sheriff may see handing over the accused man as disobeying this rule despite the fact that it could result in more deaths. The other deaths which would result from a riot could not be certain as a consequence to the sheriffs actions and are not him own direct doing like handing the man over would be. Thus, he may think that it would be best to attempt to save the life he is certain is at risk rather than saving the lives which may not be in danger, at least not to his certain knowledge. This though would depend on whether he would be taking a hard of soft position. A hard line would be to say that rules must never be broken through fear of undermining the practice. A softer line would be to allow deviation from the fixed rules on special occasions when you know that the results may not be desirable; this would include saving a life so long as no one would be adversely affected. The hard line can seem severe at times but if you consider that the soft line has to take into account the individual case and setting aside the rule due to this surely it has become an act utilitarian view, to a degree at least.Thus, Utilitarians generally usually appear to favour handing the man over for the greatest happiness, least pain and because the resulting number of deaths is more certain. There are though some stances which would mean that the man would not be handed over by the sheriff.

Utilitarianism Problems

There are though many problems with Utilitarianism. It is difficult to measure the happiness generated from an action. Although Bentham’s calculus attempts to make it easier to compare pleasures it is not clear what of the criteria is most important or what answer should result in the greater units of pleasure. There is also the factor that some people find pleasure in pain; such as masochists. Also, people seem to enjoy vices such as smoking, drinking, gorging ourselves with food etc. but these pleasures could not be described as morally good as they have negative consequences. Utilitarianism being based on the consequences of an action also has many issues. An action may be taken based on the predicted outcome of happiness and in fact the results are negative consequences; is it fair to say the actions were entirely wrong if there were good intentions? It is also unclear if we should look more at the short or long term consequences or the local or global consequences. For both of these one consequence has to be favoured but which one is unknown. It is also possible that under utilitarian ideals justice and rights could be taken away from the people as tyranny from the majority could occur for the greatest happiness. Due to the idea of happiness of the majority the minority could be ignored. Mill though says in his book ‘On Liberty’ that liberty and freedom of speech are notions supported by utilitarianism as otherwise we would become lazy about defending our own views and it would prevent open discussion which is essential for enlightened social progress. Special obligations toward certain people such as friends and family is not an idea which is supported by utilitarianism but this may not be fair as this idea undermines the human nature of love and friendship. Finally, there is the idea that unrealistic moral demands are imposed by utilitarianism. It requires us to take many things into consideration and to always strive for the highest possible good. This means that we are confronted with an infinite amount of empirical data which must be collected and evaluated before a course of action is taken. Also, in taking the most favourable course of action we may find that we have to act in a way disadvantageous to ourselves.

Kantianism

Kantianism is a normative moral theory by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. Kant’s deontological stance begins with the sovereignty of reason. Kant was trying to uncover a moral system based purely on reason in the hope it would produce a moral philosophy that is objectively true and universally valid. Kant thought it was important to base our actions on a reason because that is the only way to ensure that our morality is objective and in no way selfish. So Kantians would argue that the sheriff should not let the mob have the man. Handing the man over is against the universal moral duties and rules when he has not been proven to have murdered the child and so he could be innocent. The good will sector of Kantianism states the goodness of an act doesn’t come from its consequences but from goodwill which is intrinsic to the act itself and which must always be good no matter the results. Thus, any deaths resulting from the mobs actions are not the fault of the sheriff whos actions will remain intrinsically good. Courage, power, and intelligence are irrelevant to Kantians as these things can be qualities of both good and evil deeds but goodwill is only a quality of a good deed. The endangering of his men though brings the goodwill into question. Is it fair to say his intentions were entirely good if he was putting other at risk in doing it? Duty is the only motive a Kantian believes to be good. Kantians believe that to act from duty is to do so because it is the right thing to do and not for any other reason. The duty of the sheriff would be to protect the accused man until he was found guilty and sentenced to a punishment and so he should protect him and not give him up to the mob no matter what the consequences as Kantianism looks at the motives and so the sheriff should follow and obey his duties. His duty could also be to protect the people of the town and his men on staff all of whom he could be putting at risk by not handing the man over. It is a question of which duty if most important. Again though, the actions of the mob are less the sheriffs responsibility so long as he has acted out of goodwill his actions are justified for Kantianism. However, if the man was guilty and especially if the sheriff could be sure of this it could arguably be a different matter. According to Kant those who do wrong should be punished and so if he was guilty and his punishment would be the death penalty anyway then perhaps the sheriff’s duty may lie primarily in the protection of his men. But, the categorical imperative would overrule this idea; the sheriff must protect the man and have him punished as he is sentenced to be not as the mob decides. The categorical imperative is, Kant believes, one basic test for identifying morally praiseworthy maxims of actions that require duty alone. Maxims are general rules of behaviour which can be applied to particular situations such as ‘never lie’ and ‘never kill’. The categorical imperative portion of Kantianism has 3 further parts to it; universal law formulation, end in itself formulation, and kingdom of ends formulation. The universal law formulation states that a categorical imperative must, in principle, be capable of being applied to any human being in the same circumstances and not just the individual being judged. In this case it would be fair to say the categorical imperative could be ‘protect those in your prison’ but not ‘protect those in your prison unless there is a mob who wants to lynch them and will kill you to do so’. End in itself formulation is the idea that you should never use people to suit your own need and you should treat them as individuals who need respect. This would mean that the sheriff should not hand over the accused man just so that he could protect himself or others. The accused man has equal rights to everybody else; at least until he is found guilty. The kingdom of ends formulation says that we must both act as though we are enforcers and abiders of the moral law, thus creating a community in which everyone is treated as an end and never simply as a means. It seems that generally Kantianism favours protecting the man although not necessarily always.

Kantianism Problems

Obviously though there are problems with Kantianism as well as utilitarianism. Is it entirely fair to have lesser consequences in favour of a person acting within the rules of Kant’s praiseworthy motives? He also ignores human nature and the motives we naturally have such as compassion. Kant states that duty is the only praiseworthy motive for an action but ignoring these other motives is unfair towards human nature and it is inhuman to assume these motives can be ignored. Kantianism thus totally ignores the consequences of actions and looks only at the motives of duty. The maxims also come under scrutiny as he appears to say that they are sometimes logically inconceivable and at other times conceivable but that no rational person would want to rely upon them. Other times they seem to be proposed as practically difficult to carry out or that they are self-defeating of their own aim. Some maxims are only relatively moral and don’t seem as though they should be conceived as universal such as ‘always eat healthy’. Although this could become a universal imperative can it truly be considered a moral principle? It is arguable that this is one of many maxims which is not worthy of becoming part of Kant’s moral law. Duties are a problem as they occasionally conflict. There is no guide about what to do when we are presented with a choice between two moral acts or between two immoral acts. Kantianism also ignores motives other than duty such as doing something because you loved someone; under Kant’s theory this is deemed selfish. Kant’s final problem is that it is left possible that somebody could act within the realms of a morally acceptable action just because the intentions were sound; even when they are causing great problems or working under misguided perceptions of duty. But this could be considered better than judging actions based on unpredictable results.

Summary

Thus, Kantianism would urge the sheriff too protect the accused man as it is his duty to do so while utilitarianism would allow the sheriff to hand him over to the mob in order to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The consequences of the action would be the death of a possibly innocent man but the survival of himself, his deputies and possibly others. When weighing up the accused mans life with many more it seems obvious to a utilitarian that the sheriff should hand him over to protect others. Kantianism though looks at the motives of an action and states that an action must never be selfish and must only be committed out of duty. The sheriff has a duty towards the prisoner to protect him until he has had a trial and been found guilty or innocent. After the trial the sheriff had the duty to ensure any sentence placed upon the man is carried out as desired by the judge. If he was to hand the man over he would be acting selfishly as he would be treating the accused man as an object which he could exchange for his own life rather than treating him as a human being with equal rights to the mob until his trial. Both moral stances have problems but both also have great merits. It is just very difficult to follow moral rules rigidly in all situations.

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    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 4 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      A very strong well written Hub on Bentham and Kant. When I first studied Bentham I was immediately looking at this very question that you pointed out: "Although Bentham’s calculus attempts to make it easier to compare pleasures it is not clear what of the criteria is most important or what answer should result in the greater units of pleasure. There is also the factor that some people find pleasure in pain; such as masochists. Also, people seem to enjoy vices such as smoking, drinking, gorging ourselves with food etc. but these pleasures could not be described as morally good as they have negative consequences." I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer.

      One of the interesting things or the helpful things about Bentham is that he reduces his whole doctrine to a single paragraph, and he puts that paragraph right at the front of his Introduction to The Principles of Morals and Legislation. He says that, "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do." Again...I have to look at Dahmer as just one of many examples of people deriving pleasure out of pain, either theirs in a masochistic way, or others in a sadistic way.

      That is, in a nutshell, Bentham's theory; very bold unequivocal statement. He's saying if you want to understand human beings in a causal explanatory sense all you have to know about them is that they're going to seek pleasure and avoid pain. And if you want to think about what ought to happen in the design of institutions they should be designed around that fact, to accommodate that fact. And he's going to develop a system of laws, a system of government that takes into account and is built upon this assumption about human nature, as he would have called it; human psychology, as we would call it today.

      You've posted a really good Hub. Excellent work.

    • jadesmg profile image
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      jadesmg 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      wow, thanks for the comment. Never really appreciated the simplicity of Bentham's theory as a means of assessing all of humanity's drives. It is fairly good as far as simple generalised theories go. The problem really is that we aren't quite as simple as that, unfortunately i guess. His ideas though do seem to apply to most people in most situations. thanks for the comment

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 4 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      That's exactly the problem. People aren't quite that simple, and trying to cram something as complex as human psychology into a cookie cutter solution is like driving a square peg into a round hole. One size fits all.

    • jadesmg profile image
      Author

      jadesmg 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      definately, especially cross culturally, what applies here probably wont apply in south africa. Humans seem totally variable depending on their surroundings and social upbringing. If only it was so easy.

    • Jivan36 profile image

      Jivan36 4 years ago from Doylestown, PA. USA

      Yes, very well done! Whether we always necessarily know or recall the specific formulative aspects of an "established" Philosophical viewpoint, we realize when we read about them that they involve basic, common themes that most humans live and struggle with every day. Across geographical and cultural boundaries, there may be some baseline similarities regarding the existence of justice and moral rightness, though one of my previous commentators makes the salient point that no two societies or cultures can be counted upon, nor expected to have, the same subjective ideas of what those concepts mean for them....and even among one society, there can be obvious derivations that occur within it due to any number of external conditions of their lives or traditionally held beliefs based on ancestral religion or mythology. I suppose my point is that is amazing how complex mankind is in it's capacity and inclination towards the drawing out of these different moral philosophies, of which you have examined just two, and yet they can all very much be based on, or revolve around, generally similar principles, but with completely different outcomes as a result of how they define themselves, both individually and as a collective consciousness.

    • jadesmg profile image
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      jadesmg 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      thanks for your very comprehensive comment. Ye, I study anthropolgy and its fascinating the variation of societies. The morals and expectations of them all are so different yet usually can fall into simlar catagories like religion and politness and common expectations. Each equal ad valid yet s different, its curious when you are only accustomed to one, and can only ever really fully understand the one society you grow up in.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 4 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      What we're talking about here is "variations on a theme". We all share the same amount of difference. The longer you study this, the more you'll absorb and the broader your outlook will be. Your mind is opened and theres no turning back. And would you want to if you could?

    • Jivan36 profile image

      Jivan36 4 years ago from Doylestown, PA. USA

      Of course not! Even when I learn things that may not be the happiest or most awe inspiring things ever, I still feel better for being "in the know", to use a contemporary expression. And even then, as the point of some of my own writings has been: that like beauty, happiness, inspiration, or really anything for that matter, is definitely in the "Mind's Eye" of the beholder. What an original thought, huh? (haha) That eye may be opened or closed to various degrees in accordance with the individual's susceptibility or imperviousness to the socio-cultural (and political, if any) pressures of his daily life. Such pressure can definitely affect even the most seemingly independent person to act in either a very self-serving manner, or for want of popularity, by appeasing those who they perceive the pressure eminating from. Perhaps that is why such Philosophies that are etched more firmly in a code or set of rules were adopted in many places; to neutralize any one single person's propensity for manifesting their own very polarized ideas or morals into misguided action. There seems to be little escape from subjectivism in many philosophies however, since man can always choose to interpret rules, codes or circumstances as he likes. So where are we then as the human race when it comes to recognizing any real concept of objectivity in anything?

    • jadesmg profile image
      Author

      jadesmg 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Ye, objectivity does seem almost impossble in terms of human examples. We are all open to interpreting our influences differently. Even when two peoples influences seem to be almost identical the person may hve very different understandings themselves. Symbols can have infinately different connotations to people and are rarely actually found to be understood in exactly the same way by any number of people. Objectivity is hard to find, we can't ever really understand what it is like to be anyone else but ourselves with our understandings of the world around us.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      adagio4639 4 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      "Even when two peoples influences seem to be almost identical the person may hve very different understandings themselves"

      When the axe entered the forest, the trees said the handle is one of us.

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