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Essays Utilitarian Perspective On Discrimination

An Argument Against Affirmative Action

            The purpose of this essay will be to make an effective argument against the practice of affirmative action using ethical theories, perspectives and logical arguments. This essay will analyze how a Utilitarian, a Deontologist, a Virtue Ethicist a Relativist and an Ethical Egoist would argue against the use of affirmative action. A case will be made by illustrating why this practice is irrefutably unethical and discriminatory.

            Affirmative action is often used to give minorities an advantage when applying for jobs, colleges or other organizations. In some cases, extra points are given on test results and in other cases companies are financially incentivized to be racially diverse. The result of these practices enables candidates, who may be less qualified to fill a position, to be chosen in order to achieve minority quotas. Affirmative action was enacted to push back against racism after segregation was deemed unconstitutional in order to get employers and the government to employ minorities; however, it is wrought with issues. As Peter H. Schuck stated in Assessing Affirmative Action:

“The framers of the 14th Amendment may have countenanced affirmative action favoring former slaves and perhaps their descendants, but they would never have approved of today’s affirmative-action programs, in which most of the potential beneficiaries are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. But regardless of whether such programs are constitutional or not, they are undesirable public policy, indeed perverse in practice.” (Schuck, 2014)

The Utilitarian

            In order to understand how an ethical theory or perspective would deal with affirmative action, one must first understand the theory or perspective. Utilitarianism is known as a consequential ethical theory, which simply means that it focuses on the expected outcome of an act, rather than the morality of the act itself or the agent involved in the act. The Utilitarian might endorse using the motto, “the ends justify the means”. The most basic premise of Utilitarianism is that the agent should choose the course of action that will create the maximum amount of happiness or utility and reduce suffering for the maximum amount of people possible. Another way to describe this philosophy is one should choose the act that produces the best results for the greatest number of individuals while creating the least amount of harm. As John Stuart Mill, the father of Utilitarianism, said in his book “Utilitarianism”, “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 2001).

As noted by Mill, Utilitarianism takes into account actions that produce the reverse of happiness, otherwise known as suffering or harm, but any harm created can be outweighed, if sufficient utility is created as a result. For example, if the life of one person were to be taken in order to save the lives of 2 or more individuals, the Utilitarian could suggest that it is the right course of action. This is because more utility was created than harm.

When applying the ethical theory of Utilitarianism to affirmative action, there can be many ways that a Utilitarian can approach the subject. For the purpose of this essay the focus will be on why a Utilitarian might be against the practice of affirmative action. One can simply start with “The Greatest Happiness Principle” to unravel this conundrum. After analyzing the practice of affirmative action, the Utilitarian could see that more utility is created, for the greater society, when minorities are not given special or preferential treatment over the majority. The act of giving special treatment toward minorities creates more suffering or harm for more people than it helps. The logic behind this argument is rather simple; there are more individuals in a majority than in a minority, in fact, that is their very definitions.

The practice of affirmative action stands in stark contrast to the ethical theory of Utilitarianism. If anything, the Utilitarian might see more utility created when special treatment is given to a majority. This is because more utility is created for more people than is harmed by this practice. However, a moral and just person can obviously see how unjust that practice would be.

Deontology

            The ethical theory of Deontology asserts that there are universal laws in which a moral or just person simply should not violate. Unlike Utilitarianism, Deontology does not look at the consequences of an action, but rather the morality of an act itself. A Deontologist would ask, “Is this act moral or just and/or does this act follow the golden rule?” The golden rule simply states that one should do unto others, as they wish others would do unto themselves. The name Deontology comes from the Greek word “Deon”, which means duty. The Deontologist believes that it is a moral agent’s duty to treat others as the agent would like to be treated; with respect and dignity. In other words, the ethical theory of Deontology primarily focuses on what a rational moral agent is obligated to do (I.E. duty), rather than the consequences of the act.

“Whatever else it does, a moral theory will tell us what our moral obligations are. Since if we have a moral obligation to act in a certain way, it follows that we have a reason to act in that way, this entails that a moral theory will tell us what some of our reasons for action are.” (Hooker, 2012)

            When applying Deontology to the practice of affirmative action, a Deontologist might think that it is unethical or unjust to give any group of people special or preferential treatment. It would violate the golden rule to discriminate against the majority and give the minority an advantage over everyone else in society. It would not follow the golden rule to discriminate against anyone, even if they are in the majority.

The Deontologist would not be concerned about the consequences of eliminating the practice of affirmative action; only that discrimination is an immoral act, even if it benefits others. It wouldn’t matter how much utility affirmative action created for minorities, or society in general, the Deontologist would be against the act of discrimination. The Deontologist would not consider the amount of suffering, possibly created, from eliminating the practice of affirmative action, only that the institution, itself, is morally wrong. Additionally, the Deontologist would not be concerned with any possible consequences for themselves, such as looking bad politically or losing votes (if the Deontologist is a politician). They would only be concerned that discrimination in all forms is immoral. With that in mind, the Deontologist could argue against affirmative action due to discriminatory practices based on race.

Virtue Ethics

            Aristotle has been given credit for creating the theory of Virtue Ethics. The ethical theory of Virtue Ethics is much different from other theories. Unlike Deontology, Virtue Ethics does not analyze the morality of an action. Unlike Utilitarianism and Ethical Egoism, Virtue Ethics does not analyze the consequence or outcome of an action. Conversely, Virtue Ethics emphasizes the character of the agent performing the action. This ethical theory attempts to seek what makes a rational moral agent virtuous as an individual. It outlines that a virtuous person will have certain character qualities, in the proper proportion and in harmony with all other qualities.

“What kind of virtues does Aristotle have in mind? He specifies a number of virtues, some of which have already been mentioned, including courage, generosity, honesty, pride, and modesty. He also mentions one that is perhaps less common, temperance, or being moderate in one's appetites and desires” (Mosser, 2013).

The Virtue Ethicist would consider if an agent’s actions display these virtues in harmony with one another or if there is one or more qualities that are in excess or deficient. According to this theory, the virtuous person should have these qualities in the proper balance. As Lawler and Salzman wrote in Virtue Ethics: Natural And Christian:

“As character state or habit, virtue not only explains why a person acts this way on this particular occasion but also why the person can be relied on to act this way always or, given human frailty, at least most of the time. Immediately, then, we can isolate three dimensions of a virtue: it is a character state, habit, or disposition; it involves a judgment of truth and choice of action; and it lies in a mean between excess and defect” (Lawler/Salzman, 2013)

When applying Virtue Ethics to the practice of affirmative action, the Virtue Ethicist would have to determine if this practice represented a harmony of the above qualities or a deficiency of one more qualities. It is arguable that affirmative action is, in essence, discrimination based on race. With that in mind, the Virtue Ethicists might think that a person who participates in racial discrimination would be deficient in one or more of these qualities of virtue. Discrimination, in all forms, is not a virtuous character quality. As a result, the Virtue Ethicist might be against affirmative action, because to participate in a discriminatory institution, such as affirmative action, would be to endorse unvirtuous qualities.

Relativism

            The ethical perspective of Relativism dictates that individuals and/or societies should not be judged based upon anyone’s standards, but the society that is being judged. Relativists believe that there is no such thing as an absolute rule or law. This seems to be a rather good philosophy for those who wish to agree to disagree, rather than casting judgment. It is worth noting that if a Relativist believes there is no such thing as an absolute truth, then this statement contradicts itself. How could one believe absolutely that there is no absolute truth? It is a conundrum.

            In regards to how a Relativist would consider the institution of affirmative action there are many possibilities; however, there is a major stumbling block that cannot be overcome when applying this theory. Relativism prevents judging society. If a society is racist and minorities are being discriminated against, the Relativist might think that it is improper to judge that society. With that in mind, it is impossible for a Relativist to be in support of societal change. One can easily argue that societal change is the goal of affirmative action and by this logic the Relativist would have to be against it.

Ethical Egoism

            The ethical perspective of Ethical Egoism argues that its agents should do what they deem is in their own best interest or creates the most utility for themselves. There are similarities between Ethical Egoism and Utilitarianism in that they are both consequential ethical theories, meaning that they both considered the outcome of an action, rather than the act itself. “It might be said, following Feldman (1978, 82), that egoism is individualistic consequentialism, whereas utilitarianism is universalistic consequentialism” (Burgess-Jackson, 2013).  Opponents of Ethical Egoism have long argued that it is a selfish theory, which they argue makes it completely unethical. However, the Ethical Egoist could argue that self-interest, rather than selfishness is the driving force of individuals and that one cannot simply be expected to labor for others their entire life with no concern for their own interests. It is arguable that most people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, act as an Ethical Egoists in their everyday lives by making decisions that they feel will result in a preferable outcome for themselves. The Ethical Egoist could argue that this is not selfish, but common sense and self-evident.

            When applying Ethical Egoism to affirmative action, there are many ways that an Egoist may determine what is in their own best interest, but for now, a look from an employer’s point of view will allow the best insight into this ethical perspective. When an employer begins the hiring process, they likely hope to find the best person for the job that they wish to have filled. This would imply that they are, perhaps, looking for a myriad of qualities in a potential candidate. Some qualities they may look for in a person are experience, qualification, education, work ethic, employment history, attitude and professionalism.

It would behoove the employer to hire the candidate that best meets these prerequisites, but while utilizing the practice of affirmative action, the employer may not be able to pick the best candidate for the job. The employer may be forced to pick a less qualified candidate in order to meet an arbitrary minority quota or because a person was automatically given more points than everyone else at the beginning of a test. This less qualified candidate could require more training, might be less productive, could cost the company money or, worse, put lives in jeopardy depending on the job.

Due to the conflicts of self-interest, the Ethical Egoist could see that it is not in their best interest to practice affirmative action. The Egoist would determine that they would be better off hiring the best candidate for the job and not allowing affirmative action to determine who they hire. This might cause the Ethical Egoist to oppose affirmative action, not because of its discriminatory practices, but because it creates more harm for the Egoists than utility. It becomes a burden to bear rather than a helpful tool for the employer.

            In closing, the practice of affirmative action is morally wrong and completely unjust. It essentially creates a privileged few who have opportunities handed to them that are not based on merit, but skin color, race and ethnic background. It defies logic to conclude that the answer to the discrimination of a minority due to racism is to discriminate against the majority. How can one oppose racisms against a group of people and then simultaneously support racism in favor of that group? Discrimination in all forms is abhorrent and immoral. Based on this principle alone, a moral person could not condone the practice of affirmative action. After breaking down the above theories and perspectives, an ethical theorist could come to the same conclusion and disapprove of affirmative action. This essay has illustrated how every discussed ethical theory could produce a negative reaction in response to the institution of affirmative action.

            In this author’s opinion affirmative action is tantamount to soft bigotry! Affirmative action assumes that its recipients could not succeed without such special treatment.  It assumes that minorities are unable to succeed on their own merit and due to such inferiorities must be given an advantage over the majority. This kind of thought is not only false, but despicable in nature. Minorities should be insulted by these false insinuations and demand that this institution be forever purged from society.

  

References:

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London, GBR: ElecBook, 2001. Retrieved from ProQuest ebrary.

Hooker, Brad, ed. Ratio Special Issues : Developing Deontology : New Essays in Ethical Theory. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. ProQuest ebrary.

Burgess-Jackson, K. (2013). Taking Egoism Seriously. Ethical Theory & Moral Practice. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database

Schuck, P. H. (2014). Assessing Affirmative Action. National Affairs, 2076-96. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database

Mosser, K. (2013). Ethics and social responsibility (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.


LAWLER, M. G., & SALZMAN, T. A. (2013). VIRTUE ETHICS: NATURAL AND CHRISTIAN. Theological Studies. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database

What Is Utilitarianism?

  •   Peter Hurford

I consider myself a utilitarian. I’m not a perfect one, and I don’t think people have to be. However, before I focus on that, I’d like to focus on what “utilitarianism” means. When I say I’m a utilitarian, I’m saying that I have set out to make the world a better place, to the best of my ability. And by better place, I’m talking about a world where there everyone is better off than they were earlier.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that says that one should aim to “maximize utility” whenever possible. What counts as “utility” is still more or less open for debate, but it can be thought of as “happiness”, “flourishing”, “well-being”, “welfare”, “pleasure”, or “life satisfaction”. These are all tricky concepts and I’ll tend to use them interchangably, but this isn’t to side-step an important debate about their differences and distinctions. Luckily for us, however, except in strange scenarios, everyone agrees on what makes things better for the most part. If Joan is suffering from malaria, it would be better to cure her disease. If Roger is living on $1 a day, it would be better to lift him out of poverty. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about happiness, flourishing, or pleasure… we should do these things.

When I think of utilitarianism, I think of three things: equality for all, only welfare matters, and we must act on our priorities.

Equality for All

Utilitarianism isn’t just about people with white Anglo-Saxon sounding names. Instead, utilitarians care about everyone that is capable of suffering and capable of having their life improved. One wouldn’t care about a rock or a fern, because rocks and ferns don’t have feelings. But one would care about an african child, a United States senator, a Chinese schoolteacher, or a pig in a farm, because all these people have feelings.

Perhaps more radically, utilitarians aim, in so far as is possible, to treat the interests of all of these beings equally. This isn’t to say that the President of the United States is no more important than the pig in the farm. It is to say, however, that the interests of the pig in the farm matters, and there might be some circumstances where we’d be in a better position to improve the life of a pig than the life of the President. Certainly, if the President and the pig were both trapped in a burning building and I could only save one, I’d save the President. But if the President had a hangnail and the pig was about to be lit on fire, I’d help the pig first.

Anything other than equality would be some sort of arbitrary, discriminatory bias — like racism in ignoring the preferences of other races, sexism in ignoring the preferences of other genders, speciesism in ignoring the preferences of other species, etc. If there’s no reason to favor someone more, the default position seems to be equality, and that’s where utilitarianism starts.

Only Welfare Matters

…And that’s also where utilitarianism ends. When it comes to evaluating a situation, how it impacts welfare is all that matters. To a utilitarian, lying isn’t bad simply because it’s lying, but because deception frequently erodes trust in society and often makes people worse off. There may be cases, however, where lying makes people better off, and we experience this all the time with so-called “white lies”.

There’s nothing magical about bad things that make them bad. Instead, bad things are bad for a specific reason: they create consequences that result in lives being worse.

We Must Act on Our Priorities

Thirdly, utilitarianism is about prioritization. If you can spend an hour offering Alice homework help or spend an hour saving Bob from drowning, then, all else being equal, utilitarianism asks you to spend your hour saving Bob from drowning. This is because while Alice would definitely receive a benefit from getting helped with her homework, Bob would receive a dramatically larger benefit for the same amount of time, and that would maximize welfare more with the same amount of resources, which utilitarianism considers better (all things being equal). This makes utilitarianism very similar to any other sort of cost-benefit analysis, except costs and benefits are measured in the happiness of all those being affected.

It really would be nice to solve all the problems of the world. But we can’t – we lack the time and the resources. Therefore, we must focus on the actions that are best able to help the most people, and do those things, with regret that we don’t have the ability to do more. This isn’t ruthless or cold-hearted, but the only way we can save the most people. People’s lives literally depend on prioritization, because more people would die if we ended up doing a less efficient method. Prioritization matters.

Conclusion

Utilitarianism is a fairly complex philosophy with lots of misconceptions. I intend to clear up those misconceptions as this blog goes on and establish utilitarianism as a philosophy and lifestyle that can be commonsense and lived out in everyday life. But utilitarianism doesn’t need to be complex. It’s actually fairly simple. If you think that everyone should be treated equally and recognize that we can’t save everyone at once and must prioritize, then you’d sympathize with utilitarianism. There certainly are other motivations to be a utilitarian, and I’ll talk about them eventually. But a concern for equality is my motivation.

Sometimes, I think utilitarianism gets a bit too “ivory tower” in it’s discussion and debate, and not enough action actually takes place. Sure, we must debate the finer points of what to do and where to allocate our resources, because that will really matter. But we also have the chance to make a big differences in the lives of humans and animals. That’s a lot simpler of a take away and we need to do that too.

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This essay was followed up in “What Does Utilitarianism Look Like in Practice?”.

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