Thursday, March 29, 2007

Utility and Truth

Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its usefulness. The basic tenet of utilitarianism is to utilize resources to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, with happiness or pleasure being seen as the greatest good. It seeks to maintain quality in purposeful living, and it appeals to the passions and absolute will of the individual. Thus, it tends toward hedonism and narcissism.

Utilitarianism denies transcendent and absolute values, and the rightness of an action, or the value of a thing, is judged on its contribution to the general welfare, that is, whether it adds to human happiness or pleasure, or whether it adds to human pain. That is, whether something is “good” is determined by whether it minimizes suffering or promotes personal autonomy and quality of life. Since utilitarians judge all actions by their ability to maximize good consequences, harm to any one individual can always be justified by a greater gain to other individuals. In other words, the ends justify the means.

Even the value of human life is regarded as a resource to be weighed in the equation. Since it is concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, thereby rejecting the idea of the inherent dignity of individual human life and leading to the objectification of the human person. Thus, utilitarians deny that individuals have inviolable moral rights.

At the same time, the utilitarian ethic places high value on personal autonomy, insisting that an individual has an absolute right to do whatever he or she wants, so long as it does not harm someone else. Utilitarianism also asserts an absolute right of self-determination, that is, a right to determine for one’s self what is right and true. Those subscribing to utilitarianism tend to confuse and conflate choice and conscience. They tend to justify their conduct by saying that it does not violate their conscience, as if they could choose their own conscience. But what they are talking about is the will. The task of conscience is not to create moral truth, but to perceive it. (Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill)

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