Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Utilitarianism vs. Deontology

  1. Mar 3, 2004 #1
    i have suddenly become rather curious about the 'conflict' after reading this fascinating segment of a post on rhp:

    "utilitarianism is rather ls like mr spock saying, after sacrificing himself at the end of star trek 2, the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few. it certainly was both sensible and heroic justification of the principle in the movie."

    but, let us recall that in star trek 3, kirk countered with "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many" (which i thought was a rather utilitarian usage of a potentially deontologic concept as it applied in the movie).

    so i am curious as to how one attempts to resolve the two ideologies since i know little about either.

    for anyone who also knows little about all this, but would like to participate in a somewhat informed fashion, i have included below some definitions and examples that i have stolen from the web.

    in friendship,

    Utilitarianism vs. Deontology
    (http://www.wcdebate.com/4bconnection/ld-article-05-03.htm [Broken])

    Although there are a variety of values and criteria for debaters to select from when formulating their cases, two of the most prevalent in LD debate are utilitarianism and deontology. Often used as both criteria and as values in LD, these are two time-honored philosophical positions that apply to a wide variety of topics. All LD debaters need to be familiar with these competing philosophies in order to be consistently successful in competition.

    Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is an ethical system that is most often attributed to philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism believes that the most ethical thing to do is to maximize the happiness within a society. Utilitarians believe that actions have calculable outcomes and that ethical choices have outcomes which lead to the most happiness to the most members of a society. Utilitarianism is thus often considered a 'consequentialist' philosophical outlook because it both believes that outcomes can be predicted and because it judges actions based on their outcomes. Thus, utilitarianism is often associated with the phrase 'the ends justify the means.'

    Deontology: Deontology is an alternative ethical system that is usually attributed to the philosophical tradition of Immanuel Kant. Whereas utilitarianism focuses on the outcomes, or ends, of actions, deontology demands that the actions, or means, themselves must be ethical. Deontologists argue that there are transcendent ethical norms and truths that are universally applicable to all people. Deontology holds that some actions are immoral regardless of their outcomes; these actions are wrong in and of themselves. Kant gives a 'categorical imperative' to act morally at all times. The categorical imperative, in its most widely used formulation, demands that humans act as though their actions would be universalized into a general rule of nature. Kant believes that all people come to moral conclusions about right and wrong based on rational thought. Deontology is roughly associated with the maxim 'the means must justify the ends.'

    The conflict illustrated: A classic example illustrates the conflict between these two ethical systems. Suppose an evil villain holds you and ten other people at gunpoint and tells you that she will kill all ten of your fellow prisoners unless you kill one of them yourself. You have no doubts about the veracity of the villain's threats; you believe fully that she will do as she says she will. Therefore, you have two options. The first option is to kill one of the ten people to save the lives of the other nine. The other option is to do nothing and watch the villain kill all ten people. Utilitarians would most likely conclude that you should kill the one person because it has the most beneficial outcome. Deontologists would most likely conclude that you should not kill the one person because killing another person is wrong as a universal moral truth.

    Utilitarianism's answers to deontology: Utilitarianism's first answer to deontology is to say that there are no 'universal moral truths.' Such truths are difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. On the other hand, the benefits and disadvantages of actions are much more easily calculated. Thus, rather than relying on amorphous, vague moral truths to guide action we should look to more concrete ways of determining the ethics of a particular act. Also, utilitarianism would argue that deontology leads to morally untenable outcomes, such as in the example above. Utilitarians would argue that the outcome of ten deaths is much less desirable than one. Thus, we should always look to the ends rather than the means to determine whether an act is ethical or not.

    Deontology's answers to utilitarianism: Deontology's first answer to utilitarianism is to say that the ends are illusory. That is, it is impossible to predict the outcomes of one's actions with absolute certainty. The only thing one can be sure of is whether his or her actions are ethical or not based on the categorical imperative. Additionally, deontologists believe that we can only be responsible for our own actions and not the actions of others. Thus, in the example above you are only responsible for your decision whether to kill the prisoner or not; the villain is the one making the unethical choice to kill the rest of the prisoners. One is only responsible for following the categorical imperative. Finally, deontologists argue that utilitarianism devolves into dangerous moral relativism where human beings are allowed to justify heinous acts on the grounds that their outcomes are beneficial.

    This is just an introduction to these philosophical and ethical traditions.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 3, 2004 #2
    Recently, a certain idea has popped into my head:

    It is impossible to never act in a utilitarian fashion, and the more power you have, the more utilitarian your actions must be. Consider being the President of the USA. That job entails making decisions about who will die and who will live. The very act of taking the job means that you have changed who will die and who will live. There is no way to take the job without causing a death that otherwise would not have occurred.
  4. Mar 4, 2004 #3
    Utilitarianism sounds evil to me now, I use to think it made good sense, I'm sure terrorist think along those lines, this is the worse case scenario of it in my opinion and is due to focusing to much and what the end results people want to get and then proceeding to get them anyway possible in which killing is sometimes more expedient or maybe satisfies some base animals desires to control others, and so I have to favor Kant's version in which moral rules should be followed such as no killing because we are animals and throughout history it's been shown that everyone has the potential to turn some belief for the greater good into a means to satisfy sadistic desires or control others. The most logical solutions have zero casualties, but finding the ends is easy, figuring out the best means is much harder.
    Killing myself isn't wrong if I choose to be the one, especially if I have a bad headache and want instant relief, but then in reality everyone is probably going to die for this idiot's amusement.
  5. Mar 4, 2004 #4
    It's important to note that there is more than just utlitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism.
  6. Mar 4, 2004 #5


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    I think that many of the current terrorists are deontologists. It is, for them, ethical to injure "the great satan".

    And that is one problem with deontology. The categorical imperative isn't strong enough to cover all the cases we see in the real world, and other sources of "given ethics" are likely to be some religion or other in disguise. Suppose Christianity had never happened. Would we still think that killing people is wrong?
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2004
  7. Mar 5, 2004 #6
    i do not quite understand.

    are you saying that people thought killing was ok in BC but not ok in AD?

    or are you saying that religion in general was necessary to make people realize that killing is wrong.

    or is it something else completely?
  8. Mar 7, 2004 #7
    What is consequentialism?
  9. Mar 8, 2004 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Consequentialism is a generalization of utilitarianism. It says the only way to decide if something is good or bad is to look at the consequences. Utilitarianism proposes a particular WAY to look at the consequences (greatest good for greatest number), but there might be other ways to evaluate consequences, and as long as you keep to that way of judging morality, you're a consequentialist.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2004
  10. Mar 24, 2004 #9
    Do the ends Justify the means?
    Here's my answer...

    1) Usually the question of means/ends (or any ethical delimma for that matter) doesn't come up unless there is a conflict of principles.

    2) Each principle we have, we associate a relative value to it. Not murdering people is of a higher value than not lieing to people for example.

    3) In a means/ends dilemma, you have a situation where the ends works toward one principle, and the ends violates another cherished principle.

    4) If the violated principle of the means is of lesser value than the principle the ends seeks to further, then the ends DO justify the means.

    5) If the value of the principle the means are violating is greater than the value of the principle the ends are seeking, then the ends DO NOT justify the means.

    All that is in theory, which can get tough when you apply specific instances - but it still gives the general approach.


    1) In the classic example, the Nazi's come to your door searching for a Jewish family which is hiding in your house. Do you violate the principle of honesty by lieing to the Nazi's? In this case, the ends are saving innocent life from murderers and the means violate the principle of honesty. Most would agree that saving innocent life is of higher value than telling the truth so here the ends DO justify the means.

    2)Your child needs supplies for school and you have the chance to steal them from another parent's home. In this situation, the principle of not stealing is up against the principle of providing your child with tools for education. I'd say the former is the more valued principle in this case (otherwise, just what are you educating your child in?). So here the ends DO NOT justify the means.

    So, with the society/individual issue, you also have a conflict of ends and means. That's how I'd look at it.
  11. Mar 24, 2004 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I have generally been a utilitarianist, if there is such a thing. I muddy the waters of the arguement though. When saying that the ends justify the means, I insist on including the detrimental effects that the enaction of dubious means has on people.

    In the example given, I would not just weigh the lives of one hostage against the lives of ten. I would also consider the creation of another murderer to be part of "the ends". Because if you do kill the one hostage, you are a murderer. You must now decide if the world is better with ten dead innocents, or with one dead innocent, and an additional murderer.

    Every unprincipled action we take diminishes us somewhat. Even lying to Nazis about the Jews in the basement makes us more dishonest. So I treat it all as consequences. The question then is, "Does the dubious action have benefits that outweigh the diminishment of my own character?" In the case of lying to the Nazis, certainly. In the hostage situation, I can't tell. What will I do once I have committed one cold-blooded murder?

  12. Mar 24, 2004 #11
    When you say that each unprincipled action diminishes us, it is your definition of "unprincipled" that I object to. I see this sort of thinking a lot in ethics and it makes no sense to me. What I mean is, that it is not acceptable to me that we take a laundry list of abstract actions and call them "unprincipled" or "principled" and then decide that in some cases it is "ok" to take unprincipled actions.

    In my view, it is never ok to do something unprincipled, but my definition of "unprincipled" is more robust and holistic. For example, lieing is not in and of itself principled OR unprincipled. What is unprincipled is something more complex. Something along the lines of "deception for nefarious purposes" but with more detail than I'm willing to type right now. So, lieing to save innocent lives is not a "necessary evil" - it is simply not evil at all. Other types of lieing ARE evil, depending on the context. In other words, there is a more broad principle on which opposition to lieing is based, which manifests itself differently in different situations. So, there are no necessary evils, ever, in my view because I define evil with a more precise set of standards. A person who understands that it is not only "ok" but one's moral duty to lie in some situations, will also understand that it is immoral to lie in others. So, I don't think you can use a simplistic set of actions and say that anyone who violates one of them is "diminished in character" one iota.

    Likewise, killing is not itself good or evil, right or wrong. The term is simply too general to draw such a crude conclusion. If we thought up some weird situation where someone is about to grind up a baby in a meat grinder, and the only way you could possibly stop them was to hit a button that set off some device within them that killed them, then it would not be wrong for you to do so. In fact, it would be your ethical duty to do so and it would be immoral NOT to.

    And here is the important point: the person that does this is not taking the "lesser of two evils" because to say so implies that it is evil to kill someone to prevent them from murdering a baby when it is the only way to prevent it. But this is false. It is GOOD to take this action, not evil. So the person has not chosen the lesser of two evils - they have commited a moral act, nothing more or less. In doing so, their character has not been "diminished" but improved through the commission of a good act.

    Basically, there is never such a thing as a conflict between two GOODS and there should never be any reason to do something which is evil. There ARE, however, conflicts between two or more PRINCIPLES. In such a case, the selection of the higher value principle is the GOOD act.

    So, for every conflict, the choice of the best option possible in the situation, is the GOOD choice and it is 100% pure and untarnished because we can only be judged on what is humanily possible in our circumstances.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2004
  13. Mar 24, 2004 #12
    I find what you say here to be very profound though it seems deontological to me rather than utilitarian. It is rather reminiscent of what Gandhi said in that though he was willing to die for a particular cause, there was no cause he was willing to kill for.
  14. Mar 25, 2004 #13
    Yes I agree with you but I will add it is not just the dead innocent and the additional murderer we have to weigh against, it is the aggregation of all the mulitplier/rippling effects of our action on the society that we have to consider.

    I have given it a lot of thought and honestly if I am in the hostage situation, I will kill one person, myself. I will however before I do so do everything I can (lying to the kidnapper, pretending to pick out a hostage, leaving doors open etc) to make sure the hostages have a chance to pounce on the kidnapper and subdue him in the confusion.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2004
  15. Mar 25, 2004 #14
    polly, you introduce a possibility that few would even consider - at least, i have not encountered it before in any discussion. it is both daring and noble. one must wonder what effect it would have on the villan.
  16. Mar 25, 2004 #15
    Just curious, but what do you think of my response to his statement?
  17. Mar 25, 2004 #16


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I chose the word "unprincipled" because there really is no more accurate word. I attached it to words that, divorced from all circumstances, would be considered wrong, like killing and lying. Now, I realize that nothing can ever really be divorced from all circumstance, but it is sometimes useful to consider things so.

    I would agree with your conclusions if we were a species of perfect mental discipline, we are not. Someone who kills for a good reason will become more likely to kill for a bad reason. Someone who lies for a good reason will become more likely to lie for a bad one. We have all sorts of psychological mechanisms we use to justify behavior.

  18. Mar 25, 2004 #17
    I think you present a very good case though hypothetical situations can only result in hypothetical answers (and, after all, that is all we are doing here).

    I like your 'principle gradient' and believe it is legitimate to a large extent, but not necessary conclusive. We do not know, for instance, how a vilain may react to a dose of refreshing honesty. I think what happens is that we let our anticipation of the result skew our actions and often our integrity. While i would say this is not a good thing, i would have to also admit that to do otherwise may not be a smart thing.

    There are those, however, who do not agree. They would say that it is possible and necessary for our actions to be completely truthful especially when it comes to the more 'weighty' parts of your gradient (such as killing) and that we should never contribute to the pool of violence. Unfortunately, they are often killed by the very thing they refuse to wield, but it would seem they are continually replaced. They may be eliminated, but they do not go extinct.

    Perhaps they see our existence on a larger scale, as a constant evolution to a different way of being. Perhaps, they see a greater courage in resisting the temptation of violence even when it seems to provide the only way to survive. Perhaps they are the ones who 'generations to come will scarce believe walked the earth in flesh and blood'.

    I cannot pretend to understand, since i have a long way to go before accepting ethical non-violence. However, i can learn about and most certainly do admire the people who have this commitment.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2004
  19. Mar 26, 2004 #18
    Ah, now that is a great point and makes the argument much more interesting. I see your point that not all people are able to intelligently and/or objectively conduct moral deliberation. So, I agree with you that it is important in society to have propagated general "principles" which form guidelines that such people can fall back on.

    However, the danger comes in when people take those general principles and misunderstand them to be ironclad simplistic dogma. In these cases, they use the principles as a means to escape all responsibility for using their noodle and actually end up performing great evil in the name of them (in situations where they shouldn't apply). So, there's no shortcut to REAL ethical action in all cases.

    For this reason, I think it's important that we emphasize in our society that these are only general principles, and that it's important to think about ethics in one's life. I also think it's important to teach people more about ethical deliberation. I'm a strong proponent of church/state separation, but I do think that there is a whole field of civics and secular ethics, which should be compatible with any belief system, which SHOULD be taught in our schools.

    Of course, even if this were done, people would vary in their individual level of competence at ethical thought. But it certainly seems that the overall effort of getting people to think about ethics more would be a benefit to the society.
  20. Mar 26, 2004 #19
    That's nice but meanwhile, those who use violence for the wrong reasons are being born, as well as hanging around. The result would be that they would end up ruling the world. It is fortunate that this bizarre philosophy never took much of a foothold on a grand level, because it would only take a tiny minority to subjugate them all (I could make an overgeneralized, innacurate, smartass remark about france here, but I'll refrain hehe).

    Anyway, let's say you're alone in your home, a killer enters at night. Now you have a situation where there are two individuals in a room and ONE of them MUST die (we cannot control the actions of the murderer). So, as the homeowner, I am now faced with the ultimate decision, whether I deserve to make it or not. Which one is to die? I do have this decision because inaction itself is a decision. Furthermore, I believe moral deliberation should be conducted without favoritism or bias as to which participant is ourselves.

    Of course, if I had a star trek phaser with a stun setting, then there would be the option of no one dieing. But, when I see a room with two people in it, and a situation in which one must die, and fate has handed me the decision as to which. It seems that the ethical choice is to say that the murderer must die as opposed to the non-murderer. In fact, the decision to allow another circumstance through innaction no less removes my culpability - both are a choice.
  21. Mar 26, 2004 #20
    Not necessarily. Your assumption is that the small violent minority would go around killing the large non-violent majority. That presupposes that the said minority possess no qualities other than the tendency towards violence. You not considering these possibilities:

    1. the minority may suppress their violent outlook as a result of the overwhelming number of non-violent individuals since they will realize they don't have to worry about being harmed (to some extent this is what happens in civilized society, though we enforce non-violence through laws so that people don't have to feel a 'kill-or-be-killed' impetus)

    2. the violent minority recognizing that their chief danger comes from themselves and not the non-violent majority end up fighting each other thus themselves providing the solution for the problem you feel the majority would have (as in Lost Horizon: 'when the strong have devoured each other, the meek shall indeed inherit the earth)

    3. the minority may 'conqueror' the majority and learn a different way of being (sort of like the missionaries among the savages, but where the numbers are reversed)

    I do not understand why you call the philosophy bizzare especially since it has been so successful for those who just don't have the firepower to overcome their oppressors. Two examples that come to mind are Gandhi's liberation of India from the British and Martin Luther King's civil rights initiative. What would have been bizarre is if in those two situations the oppressed had taken up arms against their much more powerful foes and succeeded in being summarily wiped out.

    You may argue that this bizarre philosophy doesn't always work at achieving its goal. You may be right if the goal is the liberation of the oppressed, but you are wrong if the goal is to refuse to add another drop blood to the already overflowing pool.

    The problem I have with your example is the same that I have with my initial post's scenario. It is artificially hypothetical and the parameters are too rigid. You however were decent enough to say that 'we cannot control the actions of the murderer' which leaves more room than my example. This suggests we see the killer as a person first rather than a killer whose sole purpose is to kill. With that outlook, it may be possible to find a solution other than killing the intruder.

    Of course, it is possible that we will have found a quicker way to get killed also, hovever, if you aren't very good with the gun, you may accomplish the same result by executing the ethical choice you suggest.

    I do not think though that opting not to kill the intruder is inaction - there are often other possibilities that may appear in reality, that we can't account for in pixel world.

    in friendship,
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2004
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook