UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A utilitarian theory of ethics and justice Browne, David Alister

Abstract

The purpose of this thesis is to show that and how a utilitarian theory of ethics and justice can be worked out in such a way as to avoid many of the criticisms that have been traditionally urged against it. And to show that, once worked out in this way, utilitarianism provides us with a complete, consistent, and attractive, moral code. In Chapter I, I lay the foundations of the classical utilitarian theory by stating and examining the Principle of Utility as it is found in the writings of Bentham and Mill. The "theory of life," as espoused by Mill, which underlies, and is implied by, his statement of the Principle of Utility is then stated. And from this "theory of life" I abstract the Principle of Hedonism which I formulate, following Mill, as "pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things desirable as ends." This Principle of Hedonism I claim to be essential to any hedonic utilitarian position. In Chapter II, I examine the important concepts of pleasure and happiness. I argue that pleasure and pain are, in the ethically relevant senses of these terms, genuine opposites. An account of the relevant senses of pleasure and pain is offered, analysing pleasure as a pleasurable state of consciousness having a "positive hedonic tone"; pain as an unpleasant state of consciousness. Distinctions of quality in pleasures are discussed. I argue that if we are to be consistent with the Principle of Hedonism that states that pleasure and the absence of pain are the only things desirable as ends, insofar as distinctions of quality do not admit of being analysed in terms of quantity, we must reject them. I then give an account of happiness, claiming that happiness is analysable as an aggregation of pleasurable states of consciousness having a "positive hedonic tone." In Chapter III, I turn to the notions of impartiality and equality. With respect to impartiality, I argue that the utilitarians held the view that we must neither be partial towards, nor prejudiced against, our own happiness, but that we must act so as to maximise happiness, regardless of whose it is. I then turn to equality. I begin by claiming that the utilitarians explicitly or implicitly accepted equality as their principle of distribution of happiness, as expressed by Bentham's maxim, "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.” I then distinguish two senses of Bentham's maxim. These are: (l) other things being equal (i.e., where the individuals involved are equally deserving) A should be made just as happy as B and vice-versa; and (2) when you are distributing happiness, spread it around in equal shares. I argue that sense (l) entails sense (2) of Bentham's dictum. Having thus elucidated Bentham's dictum, I consider Mill's claim that equality is "contained in the very meaning of Utility," which amounts to saying that the happiness we ought to be concerned to maximise according to the Principle of Utility is equally distributed happiness. I reject this as being unsatisfactory as, thus interpreted, considerations of utility are unable to override considerations of equality; and that there are occasions where an equal distribution of the goods would be undesirable. I suggest that the Principle of Equality is best understood as being distinct from the Principle of Utility. Understood in this way, the Principle of Utility enjoins us to maximise the total amount of happiness in the world, and the Principle of Equality enjoins us to distribute this happiness equally. And in cases of conflict between the two principles, the Principle of Equality is to be systematically subordinated to the Principle of Utility. I then examine Bentham's dictum as a specific application of the Principle of Equality that states that similar cases ought to be similarly treated. In the final section of this Chapter, I argue that adherence to the Principle of Equality can be justified in most cases by considerations of utility. Finally, I specify the sorts of cases in which an equal distribution of the goods would be undesirable; and in which, accordingly, the Principle of Equality ought to be set aside. In Chapter IV, I turn to the controversy between act- and rule-utilitarianism. I characterize act-utilitarianism as that doctrine that holds that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the goodness or badness of the consequences of each particular action. And the rightness or wrongness of each action is decisively determined by direct appeal to the Principal of Utility. The act-utilitarian, I argue, does use rules, but these are merely to be regarded as rules of thumb, and to be disregarded whenever they conflict with the dictates of the Principle of Utility. I characterize rule-utilitarianism as that doctrine that holds that the rightness or wrongness of actions is to be assessed by rules, and the rules are to be assessed by the consequences of adopting the rules. On the rule-utilitarians' account, the Principle of Utility primarily applies to rules that govern classes of action. These rules will be, once established, the final determinant of specific obligations. According to what I consider to be the most plausible version of rule-utilitarianism, it is legitimate to appeal directly to the Principle of Utility only when (l) there is no rule to govern the case, or (2) the action falls under two rules that give conflicting advice, or (3) following the rule incurrs needless suffering. Interpreted in this way, I argue that the only way in which act- and rule-utilitarianism differ is in that whereas the act-utilitarian would disregard the rule when following it does not maximise happiness in the particular case, the rule-utilitarian would not. I then distinguish two forms of the universalisation principle, the hypothetical and the causal, and argue that the act-utilitarian holds it in the hypothetical form. I argue that once the considerations involved in the causal form of the universalisation principle are correctly taken into account, and yet where the consequences of breaking the rules are more beneficial than conforming to them, there is no good reason to justify conformity to the rules. Thus I argue for a variety of act-utilitarianism. In Chapter V, a theory of justice is put forward that claims that justice is composed of two elements: equality and benevolence. I argue that the concept of justice is exhaustively analysed by these two conditions; and that if an act fails to meet either of these requirements, it cannot properly be termed "just." I then distinguish between rightness and justice. But I also argue that we cannot properly say that an act is "just" but "wrong" or "unjust" but "right , and indicate how we can avoid doing so in cases of conflict between Justice and Utility.

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