Is Utilitarianism a Sound Ethics?

Is Utilitarianism a Sound Ethics?

Tibor R. Machan

Recently some who failed to disclose that Penn State University’s assistant football coach molested several youngsters tried to excuse themselves saying they remained silent in the hope of preserving the university’s good name. In effect they argued that the greater good of the school’s reputation excused their silence despite the fact that such silence may have shielded the culprits from having to answer for their misconduct.

Those who study ethics arguably face, in this case, utilitarianism in action. For the sake of a “greater good,” namely, the reputation of an admittedly vital educational institution, was it proper to try to hide the molestation?

Is this an accurate general assessment of what transpired? Did those who defended their silence act like proper utilitarians? Did the pursuit of the university’s good name justify suppressing the information about the molestation? And does this undermine utilitarianism’s credibility?

Even people outside of academic philosophical ethics often reason that the greater good may require engaging in what ordinarily amounts to malpractice. Inflicting the pain of, e.g., spanking or harsh military training may be justified so as to achieve a greater good. Confiscating the property of citizens, as is done via taxation, is at times justified or excused since taxation collects resources that are spent on worthwhile public projects. As Oliver Wendell Holmes is reputed to have said, with taxation–the pain–we buy civilization–the greater good. And so on and so forth.

There are, of course, cases that appear to fit the utilitarian idea that the “pursuit of the greater good justifies some evils” though they aren’t normally found acceptable. Pursuing a sexual liaison with a highly desired potential partner doesn’t normally justify coercion such as rape, stalking or harassment! The immense pleasure some child molesters may gain from their mistreatment of children doesn’t come close to justifying their conduct. But perhaps it should do so, at least if utilitarianism is a sound ethical position. Why not sacrifice the child’s well being when in other instances such a price is deemed to be worth the reward?

Probably because no one is really a consistent, unrelenting utilitarian. No ends appear to justify certain means, however important or desirable those ends may be. Utilitarianism is thus usually moderated by the doctrine of individual rights, especially the right not to be used by others against one’s will. But is such coercive use of unwilling others ever acceptable and why? How is it that President Obama’s health care policy–which mandates that those who don’t want to purchase insurance be forced to do so anyway–is widely approved of but torture, in the service of gaining vital information from unwilling victims, is not? Why is the confiscation of people’s resources and labor accepted on utilitarian grounds–the public interest is served by it all, no?

It would appear that there is a standard of value that exists–or is, at least, accepted by many–in terms of which the trade-offs between various ways of treating other people is supposed to be calculated or determined. If my child were being held captive and threatened with severe harm by two people one of whom, who can provide information has been captured, torture would not appear highly objectionable. Why not? Maybe because it’s been established that the individual is guilty of kidnapping. So torturing someone who is known to be guilty of such viciousness would appear to be OK. Righteous indignation at such torture would appear to be seriously misplaced. (Indeed, some of the complaints about torturing terrorists seem therefore to be disingenuous.)

These matters aren’t academic by a long shot. Those involved in operations on the field of battle need to decide about them and can be held accountable for what they have decided.

Does utilitarianism avail us of a convincing rationale to deal with these kind of issues? Or does a rights based public policy do a better job? To explore such issues is why a proper education must include a solid dosage of moral philosophy or ethics.

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