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The Conflict Between Common Sense Morality And Utilitarianism

887 words - 4 pages

I examine the claim that Utilitarianism treats actions as just in cases where common sense holds that they are unjust. For this purpose, I described the guiding lines of the doctrine as John Stuart Mill defined them and presented the objection against it. I show that Utilitarians might refute the objection by proving that common sense morality itself allows the increase of evil.
Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine that sees ‘utility’ in benefit, which is described as ‘pleasure’. It is based upon “the greater happiness” principle, according to which the best action is the one that maximizes happiness. By ‘happiness’ it is meant obtaining pleasure and avoiding suffering. According to the doctrine, a person is supposed to aim in her actions at the largest possible amount of happiness, either in the magnitude of the benefit itself or in the number of people benefited. Moreover, long-term benefits outweigh short-term ones. Since “all action is for the sake of some end”, actions and their consequences are inseparable. The doctrine holds that the consequences of actions outweigh in significance the nature of the actions.
Therefore, no action is considered wrong according to Utilitarianism as long as it maximizes happiness, even if the action is morally wrong in its nature. The doctrine appears to encourage actions that contradict common sense morality, the body of moral rules accepted by society. This impression raises an objection to Utilitarianism saying it promotes unjust, evil actions. For example, imagine a case of a surgeon who has five patients who can only be saved by transplantations of certain organs, and another patient with healthy organs. According to Utilitarianism, sacrificing the healthy patient in order to save five others seems right because that will produce happiness for more people. Killing her would be morally wrong according to common sense, but as an action that appears necessary for maximizing happiness, it might be justified by Utilitarianism. Common sense morality values the life of every individual in society, as opposed to Utilitarianism that allows sacrificing a life to save others. Thus, while focusing on the benefit achieved through an action, Utilitarianism ignores the damage done in the process.
A possible reply to the objection may address the fact that while it stands against unjust actions, common sense morality at the same time allows unjust results, since actions and their results are inseparably linked . Sometimes a morally right action may lead to unjust consequences. For instance, “the Trolley Problem” illustrates a trolley approaching five people that are tied to the tracks. The only way to save them is to stop the trolley by throwing one person under it. The choice stands between an action of killing one...

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