Table of Contents
There are different theories of ethics, each of which has its own strengths and shortcomings. One of the most controversial, yet rather wide-spread theories is the utilitarian one. This theory of ethics originates from the 18th century and has been evolving since then, causing heated debates among scholars, philosophers, and the general public. Utilitarianism is extremely controversial due to its urge to break generally accepted norms and conventional rules in order to generate maximum happiness. In fact, the afore postulate is promoted by act utilitarianism, while another type of this theory entitled rule utilitarianism encourages to create universal rules that would ensure happiness of the society in general. The applicability of this theory to real-life situation is deemed contentious due to its predominantly theoretical nature and practical limitations. However, proponents of the theory reject similar criticisms and advocate for the empirical use of utilitarianism in daily life. The current paper strives to provide a brief overview of the theory under consideration, as well as apply it to five case studies with a view to determining whether it is applicable and helpful in this respect. Utilitarianism seems to be a valid theoretical and practical approach to ethics since it is aimed at ensuring maximum possible happiness and well-being of stakeholders in any given situation. Moreover, it allows acting despite any moral hindrances as to what should be considered as moral and right or immoral and bad, which is often an obstacle for people when they strive to pursue their goals. Withal, it is supposed that utilitarianism is applicable to the five studies under consideration, as well as real-life situations to a varying extent despite all the controversies of this theory of ethics.
Brief Overview of the Chosen Theory
Although utilitarianism may be considered as a complicated theory with regard to its practical application in real-life situations, it seems to be rather simple in terms of its postulates. It has only two subtypes, including act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, and each of these subtypes have only several key postulates to be remembered and complied with. The present section of the paper is aimed at providing a brief overview of the two subtypes of the theory under consideration with a special emphasis on their key concepts and standards.
Thus, act utilitarianism is the oldest version of the theory that was developed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century with a view to “fighting on behalf of reason against dogmatism, against blind adherence to tradition, and against conservative social and economic interests” (Lecture on Utilitarianism). Some of the Bentham’s followers were James Mill and John Stuart Mill (Lecture on Utilitarianism). Act utilitarianism sets forth the following key moral principle: “An action is right if and only if it brings about at least as much net happiness as any other action the agent could have performed; otherwise it is wrong” (West 203). The term ‘net happiness’ means the amount of happiness some action generates after deducting the amount of any unhappiness it may cause. At first glance, this basic standard seems to be quite simple and easy to understand. However, it has served as one of the major sources of criticism of the theory in general since it is not known for sure how to measure this net happiness and when the outcomes should be measured as actions which usually have indefinite and far-reaching impacts. Moreover, the theory has been criticized due to the fact that happiness as a key indicator of morality or immorality may be considered as too simplistic and inadequate. Thus, supporters of utilitarianisms are hedonists since they rely on happiness and pleasure as two inseparable elements of morality. Anyway, contemporary utilitarian supporters consider happiness as a term interchangeable with well-being as the former notion is really too simplistic in many respects.
Withal, act utilitarianism is consequentialist, aggregative, universalistic, and maximizing (Lecture on Utilitarianism). Consequentialism of the theory is explained through its consideration of outcomes of any actions and consequences of decisions taken under peculiar circumstances. The theory is aggregative since it adds levels of happiness and unhappiness of parties affected by an action to determine whether this action has been right or wrong. It is universalistic as it takes into account happiness and unhappiness of all stakeholders involved without any prejudice, thus treating all of them as equal and placing no emphasis on one’s happiness. Finally, it is maximizing because it prioritizes the maximum amount of happiness generated as a result of some action since only this outcome matters and may be used to regard this action as the right one. Moreover, there may be several right actions if they produce equal amounts of happiness, hence implying that the theory does not impose a binary opposition of right and wrong actions, but rather offering a variety of potential courses of an action. Nonetheless, opponents of the theory claim that it allows behavior that is immoral from the social perspective and complies with a saying that ends justify the means, which is not always socially acceptable.
The other type of the chosen theory is called rule utilitarianism which moves from assessment of happiness as a result of some particular situation to creation of rules that would ensure happiness of the society in general. Thus, this type encourages development and implementation of ideal moral codes that should be complied with by the entire society in all situations governed by these rules in order to attain maximum happiness as the final outcome. According to rule utilitarianism proponents, these ideal moral codes have to be implemented, despite the fact that following the rules may lead to unhappiness in some interim individual instances as only the general outcome for the society on the whole matters. Hence, rule utilitarianism deals with some criticism aimed against act utilitarianism as it encourages following ideal moral rules for the sake of society. However, its opponents point out that utilitarianism in any of its forms is too attached to the notion of rules.
Summary and Analysis of Case Studies
Summary and Analysis of Case Study 1. The first case study under consideration is entitled “Case Study 1. Actions Speak louder than Words: Rebuilding Malden Mills”. It focuses on the US-based textile mill Malden Mills and its owner’s attitude towards employees in particular and the concept of corporate social responsibility in general. The company was among a few American firms that did not outsource their production facilities overseas where labor costs and production expenses would be lower and tax environment would be much laxer than in the USA (Allhoff & Vaidya). The company was owned and run by Aaron Feuerstein; at the time three out of its ten buildings were destroyed in a large fire, including the one intended for dyeing and finishing of Malden Mills’ innovative textile Polartec (Allhoff & Vaidya). Although most CEOs would have decided to grasp the opportunity and shift operations abroad, Feuerstein decided to rebuild the facilities and pay employees their full salaries during the construction period. Such a decision showed his appreciation to the employees whom he deemed a valuable asset, but in the long run it resulted in the company’s bankruptcy and closure of one of its departments. Nonetheless, in the short run Feuerstein managed to set an example of corporate social responsibility and dedication to environmental sustainability as new facilities were environmentally friendly and decreased their emissions levels to a large extent. The Malden Mills’ workforce applauded their CEO’s decision and did their best to excel in their duties and bring success to the company.
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From the ethical perspective, Feuerstein’s decision to rebuild the mill in the USA may be considered as rather controversial depending on the chosen theory of ethics. Feuerstein said the following about this step: “I think it was a wide business decision, but that isn’t why I did it. I did it because it was the right thing to do” (Allhoff & Vaidya 147). If to apply the theory of utilitarianism, this decision was right based on the amount of net happiness it generated. For the sake of objectivity, the current analysis will not take into consideration a long-term impact on the decision, as in case with this company, since Feuerstein could not predict that it would happen under the circumstances of dire economic situation in the USA. At the time Feuerstein had to decide whether to shift production overseas or rebuild the mills, utilitarianism would advise him to rebuild. Such decision brought happiness to workers who did not lose their job and received salaries for three months of the construction, as well as satisfied customers who would not worry about the quality of expensive textiles they bought. The company had no shareholders to whom the decision would bring unhappiness. Feuerstein was happy because he did what he thought was right and preserved traditions of his family-owned mill. Besides, the decision caused the so-called happiness to the Americans in general as the company remained in the USA and paid taxes, which were rather high as compared to overseas locations. Moreover, it encouraged other companies to think about remaining in the USA and not shifting production abroad, as well as about complying with their CSR policies, hence generating happiness. Unhappiness was caused to 300 workers from the closed department who lost their jobs as their department was sacrificed for the sake of rebuilt facilities. However, net happiness of the decision was greater than an alternative option of moving the mill abroad, which would generate happiness only to new foreign workers, while making old employees, customers, CEO, the US government, and the local community unhappy. Therefore, the Feuerstein’s decision may be deemed right from the perspective of utilitarianism.
Summary and Analysis of Case Study 3. The second case study under consideration is entitled “Case Study 3. Lifestyles and Your Livelihood: Getting Fired in America”; it deals with the issue of lifestyle discrimination that is rather wide-spread in the USA nowadays. The matter is that companies can fire employees for virtually any reason unless it is race or gender discrimination that is governed by the respective laws. Personal lives of employees are scrutinized by their employers and may become a reason for firing should the boss disapprove some activities or habits like smoking. The case study mentions some of the most notorious cases related to lifestyle discrimination, including those of Deborah Hobbs, Lynne Gobbell, Harry Stonecipher, smoking employees at Weyco Inc., Michael Hanscom, Ellen Simonetti, and Jessica Cutler (Allhoff & Vaidya). Reasons for firing were not always evident, but, in any case, it was not illegitimate for employers to do that albeit questionable from the ethical viewpoint. It is difficult to judge mentioned cases from the perspective of utilitarianism since not all variables and stakeholders are known. However, it is obvious that not all firing decisions were right though some of them were probably more right than wrong. For instance, it was definitely wrong to fire Deborah Hobbs only because she was not married but lived with her boyfriend (Allhoff & Vaidya). This decision would make her and her boyfriend unhappy and it would probably make unhappy all unmarried females in the company who would start worrying about their job security. Net happiness of this decision is negative as only the boss would be happy. However, utilitarianism would proclaim the decision to fire Michael Hanscom right as he violated his employment agreement, threatened reputation of Microsoft, and made many users of Microsoft’s goods unhappy (Allhoff & Vaidya). Besides, other Microsoft’s employees were likely to be unhappy as well since their company was humiliated and they could feel embarrassed because of that. It is immoral and illegal to laugh publicly at the company one is working for. Therefore, this decision was right from the utilitarian viewpoint.
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Summary and Analysis of Case Study 5. The third case study under consideration is “Case Study 5. Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” by Darci Doll. It concerns a complicated sexual harassment complaint filed by Kevin against his colleague Bridget (Allhoff & Vaidya). The woman harassed the man and was obsessed with an idea of having a love affair with him (Allhoff & Vaidya). At least, this is what Kevin told. The man repeatedly asked Bridget to omit sexual topics and innuendos in workplace interaction and was afraid to file a complaint against her since such case did not correspond to a conventional meaning of sexual harassment at a workplace (Allhoff & Vaidya). However, Kevin finally decided to file the complaint as Bridget refused to listen to him and did not want to take ‘no’ for an answer. From the utilitarian viewpoint, his decision to complain was right as it brought about more net happiness than any other decision. Otherwise, Kevin, as well as his wife would be unhappy if he did nothing. Ignorance of the problem would threaten the well-being of the entire research department headed by Kevin in the biotechnology firm. He would fail in his job, which would make customers of the company and the board of directors unhappy. After filing the complaint, only Bridget and perhaps the HR specialist handling the case would be unhappy. The HR would have to investigate the sensitive issue, which is likely to make him/her uncomfortable; yet all things considered, it was a right decision.
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Summary and Analysis of Case Study 8. The fourth case study under consideration is entitled “Case Study 8. Copy That, Red Leader: Is File-Sharing Piracy?”. It concerns a well-known file-sharing system Napster that was launched by Shawn Fanning in 1999 and radically changed with respect to its functioning principles after losing a court battle against some recording labels (Allhoff & Vaidya). The court decided that Napster breached a copyright of labels and performers by sharing their materials, predominantly music, without consent and for free. Napster was based on the principle that users could exchange and share songs and other files they had with people who were looking for them. The system was brilliant in its simplicity, but labels were furious due to losing possible income. From the perspective of utilitarianism, Napster was right and labels were wrong when they wanted it shut down. Napster brought happiness to millions of its users who could freely exchange files for free, while only directors of label companies (as their employees were likely using Napster at some point due to its availability and attractiveness) and performers whose songs and other information were shared without consent. Thus, the net happiness in this case would dictate not to shut down Napster even though this decision is illegal under the US copyright law.
Summary and Analysis of Case Study 10. The final case study under analysis is “Case Study 10. Children and Targeting: Is It Ethical?” by Brennan Jacoby. It presents a hypothetical case of Jennifer Smith and her advertising company that has developed and launched a successful ad campaign for sugar cereal Puff Fluffs aimed at children (Allhoff & Vaidya). Once obesity rates are published, the nation blames high obesity levels among children on junk food like Puff Fluffs and advertising firms, which results in Jennifer losing her job (Allhoff & Vaidya). Although this case is not real, it could definitely happen in the USA where heated debates as to targeting of children in commercials of unhealthy foods continue as to their validity and legality. The Congress has not passed a law that would prohibit targeted advertising with respect to children, but it may happen in the future under the pressure of a worried public and concerned specialists who urge to deal with the children obesity problem. It is complicated to forecast net happiness in this particular case in order to determine whether targeted advertising is ethical under utilitarianism. On the one hand, prohibition of such advertising would make producers of unhealthy food, including their directors and all employees, and advertising firms unhappy. Besides, children who love this food and these commercials would be unhappy as well. The government would lose a lot in taxes should food companies close or limit some of their operations. On the other hand, parents, healthcare professionals, teachers and school administrators, and worried public would be happy if such advertising were banned. There is also a concern that such a ban would infringe upon the First Amendment to some extent, which would make activists and legal experts unhappy. Withal, it seems that prohibition of ads targeting children would not derive a high level of net happiness, hence making it wrong from the perspective of utilitarianism.
The above discussion of utilitarianism and its practical application to five case studies have shown that this theory of ethics is not as simple as it may seem initially, as well as being rather controversial in its nature. The theory justifies virtually any action should it bring about the maximum amount of net happiness as compared to other alternatives. In some cases, it means that an action, which is illegal or immoral under conventional social norms, is deemed right in line with utilitarianism. In turn, an action, which is socially acceptable and legal, may be considered as wrong under the theory. However, this theory is beneficial in terms of being consequentialist and universal as it treats all people and their respective happiness as equal elements of the equation. It is not biased on the basis of some variables and it ensures that the maximum amount of people is happy, which means that their well-being is secured. It may not be easy to apply this theory in practice, but this task is challenging and exciting as it helps to grasp better underlying standards and basic principles of utilitarianism. Nowadays, the society does not live by the principles of this theory, but some of its elements could prove to be useful in life.