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Utilitarianism was developed to help a person determine "What they ought to do?" using a simple and inarguable system. The system was developed by Jeremy Bentham based on a "Principle of Utility". All of our human actions are based on a desire for pleasure, rather than pain, and essentially pleasure is good and pain is bad. An action is considered "good" based on the amount of pleasure it brings. There is also a measure of quantity considered, the more people who are affected the greater the consequence to the act. Therefore, the best decision would be one that brings the "greatest happiness": the greatest good for the greatest number, a concept developed by Bentham.
If one were to look at Martha's ethical dilemma from a Utilitarian perspective, the issue is pretty "black and white". Martha promised George she would give his fortune to the Society for Protection against Alien Control of the Earth, SPACE. However, Martha is beginning to reconsider that promise because she believes the money would be more beneficial to the local Hunger Task Force who donate food to those in need. One could assume, strictly based on the title of the organization, that SPACE is a ridiculous organization to funnel money in to, since we are not in any danger of alien control. The Hunger Task Force has greater "utility" because it serves those in need, benefitting them by providing food, and preventing hunger (pain). In this case the consequence is "good" because it increases happiness of a large amount of people. The positive consequence is also certain if Martha gives the money to the Hunger Task Force. While one good argue that SPACE would benefit from funding too, since the origins of the organization and its purpose are not definitive, the positive consequence is uncertain.
Criticism of this "black and white" outlook on Martha's situation would be that it is unethical because a promise was made to George, and going against his wishes would have a negative effect on him. "Considerations of utility might sometimes sanction breaking a promise" (West, 2), meaning that if the action of breaking the promise better serves the community and not just Martha's interests that it meets the requirements of the "principle of utility". Utilitarian's can defend going against George's wishes is because he is only one person. According to the Hedonistic Calculus, potential benefactors of the Hunger Task Force (+2-100s) is greater than upsetting George (-1). The action of breaking the promise could be defended further by saying that since George is deceased at the time of Martha's dilemma his utility is has literally become zero and therefore any promise to him has become void.
It should not go unmentioned that Rule Utilitarianism would not look at this case as "open and shut" but in end it would result in the same decision. Rule Utilitarianism was developed by John Stuart Mill, who felt that the quality of the happiness was more important than the quantity. He believed that humanity should always seek improvement, and not be satisfied with looking at things as simply good or bad based on pain or pleasure. He believed that there are lower levels of pleasure shared with animals, and higher levels of pleasure that make us human. Mill believed the ethical choice would be the one that benefits the most people through the fairest and just means. In that case using the money for the Hunger Task Force would be best, but Martha would need George's permission to make it "right". Since George is deceased, one has to look deeper to find the answer.
Mill says in his Utilitarianism:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
George's wish to leave the money to SPACE could be looked as being the pig or fool, because is satisfied with withholding his fortune and then donating it to an organization that is not directly benefiting anyone. Martha has to make the difficult choice to ignore his wishes and ensure the greater quality of happiness is met. Under the school of Utilitarianism, the only acceptable choice is to give the money to the Hunger Task Force satisfy a number of people with a greater quality of life.
One could also look at Martha's dilemma from a Kantian perspective. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that what was good and what made a person happy were independent of each other. Ethics, in his opinion should be more rational, based on logic, not emotion or future what-ifs. In order to satisfy Kant's morality the action must be a duty, what you should do simply because it is right. This is determined by categorical imperative. Categorical Imperative is tells a person what they must do, it is absolute and unemotional. The third factor of Kant's morality is that the action be autonomous, they must perform the action out of free will. A person must want to do the right thing, not because they are forced to.
Martha's maxim, her subjective motivation, is to give the money to the Hunger Task Force because the money will feed many hungry people. Her hypothetical imperative is the command to give the money to the Hunger Task Force in order to not feel guilty. Martha's categorical imperative is to obey George's wishes and keep her promise to him. Otherwise she would be giving into inclination, what she wants to do. The categorical imperative to obey George's wish makes giving the money to SPACE Martha's duty. Martha cannot to be forced to give the money to SPACE by any other means then because she knows it is the right thing to do. It must be a duty she holds herself accountable to. The fact that more people will benefit from the Hunger Task Force, or that it will put her own guilt to rest are irrelevant to Kantian Morality. "The choices necessary to live a good life could involve actions which entail results incompatible with happiness"(Kantian Ethics, 2). Kantian ethics disagrees with Utilitarian believe "ends over means". From Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end". If Martha ignores George's wish to have his fortune left to SPACE, and gives it to the Hunger Task Force, then she will be using George as a means to an end. Kant does not follow the tyranny of the majority like Utilitarianism, but values individual's rights instead. From a Kantian perspective it is more important that Martha obey her promise to George, then the consequence of the action.
Kant, Immanuel, and James W. Ellington. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1993. Print.
"Kantian Ethics." Philosophy Home Page. 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/kant.html>.
"Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy." CMU Philosophy Department Web Server. 2002. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/80130/part1/sect4/BenandMill.html>.
West, Henry R. "Utilitarianism (philosophy) -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Encyclopedia - Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Feb. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/620682/utilitarianism>.