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Ethics: Utilitarianism, Part 1

Julia Markovits (MIT) gives an introduction to the moral theory of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that the right moral action is the one that maximizes happiness for all.

Speaker: Dr. Julia Markovits, Associate Professor of Philosophy, MIT.

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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Anthony Natoli
    At , Dr. Markovits states that Bentham's embracing of contrary views in their time and their subsequent adoption in the modern world such as women's rights, freedom of expression, decriminalization of homosexual acts, etc., makes Utilitarianism, she says, "that for me counts heavily in favor of it as a moral theory". Does she suggest that a moral theory is a theory which has much popularity over a period of time? Sounds like a popularity contest in the realm of morals and values. What if those rights are abolished in the future, and many countries and peoples embraced statism, fascism, totalitarianism, Nazism, etc. for 200 years thereafter? Would that widespread denial of individual rights over such a period of time "count heavily in favor of" statism or totalitarianism "as a moral theory"? What is a moral theory? A theory about goodness? Some people currently believe that the good of the state is superior to the good of the individual, and that's an old concept, going back thousands of years, including Ancient Greece and Plato's "The Republic".
    (9 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user juliamarkovits
      Good question. No, I was actually saying the opposite: I was saying that Bentham's embrace of Utilitarianism allowed him to recognize important moral truths that were unpopular at the time - unpopular, but still true. Morality is not a popularity contest - unpopular moral theses can still be true, and if fascism made a resurgence, it would still be true that individual liberties should be protected, freedom of expression and religion have value, homosexuality is not wrong, etc, regardless of what the majority believed. I think it speaks in favor of Utilitarianism that it helped Bentham recognize the wrongness of slavery and sexism and abusive prison practices in circumstances where most people did not recognize these moral truths.
      (9 votes)
  • purple pi teal style avatar for user Maria
    I don't think that Utilitarianism makes any sense at all. I mostly have these four problems:

    1) We can't know ahead of time what will bring about the most happiness.
    Let's take the case of the Doctor and the six patients. What if Needy was saved and developed a cure for cancer? That cure could save millions of people. But now, they all have to suffer and die because Needy didn't get the treatment he needed. Does the net happiness factor only count as far as a person can reasonably foresee?

    2) Happiness means different things for different people.
    Take the case of a person with cancer, or some other fatal, incredibly painful disease. The person could undergo so much suffering, and cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the people around them. Other people could say that the action that would bring about the most happiness would be euthanasia. The suffering would be over, the stress would be gone. Yet, this person could say that living out the rest of their life is what would bring about the most happiness for them, and be equally or even more right. Does this person not get to live out their life because other people say that it reduces net happiness?

    3) If what is morally good is that which brings about happiness, then it follows that what is morally bad is that which doesn't bring about happiness.
    So basically anybody to infringes on my idea of happiness is a bad person, and I have a moral duty to stop them, because they are spreading unhappiness, which is evil.

    4) Some (morally) good acts don't bring about happiness.
    Say Susan has a child, and she definitely knows this child will never bring about some incredible degree of happiness because she's going to die before age 5. Does that mean she's not morally obliged to care for that child? And if she does continue to raise her, despite the sadness, frustration, and stress that children normally bring, isn't still a morally good thing?
    If I have misunderstood Utilitarianism, and this is not what Utilitarians actually believe, please let me know.
    (4 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user alina
    And then what if the Needy patient was, say, Mother Teresa; anyone who has saved thousands of others in their life time. What if that needy person was your grandmother? What if that needy person was a child?

    Would you do the same thing?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Justin
      The answer to your question lies in how you define happiness because the choice you make depends on what you truly believe to create the most happiness. Because you are making the choice purely on a option the burden is your own to accept if this stance is taken. This idea does not adhere to ethical absolutism but instead ethical egoism. It requites a good amount of self-knowledge to work. Each of those choices COULD provide the most happiness, however it depends on what perspective its being view from, and that is a whole different topic of philosophy.
      (2 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user milna wilson
    any references i can use
    (1 vote)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user SHADOWKNIGHT840
    so, if I'm interpreting this correctly, according to utilitarianism, an action that maximizes happiness is the best moral choice of action, correct? Does this mean that if a poor man/woman steals some medicine to help his/her sick son from a hospital that has plenty of medicine, he/she is justified, because not only is the hospital is not affected severely, but he/she helps save his/her sick son's life?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Holly Ho
    According to utilitarianism , should all of us oblige to protect the rights of LGBT?

    I know that LGBT is a minority group.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(intro music) Hi, I'm Julia Markovits, and I'm an associate professor of philosophy at MIT. Today, I'm going to talk about utilitarianism. So I spend my time thinking about morality, about what makes actions morally right or morally wrong, and I wanted to talk today about a very simple, quite popular answer to that question, a moral theory that goes by the name "utilitarianism." Utilitarianism has a lot going for it, but it also raises some very interesting worries, and I'm going to talk a bit about some of those. So utilitarianism is the view that actions are morally permissible if and only if they produce at least as much net happiness as any other available action. In other words, the more happiness and less suffering that results from our actions, the better the action is, and the right action is the one that produces the greatest balance of happiness over suffering. In fact, according to utilitarianism, any other action is morally wrong. This utilitarian principle is supposed to be absolute and all-encompassing. It will tell you for any decision whatsoever exactly what you should morally do, and it admits of no exceptions. Utilitarianism has been around for a long time, but it gained a lot in prominence and popularity in the late eighteenth century, due in part to the work of a British philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. Bentham published a long defense of utilitarianism, called "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals "and Legislation" in 1789, but he was also a very politically and socially active guy. In fact, he was an early defender of economic liberalization, freedom of expression, the separation of church and state, women's rights, animal rights, the right to divorce, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of capital punishment, the abolition of corporal punishment, prison reform, and even the decriminalization of homosexual acts. Remember, this was 1789. Bentham recognized the moral importance of these rights, many of which are now uncontroversial. In this, he was well ahead of his time, and in large part, I would think, because of his embrace of utilitarianism. That, for me, counts heavily in favor of it as a moral theory. And in fact, aspects of utilitarianism can look very hard to resist. We can break the utilitarian thesis up into two parts: a theory of what is valuable, and a theory of right action given what's valuable. First, the theory of what's valuable. It says that the only thing that's valuable in its own right is happiness and the absence of suffering. Other things, like money, might be derivatively valuable, because it helps us get happiness. Second, the theory of right action. The right action is the one that maximizes, produces the most of, what's valuable, or if that's uncertain, that produces the most expected value. If you put those two pieces, the theory of what's valuable and the theory of right action given what's valuable, together, you get utilitarianism. Here's a very simple example. Let's say I'm a doctor, and I have only five doses left of some very scarce medicine. In an emergency situation, I'm left with six patients, all of whom need the drug to survive. But one of them, let's call her Needy, will survive only if I give her all five doses of the drug. The other five patients can survive on a single dose each, and we can assume that I know nothing else about these patients. Utilitarianism will tell us to divide up the drug, saving the five and allowing Needy to die. Why? Because saving the five lives preserves much more happiness and prevents much more suffering than saving just one life. And in that case, that seems like the right answer. It's important to notice that these two elements of utilitarianism can be separated. We can accept the utilitarian view of what's valuable without embracing its claim about what that means for how we should act, And we can accept the utilitarian claim that the right action is the one that makes the most value without accepting the claim that happiness and the absence of suffering are all that's valuable. Subtitles by the Amara.org community