Can justice be utilitarian?

I have always been fond of Utilitarianism and, quite frankly, impressed by the arguments of all the major Utilitarian writers. Criticisms of Utilitarianism also make sense, but they don’t seem consistent with the views of major Utilitarians. I suppose I most commonly hear Utilitarianism dismissed as a cruel philosophy that would accept sacrificing individuals so long as a larger number of people drew some advantage from the sacrifice.

This argument affects me strongly as I feel a society that is unjust to only one person is an unjust and unacceptable society. Yet, I still find myself in great admiration for Bentham, Mill, Hare, Singer, and others. What I admire about these Utilitarians is that they never ignored the plight of people (or even non-human animals) who were marginalized by society. It is precisely this inclusiveness of Utilitarianism that attracts me.

For example, in one of my bioethics classes, we had a discussion of how to respond to a pandemic. Some of my colleagues said that doctors must deal with the person in front of them with full attention. To toss this person aside, they said, would just be Utilitarian. They pronounced “Utilitarian” as if they were saying, “pure evil.” Utilitarianism seems heartless to them. Doctors making calculations as to what actions would benefit the most people. I object, however, and say that it seems more heartless to ignore the 10 people dying in the street than it does to step away from one hopeless case in the hospital. I am biased, but I happen to think the person in the hospital is likely to be more privileged than the people who are in the street, and I feel we should give priority to the poor and dispossessed.

I also noted that everyone, doctors and non-doctors, was obligated to help as many people as possible. In this way, no one should be left to die alone with no one showing concern for him or her. Utilitarians such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger make powerful arguments for devoting more attention to those dying of starvation in the world. They do not advocate, as you might expect from the criticisms leveled against them, ignoring the suffering of the poor so long as it benefits the rich. Rather, they suggest that everyone has an obligation to try to relieve the suffering of everyone else, with no one being left out of the mix. I realize things don’t happen this way, but ethicists attempt to describe how things ought to happen, not how things are likely to happen.

So, all this leaves my question about justice open. I want to say that everyone will be happier if we all live in a state that is perfectly just.* For this reason, we cannot ignore injustice inflicted on any one person. When I make this assertion, I’m taking the line that we should all follow a rule, and some will say that so-called “Rule Utilitarianism” is just another form of deontology. I think the two may be compatible. It may that I have misunderstood Utilitarianism. If that is the case, I think most Utilitarians have also misunderstood it.

*Yes, I know, we are not likely to agree on what is meant by “perfectly just.”

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in bioethics, ethics, Uncategorized, utilitarianism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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