Traditionally, philosophy focused its attention upon a variety of very important problems, among which different moral dilemmas occupied one of the most significant positions. At this respect, the problem of moral choice is very important and different philosophical and ethical schools developed their own particular views on this problem. Among the most famous philosophical schools that treated such kind of moral dilemmas may be named utilitarianisms and deontology, which referred to the problem of moral choice in quite a different way.
Utilitarianism and deontology
Obviously, utilitarianism and deontology are different theories and the main difference between them may be found in the interpretation of possible consequences of human actions and the extent, to which they are morally justified or not. To put it more precisely, utilitarianism is a theory that prescribes quantitative maximization of good consequences for a possibly larger number of people (Miller and Jensen 2002).
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Traditionally, the good to be maximized is happiness, pleasure or preference satisfaction. This theory implies that people should act firstly considering the consequences of their actions and, in such a way, they have to make an appropriate choice that would than generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people involved.
As for deontology, this theory emphasises that the decisions should be made solely or primarily by considering one’s duties and the rights of others (Miller and Jensen 2002). It means that human rights are primary for the followers of this theory. Moreover, according to this theory, there are certain moral obligations and moral principles that are unchanged and people should live in accordance with these obligations and principles, in order to remain moral, regardless the changing circumstances. Though, probably, the most important point of deontology is the idea that praiseworthy goals can never justify the immoral actions. In other words, ends do not justify the means.
At this respect, the two theories are absolutely different because deontology rejects one of the key points of consequentialism, i.e. ends justify the means, while utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism and absolutism.
Naturally, both theories seem to be quite persuasive but, in order to better understand them and find out whether there are some constraints or thresholds, it is necessary to apply these theories to some practical case. For instance, the engineer Bill’s case when he had to choose whether to save the life of a girl, Sarah, who stuck between the rails and the tracks, or to save the lives of a hundred passengers of the train that would go straight into the ravine, if Bill did not switch the tracks.
On applying both theories to this case, the solution of the moral dilemma the engineer faces will be different. In the case of utilitarianism, it is obvious that the life of a hundred passengers is more precious and one death of a girl is morally justified for the one hundred lives’ sake. The main reason is that, in accordance with basic principles of utilitarianism, the happiness of a larger number of people is more important than the happiness of one person.
On the other hand, deontology cannot justify such a sacrifice because, according to this theory, the final outcome is not so important compared to the means it is achieved by. Consequently, it is possible to presuppose that the girl, stuck between the rails and the tracks, has the same rights as one hundred people in the train. This is why the death of Sarah cannot be morally justified.
In fact, one of the main reasons why both theories interpret one and the same situation in absolutely different ways is the fact that utilitarianism stands on the ground of allowing little harm (death of a girl) in order to prevent larger harm (death of a hundred people for instance), while deontology is rather more concerned about the causes of harm. It means that, according to deontologists, it is impossible to cause harm, regardless the possible consequences. This is why the life of a girl seems to be more important than the life of people in the train because she is primarily put under the threat of death and Bill shouldn’t think about the consequences of his acts, and, thus, about the life of people in the train, because their death would be a consequences of his act of saving the girl. On the other hand, if he doesn’t save a girl he intentionally causes harm to her even though he is able to prevent it.
Joe the Janitor and evil Hobo’s cases
Despite, the clearness of both positions, it still seems as though there are some hidden constraints and thresholds within the theories that are not so obvious at first glance. These constraints and thresholds become more obvious if another case is analysed. The case of Joe the Janitor reveals that a doctor faces a dilemma similar to the previous one: saving the life of a hundred of patients by killing one person.
From utilitarian point of view, it is obvious that, analogically to the engineer Bill’s case, the doctor has normally to save the life of a hundred patients but this is where the problem arises: such actions mean that the doctor can save the life of a larger number of patients by killing smaller number of healthy people that is obviously immoral, especially from deontologist’s point of view, according to which, killing a parson is prohibited, since it is one of the general rules and principles that moral people should be concerned about.
On the other hand, such a position of deontologists is also quite contradictive since, unlike in the previous case, when the death of hundred people is a consequence, in this case it is a conscious choice that the doctor has to make. Moreover, not saving lives of a hundred patients seems to be not less harm than killing one person. This is why, the deontologist unchangeable rules and principles are considered to be serious constraints because they cannot vary depending on the situation.
As a result, to overcome such problems both utilitarianism and deontology worked out certain thresholds, which permit a utilitarian to refuse from killing an innocent person (Joe) by introducing the general rule that an innocent life cannot be sacrificed even though it may make happy a hundred other people. At the same time, a deontologist can violate the norm that harm cannot be caused and agree that it is possible to kill an innocent person, in order not to cause much larger harm (death of a hundred patients).
At this respect, Bill may find himself in the similar position, if the initial conditions are changed slightly, notably, if Sarah is not trapped occasionally but is tied deliberately by some evil Hobo. In such a situation the death of Sarah will be justified for deontologists as well as the death of the train passengers will be justified for utilitrians analogically to the justification of the Joe the Janitor’s case, which has been just described.
Thus, it is possible to conclude that both theories are to a certain extent limited and contradictive but the main difference between them is that utilitarianism considers it to be moral to allow little harm for the preventing larger harm’s sake, while deontology underlines that any harm cannot be caused and possible consequences are not primarily important. As it has been described both positions are not ideal and the attempts of both theories to find the solution of the problem undermine the basic principles of the theories.
1. Miller, L. and Jensen, J. (ed.) Questions that Matter. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.
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