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A review of the principles of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War Published: August 04, 2016 William H. Shaw, Utilitarianism and the Ethics of War, Routledge, 2016, 183pp. Reviewed by Nick Fotion, Emory University The first, and shortest, portion of Shaw's book deals mainly with utilitarianism, the second with war. I follow his footsteps. Shaw presents his rather classical portrait of utilitarianism as: Utilitarianism holds, first, that a state of affairs is good or bad to some degree.

Second, utilitarians believe that the good is additive. It is also egalitarian in that it takes everyone's welfare into account. Shaw defends his favorite theory in two stages. The first has him thinking like an act-utilitarian, that is, as one who does his thinking on a case-by-case basis.

What should an act-utilitarian say about a situation where a healthy patient with beautiful organs is about to be deliberately killed in order to save three others who are in need of transplant surgery?

  1. There is more than scepticism or pragmatism in it.
  2. By not appealing to the distinction, those who oppose utilitarianism suppose that their appeal to rights, for example, is on the same level as the appeal to utility and so is often in direct conflict with utilitarianism.
  3. But this is only appearance.
  4. The only possible explanation is that these axioms are implicitly normative and postulate that social and semi-social ways of life should count more from an utilitarian point of view than anti-social ones.

It appears that he would say "Go ahead and do it. There is more utility in saving three lives than in killing one. Utility calculations are not made up just by the numbers.

  • Other arguments also tell something of the climate of sentiment;
  • A purely mortal existence -- where death stopped all -- would at least remove from mankind this sort of fear in the present life;
  • The two names defined a field of knowledge in contradistinction to Revealed or Scriptural Religion, lately so variously interpreted;
  • Differently from Bentham, who insists that the only clear definition of rights, and correspondingly of justice, is the legal one, 57 Mill tries to provide a more general definition consistent with utilitarian ethics;
  • Now, as I have urged, utilitarianism itself contends that we should inculcate in combatants a blanket opposition to targeting civilians.

Concerning any action, we have to consider the good and bad consequences to the society, the hospital, other patients, etc. If we do such an enriched analysis, the act-utilitarian would say "No, let's not do it. We need to try hard to avoid committing the straw man woman fallacy. The second stage of his defense has Shaw confessing that he is not really a pure act utilitarian. Here he follows what appear to be his 19th century heroes: They and he have a place in their theories for rules and principles.

And that place is earned by applying, of course, the general utilitarian principle. Rules and principles can themselves be shown to be utilitarian. A highway rule tells us not to drive on an expressway at speeds of 100 to 120 miles an hour. Surely, that rule satisfies the utilitarian principle. So does the rule that you should stop for a red light.

In one sense, it may be that it is not utilitarian to stop at this particular red light since there is no traffic in sight in all directions.


But in a larger sense, stopping is utilitarian if for no other reason than to keep drivers from making too many red-light exceptions. It looks like, then, that utilitarianism works pretty well when dealing both with individual cases and with rules and principles when they come into play.

  1. The priestly intermediary had been removed and the confessional had gone with him. For what had science revealed?
  2. Unfortunately, the principle is both more complicated than it appears and thus more difficult to apply.
  3. But commensurability may be unavoidable. It asked, in other words, not if Nature revealed God but merely if a Christian God were compatible with Nature.
  4. The secular utilitarians, however, tended to muffle the point or state it negatively. Beauchamp sees that religionists profess God's benevolence but do not act as if they believed in it themselves.
  5. Beauchamp's discussion of natural religion is of considerable interest, for it dramatically emphasized the importance secularist utilitarians attached to their distaste for the afterlife belief.

One can have his cake and eat it too. Shaw wisely does not claim that his defensive moves show that utilitarianism is the superior theory compared to Kantian, rights-based, etc. He is content to say that a review of the principles of utilitarianism he has shown is that he has a plausible theory in hand. However, late in the book, he does lapse a bit in thinking that, possibly, he has the best theory in his grasp.

Consequentialism entails that it is morally right for a state to wage war if and only if nothing else it could do would have better results. This is the principle that does most of the work for him. UWP It is morally right for a state to wage war if and only if no other course of action available to it has greater expected well-being, otherwise, waging war is wrong.

In this connection, he gives special attention to David Rodin's claim that our intuitions tell us that World War II was a good war, yet utilitarianism cannot explain why this is so.

After all, Rodin notes, there were fifty-five million people killed in that war. Shaw begins his reply by saying that you cannot judge utilitarianism without taking account of the options available to the Allies. One option they had was to not resist Nazi aggression. That option would have had its costs just as the war option did.

So one cannot charge all of the fifty-five million deaths to the war option. Many maybe more Jews and others would have died even if there had been no war. But beyond that, the assessment of the goodness or badness of that war must also include what effects of not resisting the Nazis would have had on the physical welfare of the conquered people how many would have been exploited, arrested, tortured and killedthe psychological dispositions of those who survived, the effects on the cultures, on the political lives of these people, etc.

Were one to make all of these calculations, it is obvious, Shaw thinks, that utilitarianism could indeed explain the goodness of a bad situation to be sure of WWII. In short, utilitarianism can explain what it supposedly cannot explain. Having given a favorable account of his Utilitarian War Principle, Shaw argues that there is a need for a set of more detailed principles or rules. Those in charge of deciding whether and when to send a review of the principles of utilitarianism nation to war cannot help but find it difficult to make decisions that rest on a very abstract and thus difficult to interpret principle.

Luckily, history has given us a set of principles to help us. It is called Just War Theory. The first part of that theory, dealing directly with going or not going to war, carries the label of justice of the war jus ad bellum. So the justice of the war principles can be appealed to in place of UWP for "pragmatic" reasons. Shaw's characterization of the justice of the war principles follows tradition fairly well. A brief characterization mine, not Shaw's follows: Certain officials of a society form a monopoly when it comes to deciding when a nation will go to war.

This monopoly prevents wars from proliferating, and thus tends to support the well-being that utilitarians favor. A nation must have good moral reasons for going to war. The major good reasons the theory identifies are that: Military action must satisfy the just cause even after the war is over.

Bad intentions would be manifested in a war if a military "liberated" a nation from its enemy and then added that nation to its own collection of colonies. Wars have so many bad consequences that it is utilitarian to take a whole series of steps short of war before starting war.

These are the justice in the war jus in bello principles. Principle of Discrimination and Non-combatant Immunity.

They are not to target non-combatants and must make reasonable efforts to avoid harming them.

  • This point is clearly stated in a passage of the Principles of the Civil Code;
  • How, for example, could a philosophical system so deliberately secular as Bentham's utilitarianism nevertheless also include a theological branch?
  • Science was universal, and could be expected to speak as truly to the English as to the Chinese;
  • Building on the work of Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley, Hume sought psychological answers to questions that had theretofore largely been treated from a "rational", or philosophical, perspective;
  • Consequentialism entails that it is morally right for a state to wage war if and only if nothing else it could do would have better results.

Unfortunately, the principle is both more complicated than it appears and thus more difficult to apply. I start with some easy examples. Children, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers are non-combatants.

So also are community religious leaders, community doctors, bakers, shoe-sales people, and the like. The Principle of Discrimination clearly forbids attacking these people intentionally.

No matter what theoretical baggage one brings to a discussion of the principle, everyone is in agreement here. Where disagreement arises is at the margins. Are there, it might be asked, exceptions to the application of this principle? Apparently, there are some many? These attacks might actually shorten the war and so save lives in the long run. Shaw argues that calculations such as these do not tell the full utilitarian story.

That story involves taking account of the reactions of the attackers. Even if they have a strong moral character that keeps them from attacking non-combatants, the exceptions they make will gradually weaken their character.

In addition, their exceptions will suggest to others that they too can make exceptions even, perhaps, when they are not fully informed about their enemy's casualty calculations. These are all bad consequences, even though they are secondary to those based just on a faulty count of war casualties. So we have here a real slippery slope favoring increased aggression that Shaw wants us to avoid: Now, as I have urged, utilitarianism itself contends that we should inculcate in combatants a a review of the principles of utilitarianism opposition to targeting civilians.

Respect for civilian immunity should be a firm, virtually absolute part of their intuitive moral code; it is not something to be followed only on a case-by-case basis. Other settings pose more problems for utilitarians and everyone else. One side is attacking a village full of enemy soldiers and non-combatants.

This is even a more difficult setting if that side's military is also under attack.

Shaw grasps the fact that when soldiers fight, they will unavoidably kill some non-combatants. To disengage or to fail to fight is to act like a pacifist, and Shaw is no pacifist. Shaw's problem, then, is to show how a utilitarian would respond to such situations.

Well, clearly well-being would suffer if a military attacked indiscriminately. Other things being equal, more killing means less well-being.

But how discriminating should a military be? There is really no clear-cut answer, only a general guideline: However great a risk an army should take to avoid harming its own citizens and however much collateral harm it should tolerate when its own citizens are at stake, this is the same degree of risk it should take, and the same amount of harm it should permit, when it comes to the civilians of allied countries of neutral, and also of enemy countries.

But it is consistent with utilitarian thinking that we engage as little as possible in activity that doesn't promote well-being. Shaw's pursuit of utilitarian thinking appears to be relentless.

The following is a general suggestion concerning the nature of his relentless pursuit. Shaw probably could have explained his pursuit more cleanly, and so more clearly, had he explicitly used Hare's distinction Moral Thinking, Oxford, 1981 between critical and "intuitive" what I call non-critical thinking.

The latter is thinking we do with accepted rules and principles. That is the domain of most rights claims and duties and so the domain where rights- and duty-based thinkers spend most of their time.