Is utilitarianism moral relativism in disguise?
Utilitarianism is a moral philosophical theory on how to evaluate a range of things involving the choices that people make or faces. The main principle behind utilitarianism is you do what results into the best consequences. Among the things analyzed in utilitarianism are the actions, character traits, moral codes, laws and policies. Relativism is a set of idea that some aspects or elements of culture or experience are relative to other aspects or elements. Relativism However, relativism is not studied as moral theory since there is a general agreement among philosophers that it cannot work as one of the moral; theory. Other hand Utilitarianism is widely accepted as a moral theory, yet it makes wrong and right relative to a given situation. This more or less talks of the same thing as relativism hence the question; how is utilitarianism not just moral relativism in disguise.
Relativism holds the thought that morality is relative to a given of an individual’s culture. That is the wrongness or the rightness of an action is subject to the moral norms of the society the individual comes from. For example an action can be morally right in a given society yet it is morally wrong in another society. An example is abortion; this is morally right in some societies where it is legalized while it is morally wrong in the society where it is illegalized. According to utilitarianism the action can be said to right or wrong depending on the level of happiness it draws to an individual. For instance abortions regarded to morally wrong since it causes harm to the woman the unborn child and also the other people for instance doctors who performs it. From the two set of theories we can tell that as much as utilitarianism does a comparison on dependence just as relativism it does take a different approach
Again in the reasoning of relativism those morals are dependent on the society it depicts that an individual in his reasoning ought to consider these norms. In other words, relativism dictates that an individual should abide by the societal norms and divergence is considered morally wrong. However, according to utilitarianism an individual considers his utility. That is an individual should perform an action whose outcome would provide him/her the greatest utility; that is, the best overall outcome. It mainly focuses on the best possible choices for an individual among various options. In addition utilitarianism adds the aspect of considering the interest of others and how ones actions would affect them. Unitarianism in simple terms proposes that one factors in equally the interests of everyone else. For example while the government is developing a policy it should factor in the well-being of all the individuals in the society. Indeed there some actions that are morally right in some societies but causes harm to other people for instance slavery. In utilitarianism this would be considered morally wrong while anybody in the society where it is right speaks against it he/she is considered to have bridged the morals of the society.
The theory holds that there is no standard moral that are universal and can be applied to all the individuals at the same time. This argument is derived from the divergence in the cultures across the world and as seen earlier relativism depict that morals depend on cultural norms. In the practice of utilitarianism, it acknowledges the cultural differences and still believes that these beliefs and practices are morally wrong as long as they cause pain, harm and unhappiness. Utilitarianism therefore standardizes morals and any action that causes unhappiness is rated to be morally wrong. Therefore asserts that universal moral standards can exist regardless of the varying moral beliefs and standards across the cultures. According to utilitarianism ethics and morals are is a rigorous inquiry into wrong and right through an extensive analysis of the reason underlying beliefs and practices. As per utilitarianism the main aspect that is center to any moral action is reasoning. An individual should critically analyze the action to reason out whether it is indeed right or wrong before undertaking the action.
However, one can accept the thesis that Utilitarianism is just a moral relativism in disguise according to the definition of relativism. Relativism is a set of idea that some aspects or elements of culture or experience are relative to other aspects or elements. According to utilitarianism right and wrong morals depend on the level of utility that an action can cause and more so on ethical reasoning. Therefore a moral character of an individual is dependent on the action of an individual and also in some instance an individual’s actions depend on an individual’s character.
In conclusion, just by definition of relativism, it is true that utilitarianism is a moral relativism in disguise. However, according to the description of the theory itself and its arguments it is evident that utilitarianism is not a moral relativism in disguise. From the discussion above it is demonstrated that the two theories as much as there is an aspect of dependency they are operating under very distinct approaches. In simple description utilitarianism is an example of the Consequential Ethics, where an action’s morality is evaluated after attaining the desired results while relativism, morality of an action is predetermined in the cultural norms.
Mill Stuart is considered to be one of the proponents of the utilitarianism ethical theory According to Mill, there is individual who would be willing to surrender his/her capacity for thought so as to get even a lifetime of physical pleasures. Intellectual pleasures are by far much better than any form of simple physical pleasures, he believes, that no one would voluntarily surrender capacity of thought for what he calls intellectual pleasures. This is a statement that Mill stated while trying to clarify the misconceptions underlying utilitarianism. According to Mill people misunderstood the concept of utilitarianism through interpreting pleasure as in opposition of utility. However this paper to seek to provide an argument for or against the truth of the statement.
In my opinion this statement is true. First let’s be guided by Mills argument on higher and lower pleasures. According to mill, as much as some of the pleasures are base, it does not translate that all of the pleasures are. He argues that some of the pleasures are valuable than others. In this regard Mill categorized pleasures in to two; higher and lower pleasure. He then argues that a pleasure would be of higher pleasure if individuals choose it over the other. However he is quick to correct the misconception here that as much as people would choose the pleasers that satisfy their higher faculty no human being would choose to become an animal. This begs the question; is capacity of thought of higher pleasure or low pleasure.
This is accompanied by question such as; what else is of a higher capacity than thought? What is that intellectual pleasure that supersedes the pleasure of the capacity of thought? Definitely there is none. This means that the capacity of thought is of a higher pleasure than any other pleasure, hence no human being can let go of it in exchange of intellectual pleasure. Definitely there is no human being would be satisfied being animals, most would rather be dissatisfied as human fools instead. Giving up of once capacity of thought is like choosing to be an animal since according to research animals lucks the capacity of thought. In addition by the fact that capacity of thought is of a higher pleasure each individual would choose to always retain it regardless of the intellectual pleasure he/she can be offered.
Further, would anyone be willing to surrender his/her faculty for reason? The capability to think, create new ideas, imagine, abstract thoughts and read if it meant you just eat, drink and sleep the entire day? Would anyone let go of the ability to debate and argue with friends in order to drink and eat for the rest of one’s life? Where would life’s fun be therefore without all these elements? Letting go of the capacity of thought is like letting go of one’s happiness. According to utilitarianism an individual always sought happiness in any action he/she does; therefore I believe that no one would condemn himself to boredom in the name of intellectual pleasures which in reality is not. However, as much as human being fined pleasure in drink, sex, food and leisure, they are not willing to surrender or sacrifice their ability to speak, think or exercise their intellectual capacity.
Intellectually, if the two; the capacity of thought and the intellectual pleasure, are compared in terms of value then, capacity of thought would proof to be valuable. In any sound reasoning anyone can accept the fact that with the capacity of though intellectual pleasure can be achieved. One can use his/her intellectual capacity to explore the means that he/she can attain the pleasure he/she is seeking without sacrificing the precious capability. As a result of it having a higher value no individual would let it go. Again according to numerous philosophers under utilitarism they all agree that morality is an act of reason. That which is moral is the actions that bring happiness and or pleasure to an individual. Therefore how can one let go of that which is the main source of all his pleasures or happiness? Everybody would surely retain the ability to reason other than have just but an intellectual pleasure.
Indeed from the discussions above is evident that Mills argument was surely true. There is no individual who would sacrifice his /her capacity to think for any kind of pleasure. Utilitarianism presents utility in other words existence of the pleasure as well as lack of pain as the fundamental aspect of everything that individuals desire, hence foundation of morality. Surrendering of capacity of thought for intellectual pleasure would draw both pleasure and pain, hence not a choice for the people. Lastly, it is also a fact that there are some people who have become the victim to such. These people have tried to sacrifice it in favor of intellectual pleasure only to come out strongly attesting and witnessing the awfulness of these actions.
David Peter Albert Singer was born in 1946 and currently he is a bioethics professor at the Princeton University. He is also a professor at the University of Melbourne. Singer has specialized in applied ethics and has chosen to approach issues of ethics from a utilitarian perspective. He is renowned for the book ‘Animal liberation’ which he wrote in 1975. He has been a proponent of preference utilitarism, however in his late years he has shifted to classical utilitarianism. In this section, the paper seeks to establish if Singer is has taken utilitarianism far.
Singer over since the 21st century has been able to provide a practical perspective of utilitarian ethics which is applicable to various contexts. His work has had a greater impact especially in the animal right movement. His work also has been the main voice in advocating for practical ethics which can be applicable in individual’s lives. In Singers, argument, he tries to influence people to satisfy the interest of majority to a higher degree. This has been the guiding principle in most of his arguments and has in most instances been successful. An example is in the obvious abuses which guarantee protecting of the rights of animals and also the pain and suffering that people in poor nations undergo. However there are some of the areas in which the principles of ethics proposed by Singer conflict with the moral intuitions of the society in one way or another.
In a successful argument in animals rights Singer has proposed various arguments to protect the animals. Singer has claimed that using animals for food stuff and experiments I an evil action being promoted by the human beings. Singer uses the Utilitarianism principles that an action is morally wrong if it causes harm to another individual or person. He therefore relates the suffering animals undergoes in the hands of the humans to harming another individual. According to Singer animals also have their rights and should be respected by the human beings. Singer therefore proposes that people should result to being vegetarians so as not to harm animals, an act which is morally wrong according to him. This argument has been able to influence many individual especially those who have read his book, ‘Animal Liberty.’ However the same has faced criticism from different quarters indicating that Singer has taken utilitarianism far. First and for most his argument is based on Bentham’s slogan “each count for one and none for more than one.” However it overlooks the second part of the slogan which stated the utilitarianism’s practical problem as a motivator of the behavior of an individual and majorly focused at aggregate consequences. Therefore the argument according to some critics does not hold up. It would be impossible for people to give up on their pleasure of animals as a source of food as well as source of income and employment. Even if an individual changes and becomes a vegetarian would that have stop the production of meat by the factories?
Also Singer has been very active in the heated debate in regards to the morality of Abortions. As much as singer acknowledges at first that, when taken in the perspective against which anti-abortions argues, that is; ‘is it Wrong to kill an innocent life? A human fetus is an innocent human bring, therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus’, and then the argument would be true. However in his own argument he deduces that the argument is flawed since human development is a continuous process, hence difficult to determine the point at which life begins. He therefore proposes that the arguments should be based on the Utilitarianism that is the preference of the woman and that of the fetus be compared. He further states that preferences should be anything that should be avoided or sought. He claims that, all form of harm or benefit results to being a correspondence to the frustration or satisfaction of its preference. In this perspective, he argues that fetus before eight weeks has no ability to fell satisfaction or suffer, hence cannot hold any preference at all. He therefore concludes that there is no basis of comparison between the fetus preference and that of the woman. The preference solely lies within the woman hence abortion is permissible. This has equally faced criticism since in his argument he disputes that a fetus has life. In my opinion his arguments are bases less, by the fact that, that fetus does bleed showing that it has blood flowing in its stream. Secondly this action causes harm to the woman psychologically and at times physically. In addition, if we are to accept his argument then we ought to dispute his argument on the rights of animals.
In conclusion, as much as Singer has brought up a better way in which we can understand and apply utilitarianism. His arguments have equally caused more confusion since it overlooks some of the aspects that were the basis of Unitarianism. Secondly in his arguments Singer uses basic concepts of utilitarianism without critically analyzing them. This results to what I can call premature arguments for instance when it comes to abortion. The main question that begs is; do singer’s arguments add up?
Baghramian, Maria. Relativism. Routledge, 2004.
Garfield, Jay L., and William Edelglass, eds. The Oxford handbook of world philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Singer, Peter. The expanding circle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.