|Dr Brian Lewis is one of Australia’s
most eminent moral theologians.
He is a graduate of the Angelicum and the Alphonsian Academy in Rome
and formerly lectured in moral theology in Ballarat and Melbourne.
Prior to retirement he taught scripture, theology and ethics on campuses of the present Australian Catholic University.
He has contributed articles to many journals and reviews.
Perspectives - The articles at
this link are part of an ongoing series written by Dr Brian Lewis which
explores understandings of conscience and morality in the Christian
tradition. Deeper insights into the Scriptures and church traditions open
up new possibilities in ecumenical and philosophical thinking in the
search for a more comprehensive moral worldview.
Brian's previous articles
July 23, 2012 Brian Lewis, Ballarat, Australia
Critics of utilitarianism point out
a number of shortcomings in the theory. It could sometimes be very burdensome to
require each action we contemplate doing to be evaluated by a weighing up of
good and bad consequences. This would unduly complicate the living of a healthy
moral life. Secondly, it is often difficult to foresee what the consequences of
a course of action will be. Hence it is often very difficult to rank
consequences without bringing in other non-utilitarian considerations, such as
special concern for the underprivileged.
But, apart from the problems of
impracticality and evaluation of good and bad consequences, a third problem with
utilitarianism is that it sometimes leads to conclusions counter to people's
moral instincts, for example, that it is legitimate to sacrifice one human life
to save a number of others.
At first sight this third question
may not seem unreasonable. Taking a human life is a very serious matter, but
saving five lives is a greater good that might seem to outweigh the loss of one.
A frequently mentioned example is that of the sheriff who is faced by an unruly
mob threatening to burn down the goal and kill all its occupants unless he
delivers an innocent prisoner to them to be lynched. On the basis of
consequences alone it would follow that compliance would be justified in this
case. It also follows from this utilitarian formula that it would be morally
right for a mother to stifle the cries of her sick baby at the cost of its life
in order to conceal the presence of a whole group of people who will otherwise
be killed (utilitarian Joseph Fletcher says that in such a situation this is not
only permissible but obligatory, because it is the loving thing to do). .
The assassination of an incompetent
ruler might seem to be justified by the greater good to the community resulting
from a competent successor. Some moralists have defended the bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the basis that many more lives were saved due to the
swift ending of World War II that these nuclear bombings brought about. Again,
utilitarian thinking leads to the conclusion that direct abortion is morally
right to save the mother's life, either because it is not conceded that the
foetus is a human being or because, even if this is admitted the mother's life
takes precedence over that of the foetus. It is legitimate to ask whether this
could be extended to include serious danger to the mother's health or the case
of the woman pregnant as a result of rape.
Many indeed in our society argue in
this way, but many others are disturbed by the implications. Can the value of
human life be measured like this? What happens to the individual person and the
rights of the individual in such a theory? Justice, which we commonly understand
as requiring us to respect individual rights, is not compatible with this way of
Justice is likewise poorly served
when there is question of the distribution of benefits and burdens in the
community or among a class of people. If the total net welfare is taken as the
criterion, some are going to miss out, probably the least well off or the most
unimportant members of the group. On this basis physicians would give preference
to patients most likely to benefit rapidly from treatment rather than the very
ill and those at risk of dying, because this would cost less and be of greater
benefit to the community. Experimentation on mentally handicapped children
unable to give their consent would be justified by the benefits thereby accruing
to the great majority of other children in the community, even if the
handicapped did not themselves benefit. Prisoners could be made unwilling guinea
pigs in experiments carried out in order to find a cure for AIDS. Scarce
resources such as social services or hospitals or clinics or dialysis machines
would be allocated where the greatest number would profit from their
This kind of cost/benefit analysis
leads to conclusions that most of us would consider grossly unfair and that
conflict with the compassion towards those most in need, which has traditionally
marked the health care professions. In this way of thinking the individual is
merged into the calculation of the common good and some people are made of
greater worth than others. Most of us would feel uncomfortable with this. We
want as a general rule to be fair to everybody and particularly to the underdog
– the poor, the handicapped, the underprivileged. Indeed, for the Christian
the Gospel insists that preference be given to these. Extraordinary
circumstances, for example, a natural disaster such as a cyclone or an
earthquake, where medical facilities are extremely limited, might require
unusual measures like giving priority to those who can be saved over the
'hopeless' cases or first attending to an injured doctor or nurse who could then
help others (the 'triage' situation). However, in normal everyday life the
utilitarian cost/benefit formula by itself, that is, as the sole criterion of
right and wrong, undermines respect for the worth of each individual person, who
becomes a sort of 'product' in a business where you aim to get the most for your
money and discard the inferior product.
Contemporary utilitarians generally
attempt to offset these difficulties by certain modifications to the original
Many say that the calculation of good results over bad must be looked at, not in
relation to each particular act, but as regards what generally happens in human
affairs. In the light of this, they maintain, it is possible from experience to
formulate moral rules that will ensure
the greatest happiness for the greatest number of those affected in any
situation. So, for instance, not killing except in self-defence, telling the
truth, paying debts, keeping promises, not stealing, are the right thing, nor
necessarily because on a particular occasion they bring about the greatest good,
but because the welfare of all is best achieved when all follow such rules.
Particular exceptions prove the rule, literally put the rule to the test, so
that if too many exceptions occur then the rule is either wrong or meaningless.
For the utilitarian, no rule, even against killing the innocent, is completely
exceptionless or unable to be changed. But, overall, it is better for the
community and simpler for everybody to focus on rules rather than on particular
second modification suggested is that, instead of looking at the short-term
results, we should focus on what will happen in the long run. In the short term
killing an innocent person might save the lives of ten others, but we must take
into account the long-term social consequences of permitting this to happen, for
example, the loss of respect for human life, which might far outweigh the saving
in this case of the ten lives.
it is suggested, account must be taken of the importance of institutions and
conventions in society. Community life would be practically impossible if it
could not normally be expected that truth would be told, debts would be paid and
contracts would be honoured.
These modifications temper some of
the more unpalatable conclusions of utilitarianism, but the theory still has
problems in accommodating justice as it is commonly understood, that is, as
protective of all individuals in society and their inalienable rights. Many
moralists hold strongly to the traditional way of thinking, that some actions at
least are right or wrong in themselves, whatever the consequences.