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In order to respond to whether the concepts of rights is more appropriate in determining morality than utilitarianism it is important to firstly define each of the concepts independent of one another before attempting to compare them. Although rights theory is perhaps the most widely applied theory in the Western world this does not necessarily mean that the evolution of these circumstances invalidates the usefulness of utilitarianism, in fact it may be the case that in the wake of acts such as September the 11th that a utility principle protecting the greater good against the feelings of a perhaps fundamentalist minority may well be more popular, providing of course the advocates of that theory are in the majority.
Firstly, utilitarianism is simply defined as the ethical doctrine by which the right thing to do is that which brings about the greatest good for the greatest number’. Although the simplicity of the theory is not so easily applied in practice the above quote does capture the essence of the principle in its simplest terms.
However, as the argument progresses I will look into the developments that have occurred within utility theory itself and with that see how those developments have affected the ability of the theory to determine what is moral action and also that, which is immoral.
Secondly, there is Rights theory that concerns itself largely with a few key principles. These are namely the protection of minorities against the masses, sometimes regarded as protection against the tyranny of the majority yet also incorporates the prevention of acts by states, societies or even individuals to harm directly or indirectly the lives of others.
Rights theory often shields itself under the banner of what is moral and just, and more often than not what is considered to be a civil liberty. However, the difficulty this presents is that the concept is judged not on the opinion of the masses but on the judgement of the governing few, whether that be judiciary, legislative, elected or not. It is because of the subjective nature of rights theory, and the differing ways these views can be applied, that there is perhaps more of a justifiable argument to support utility theory as a means by which morals can be determined. However, the fact that rights theory is perhaps more subjective than the removed and objective theory of utility does not necessarily mean that the conclusions reached by utility are any more justifiable than those reached by rights theory.
After all, when one is dealing with determining moral correctness they are doing it with an intention to serve the emotional and largely subjective creatures that are human beings. With this fact in mind, I therefore believe that both principles have an equally justifiable though not equally valid claim that they may best serve to determine that which is moral.
The conflict between the two theories over determining what is moral is perhaps best summed up by the contemporary debate that is presently being engaged in the United States. The US is currently caught up in the conflict of whether or not same-sex marriages should be allowed and whether this act directly harms the fabric of society (the masses) or whether it should be regarded as a lawful right of a minority to seek happiness and equality in an institution open to heterosexuals for centuries. Although many in the USA oppose the action of same-sex marriage there is a strong belief that the liberal supreme court of the nation will instead find that, contrary to utility principle, the unions of same-sex individuals should be allowed according to the bill of rights and the protection of equality that is enshrined in the constitution of the nation. Although this particular example is wrought with many overlapping issues and lacks of clarity on details, it does essentially seem to be a utility versus rights conflict. This stance presumes that the majority of the American public wishes not to see samesex marriage within their society, a case which has yet to be proven, although opposition does seem to be rather large. Utilitarians would argue that if the harm done by allowing such unions to be carried forward outweighs the pleasure of those involved in the marriage, that the unions should be prevented, as they are not in the interest of society at large; a standpoint presently being advocated by the nations President to the extent where he deems it necessary to engage in possibly amending the constitution.
However, this issue would present a clear case in which rights theory could be applied regardless of what the masses thought of the situation on the basis that the rights of same-sex couples should be equal to that of heterosexual couples who are able to freely marry and should be guaranteed regardless of the existence of opposition, a view which the US constitution could be interpreted to advocate
It is questions such as these which have emerged out of advanced Western society, and that, as society continues to progress, will no doubt occur all the more frequently with differing levels of promotion and opposition. However, a problem that is presented by Rights theory is the establishment of exactly what is morally recognised as a right and what is considered to be correct and that, which is not, an issue which utility theory wouldn’t be required to clarify in the same manner.
The question posed in this essay attempts to establish which of the aforementioned theories best provide a solution to the issue of moral determination. It is my belief that utility theory as advocated by Jeremy Bentham “nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” promotes that action taken which serves to make the greatest number the most happy is the way in which we establish what is morally correct, a theory that can be easily moulded into condoning any form of action and justifying that action as moral. However, an area in which utility theory does seem to make sense is that it does not require a body or individual to establish what is considered to be moral and immoral, a concept that rights theory is heavily dependent upon. If rights theory is to be successful, how then does one apply one set of moral rules to a whole nation or indeed a global society and also how is that one set of morals arrived at? With the abundant cultural differences and contradictions of society it is hard to see exactly how a single rights theory could be applied. It is also therefore near impossible to justify a number of rights theories to apply to the different cultures as rights theory itself depends heavily on the basis that the principle be applied universally. Although a universal morality would no doubt be desirable it is not presently available and essentially remains unlikely to be for the foreseeable future. This in itself presents the issue of perhaps only basic rights being applied as part of rights theory in determining morality, however choosing to limit it in this way would essentially undermine the angle of the question, that morality is a universal concept.
As posed in the question, society is presently an essential a battle of utilitarianism against rights theory, with differing groups backing each principle. While many in the West may have the time and opportunity to ponder the thoughts of rights theory and go as far as to begin applying this outside the human domain (by investing time and resources in animal rights theory), the global south as it exists does not have so much of a luxury to indulge such issues and I would say generally follows more of the utility principle than is perhaps seen in the globalised, and therefore genericised West. Although the West is made up of differing composite parts it has accepted a largely singular culture and perception of itself, thereby making right theory more applicable and within its own sphere applicable, a theory paid testimony by documents such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Charter
An issue that is presented with both the concepts of rights theory and utilitarianism is that the two have now diversified into a number of subcategories, some of which are far more useful in advocating a moral standpoint than others. It is important at this stage to recall that utilitarianism is not only a theory of what is right but also a theory of what is good. In terms of utilitarianism there is the distinction between act utilitarians and rule utilitarians, where act utilitarians believe it is the consequences of actions that define as to whether it is correct or not, regardless of what that act may be and thus would make it possible for almost any act to be acceptable and by being acceptable also be moral. Rule utilitarians however, believe that if it is generally considered that following a certain rule of behaviour generally provides happiness that the use of that rule in all cases even those where the consequences are not necessarily positive, though generally are, i.e. that stealing is wrong, justifiable in cases but largely a negative action with negative consequences. The diversity shown in the two utility principles although useful, bears nothing like the resemblance that can be brought by viewing the differing levels off rights theory that are advocated and the disparity on a wealth of issues that exists with the concept.
I think it is clear that the act of determining morality either by rights or utility theory is not as easy an undertaking as I had perhaps supposed. Although there is currently a prevalence in Western political thinking that rights theory is the more practical and morally just, there are clear arguments within utilitarian theory that would justify the rights of utilitarians to question rights theory as being the best way to determine morality. However, it is my personal belief that the inability of utilitarians to quantify either pleasure or pain and therefore the general happiness of an individual or societal group that makes it essentially questionable as a theory by which morality can be determined. Essentially the question that is arrived at in comparing both utilitarianism and rights theories is that the perception of morality is largely open to interpretation. It may well be the case that it is acceptable to base the idea of morality on what provides the greatest happiness to the greatest sum, a simplistic yet logical concept. However, rights theory is perhaps more prevalent at present and therefore considered more successful at this time as we are in an era of political correctness and remain conscious of the mistakes made in recent history where actions taken against minorities, such as the persecution of the Jews in the holocaust or apartheid South Africa, remain hugely weighted on our collective conscience.
The greatest problem that arises is that morality itself is hard to define and that it is therefore almost impossible to make universal. Even in the 21st century there are actions and motives undertaken by some that are morally abhorrent to many, while to others will be deemed acceptable, i.e. the use of the death penalty. Although I personally believe in the protection of the minorities within our society do not condone the morally unacceptable greater equality for minority groups that can arise by the use of civil liberties as a tool against democracy, something that I believe utilitarianism would protect against.
In conclusion then I essentially believe that a state of balance and integrity must be applied in determining morality. Rights theory must be aware of the danger that is presented in creating a society in which the greater good cannot be served due to the overprotection of smaller groups whose discomfort may well provide a largely healthy progression for the remaining populace. Simultaneously however, I believe that utilitarians must accept that the obtainment of marginally greater happiness can firstly not be quantified against the suffering of a minority and that they must also consider that although the greatest happiness is desirable, a lack of overt happiness does not itself create unhappiness and that the prevention of pain in itself may provide an intermediary acceptable stage at which the majority is not unhappy and the minority is not under persecution. What may perhaps be best is a combination of the two principles, allied together to shape a form of moral equality that defends minorities but recognises the will of the many.
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