Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ethics and Utilitarianism

Last week, I asked SteveG, a great philosopher who consistently writes wonderful pieces at Philosophers' Playground, a question on ethical philosophy: "Is utilitarianism the best available paradigm in evaluating social justice. What's problematic about it?" You can read his great response here.

The question was actually inspired by some essays I read by Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard University. Sandel teaches the most popular undergraduate class at Harvard, with around 1,000 students enrolling each semester, called Justice. He's also delivered some thought-provoking speeches on this topic, among others, at Chautaqua. Utilitarianism -- also known as the 'greatest happiness principle' -- is no doubt a very useful philosophical tool; however, it does run into some classic problems: having to compare utilities by putting a monetary value on people's well-being (which is what economists do in a cost-benefit analysis), the problem of not knowing the consequences, the debate over intention vs. outcome, and the Kantian notion of treating man as an end-in-himself. Sandel argues that the utilitarian paradigm isn't adequate in answering a lot of the ethical questions we face today, like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay-marriage. For example, in tackling the issue of gay-marriage, he brings in the good old Greek notion of telos. What is the telos of marriage? Is it procreation?

There are different ways one can, and should, approach every problem. Steve does hit the nail on the head in his response. He quotes Stuart Hampshire: "thinking inevitably leads to conflict and our job is to think about those conflicts carefully and thoughtfully."

Thanks to Steve for the reply, and also for tapping me with the 'Thinking Blog Award.' It's really an honor!


At 8:50 PM, Blogger Trynn Diesel said...

I concur. You were always very deep in thoughts :-)

Don't forget to enjoy the Cricket World Cup!


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