What Should the Aims of the Governent Be? Ethical Arguments

“Should the aim of government be to maximize the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number?”

Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher in the 17th century, first introduced the phrase “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” he believed that the effects of an action was everything, with this he founded the theory of utilitarianism. The ethical theory revolutionized many governments and legislative procedures up till today. “The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation,”[1] this saying by Bentham formulated the famous utilitarian principle that guides the theory. One of the most influential works by Bentham, “An introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,” focused primarily on the greatest-happiness principle, also known as the principle of utility, and how this principle ties into legislative conduct. In the opening of his book he wrote, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”[2] Utilitarianism when applied becomes an ethical formula that is outcome-oriented, Bentham used this text to build an outline for the legal decision-making process that he created to be entirely dependant on one factor; the consequences of an action

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In this paper, I will argue that the aim of government should not only be to maximise the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ but to also maintain peace and harmony, promote justice and protect the liberty of every individual. To support the argument, this essay will identify utilitarianisms failure to account for justice, as well as it’s leniency towards the risk of the tyranny of the majority and it’s disregard over human rights. This essay will also take into account the positive effects of applying utilitarian ethics, within government procedure and legislative conduct, specifically by the increase in efficiency in a government body and maintenance of fairness within legislation.

It can be argued that the aim of government should not only be to maximize happiness at the greatest number but it should also aim to maintain peace and order and promote justice. In, ‘A theory of Justice,’ John Rawls mentions, “The striking feature of the utilitarian view of justice is that it does not matter, except indirectly, how this sum of satisfactions is distributed among individuals any more than it matters, except indirectly, how one man distributes his satisfactions over time,”[3] a prominent and heavily-critiqued flaw found in the application of the utilitarian principle is that it does not take into account the considerations of justice.  There are many scenarios where the utilitarian theory when applied would produce a course of action that would lead to great benefits in large scales but would clearly be an act that is unjust. To illustrate, the ethical theory will be applied on to a hypothetical scenario; for example, in the middle of a busy street, a terrorist sets up a bomb and has taken a child hostage for leverage in order to give himself more time to activate the explosives. Security officials could choose to shoot the attacker straight away, stopping him from activating the bomb but will risk shooting the innocent child in the process or, instead, choose not to shoot the attacker to protect the child, giving him time to activate the bomb but risk the lives of all civilians on the street. The utilitarian approach to this problem would be to lose one life over the lives of many, which means the correct response in utilitarian belief would be to shoot the attacker and the child in order to stop the bomb from detonating. To shoot an innocent child would never be morally acceptable but by only considering the consequences of this, utilitarianism would warrant that shooting the child would maximize the greater good.

Ultimately, utilitarianism has a dehumanising quality to it, as it does not view each individual as a human with distinctive value, rather as vessels of pain and pleasure and the ultimate goal being to maximize that pleasure and minimize that pain, with that being said, pure utilitarianism would justify the concept of slavery as enslaving a few would exponentially increase the happiness of the rest. Rawls explains, “Thus there is no reason in principle why the greater gains of some should not compensate for the lesser losses of others; or more importantly, why the violation of the liberty of a few might not be made right by the greater good shared by many,”[4] when viewed from the surface the utilitarian principle comes off clear and just but when critically dissected, it is quite the opposite, as utilitarianism does not value the distinction between persons.  In, ‘Taking Rights Seriously,’ Robert Dworkin asserts that, “If we examine the range of preferences that individuals in fact have, we shall see that the apparent egalitarian character of a utilitarian argument is often deceptive,”[5] this easily leads to another ramification in utilitarianism, the tyranny of the majority, where the voice of the majority overthrows those of the minority. The notion of the tyranny of the majority was first introduced in the 19th century by political scientists, Alexis de Tocqueville [Democracy in America, 1835] and regarded by John Stuart Mill as partial criticism to the utilitarian theory [On Liberty, 1859]. It could be stated that the principle of utility is easily inclined to risk a tyranny of the majority since its aim is to maximise happiness in the greatest number, overlooking that of the minorities, making them especially vulnerable. As Derek Parfit describes, “Utilitarians treat equality as a mere means; not a separate aim,”[6] a utilitarian calculation would be satisfied when there is greater overall gain, even at the expense of a minority, the conditions would be considered met and is categorized as an ethically checked situation.

It could be considered that a better alternative of ethics than that of utilitarianism is deontological ethics, where the concern is placed on the action itself and not with the consequences of their actions. Deontology is based off ‘duty’ and deontologists believe that people have a duty to do the right thing even if the outcome is wrong. Deontologists live off universal prohibitions such as; “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not lie,” and where utilitarianism does not recognize human rights, deontology accounts them as vital. Human rights are deontological constraints that are placed to protect individuals, especially minorities and their liberty from severe harm. These rights are interpreted as absolute rules that guide society, such as the right to education and the right to free speech. Deontologists believe that in any given situation, an individual should not violate any of these prohibitions whereas utilitarian’s believe that if it is for the greater good, any and every injunction is frangible. To illustrate, the theory will be applied onto a hypothetical scenario; a doctor has five patients that are in critical condition from organ failures and are in need of transplants urgently, when a new patient walks in the hospital for a regular check-up and is found to be a healthy compatible match for all five patients. By a utilitarian approach, the doctor is given grounds to kill the healthy patient, harvest the patient’s organs in order to save the lives of the five dying patients but deontology would forbid killing as an option because it is a universal law that one shall not kill, Amartya Sen argues in ‘Rights and Agency’ that, “These constraints must not be violated even if such violation would lead to better states of affairs. Violating rights is simply wrong.”[7]

­Although in the defense of utilitarianism, it could be argued that the greatest-happiness principle provided a reasoned basis for making judgments of value, making the decision-making process more efficient. What Bentham did when introducing the principle was create a methodical approach to decision-making, turning an extensive thought process into a quantifiable method for determining what was beneficial and what was detrimental, and within the duties of a government this resulted to a more practical and effective way of measuring value and the potential for benefit or loss. This method allowed authoritative decisions to be made fast and adept, molding a more proficient government body. “One of the great advantages of utilitarianism has always been that it promises to yield determinate, no-nonsense advice on practical matters,”[8] Robert E. Goodin defends the utilitarian principle in ‘Utilitarinism as a Public Philosophy’ and explains that the theory was developed in order to provide a conclusive foundation for making judgments of value rather than relying on subjectivity, intuition, or opinion.

Bentham believed that the concept of good could be reduced to one simple instinct; the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The only things that could be measured as good or bad are the outcomes an action produces, not the motivation behind the action or the circumstances surrounding it. The value of a pleasure or pain is explained by Bentham to be measurable by a criteria made up of seven categories. The seven categories are intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity and extent. These measurements are then used to evaluate and explore the concept of punishment, or more so to find the appropriate and suitable punishment to an act. This is to ensure that there is fairness even within punishment, as he feared that unnecessary punishment might create more pain than pleasure for a society. These measurements are better known as the Hedonic Calculus, Bentham envisioned that this formula would be used to spark criminal law reform as he called for legislators to review whether a punishment may create even more evil and lead to new and more dangerous behavior. “The business of government is to promote the happiness of the society, by punishing and rewarding,”[9] it was important to Bentham that the degree of punishment was proportional to the degree of pain an act generated. This allows legislative bodies to maintain justice within lawful punishment.

Given all of the above, the aim of government should not only be to maximize happiness at the greatest number, as it should also aim to maintain peace, promote justice and protect the rights of every individual. The utilitarian ethics does not take justice into account, as it would justify any course of action taken as long as it produces the greatest utility, even if that action is one that is morally unacceptable. John Mill also considered the notion of the tyranny of the majority, as utilitarianism would overthrow the liberty of individuals if it meant the majority was happy, hence utilitarianism not recognizing human rights as an absolute rule – it viewed it as breakable in the name of the greater good. Alternatively to substitute utilitarianism, deontology, the ethics of duty could be considered. It is seen as the non-consequential ethical theory, which views the morality of an action based on the action itself. It should also be recognized that the application of the utilitarian principle, does provide quick guidance within the procedural process of a legislative body, resulting to a more effective government. Utilitarianism has also contributed the hedonic calculus, which allows us to convert the pleasure and pains of an action into measurable components to generate the most correct response to a given situation. It could be considered that the best option is to merge both ethical theories and work with the utilitarian principle to maximize happiness in the greatest number but within deontological constraints, as long as the act respects the liberty of every individual.

Works Cited:

  • Robert E. Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press, 1995) page
  • Jeremy Bentham, The works of Jeremy Bentham published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols
  • Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (1789), p.1, ch.1
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (1971), section 5
  • Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, (1977), chapter 9
  • Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, (1984), chapter 15
  • Amartya Sen: “Rights and Agency,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, (1982).

[1] Jeremy Bentham, The works of Jeremy Bentham published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols

[2] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (1789), p.1, ch.1

[3] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (1971), section 5

[4] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (1971), section 5

[5] Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously, (1977), chapter 9

[6] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, (1984), chapter 15

[7] Amartya Sen: “Rights and Agency,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, (1982).

[8] Robert E. Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy, (Cambridge University Press, 1995) P81

[9] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (1789), p.1, ch.1



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