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Utilitarianism: The Greater Good

The utilitarian approach is also known as the consequentialist or teleological ethical theory. The basic principle is that human beings judge the morality of actions in terms of the consequences or results of those actions. Moral acts elicit good consequences—those that create happiness and are justifiable.

Immoral acts elicit bad consequences—those that induce pain and suffering and are unjustifiable. In this approach, actions may be moral or immoral based on the capacity to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. For example, an increase in funding for crime laboratories is good because it helps the agencies, the employees, and society. In contrast, an increase in funding specifically for a single discipline within the laboratory would not impact as many people. In this case, then, the former is considered the moral act.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) developed the utilitarian outcome-based approach in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bentham focused on the concept of pleasure versus pain, whereas Mill studied happiness versus unhappiness. Although Mill contributed to developing the approach, he disagreed with Bentham as he was more concerned with the quality of happiness rather than the quantity. Pleasure and pain are determined by considering the duration, intensity, long-term consequences, and likelihood of outcomes to all parties influenced by the action. Summing up all consequences and assessing the outcome assure that individual interests are considered.

Bentham used normative ethics by seeking which behavior was morally right or wrong and trying to establish norms for behavior. His goal was to merge competing views: the nature of man’s ego with societal influence and goals. He felt that man and society could coexist based on common motivations he referred to as sanctions: (1) physical sanctions, or the natural sensation of happiness and pain; (2) political sanctions, the legal acts that can counteract immoral acts; (3) moral sanctions, approval or disapproval from those around a person; and (4) religious sanctions, the blessing or condemning by a supreme being, consistent with one’s faith. The weakness of the utilitarian theory was that the core principle was vague and did not account for individual rights. The principle evolved and became known as the greatest happiness principle, which allowed more needs to be met within a community. The new version of the principle focuses on the morality of an action that creates happiness or the principle of utility (Mill, 1863).

Utility in modern-day professions centers around duty and obligation. Cases of conflicting duties require that action be taken in a situation if and only if (1) doing the action (a) treats as few people as possible as mere means to an end and (b) treats as many people as ends as consistent with treating as few people as possible as mere means to the ends; and (2) taking the action in the situation brings about as much overall happiness as consistent with actually doing the action. These guidelines, presented in Justice, Crime, and Ethics, will assist a person in circumventing problems of binding and conflicting duties. They will also focus attention on what is specifically good or bad for the greatest amount of people (Braswell, 2008). The whole process has been described as systemized common sense.

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