Is it Morally Right to do a Little Evil for a Greater Good?
“It is the greatest good of the greatest number of people that is the measure of right and wrong.” -Jeremy Bentham
Morality as a concept is analytically defined as “conformity to human discourse and conduct.” It incorporates something which I believe is based on an evolutionary construct. Morality has been an essential tool by which the survival of humanity is made more achievable. It has been well-documented that people in the past have done things, which may be considered horrible/ morally wrong today, because it was essential for their survival. In a society guided by order and lawfulness, a system of governance expected of serving the interests of the many, it is interesting to note how exceedingly difficult the terms “good” and “bad”, and “right” and “wrong” are to define. If morality is conceptualized as a means to enhance the happiness—or lack of suffering—of society, then I’m confident in saying that doing a little evil for a greater good is morally right.
Consequentialist theories, as opposed to formalist theories, such as utilitarianism (also known as “the greater good”) offers a universally-applicable rational “meaning” for moral terms due to its ability to rationalize morality as a science, of sorts. Specifically, act-utilitarianism offers a cohesive method to examine the morality of a situation and is able to quantify in “utils” the benefit in terms of happiness of an action (Mill, 2007). As such, moral terms such as “should” derive are able to convincingly derive meaning in any situation through number analysis—which action derives the most happiness for the most people is thus the action one “should” go with, and the “good” action versus the other “bad” options. It is due to Act-Utilitarianism’s ability to be universally applied that is so appealing, but also unsettling in many instances; the elimination of suffering for the many often results in occasional events that may “seem” immoral to the natural eye. Rather than evaluate situations with a biased eye, the utilitarian approach calls for a readjustment in our moral compass—we must learn to see that small, potentially suffering-inductive actions may be “moral” due to other positive, large-scale repercussions (Rachels, 98-99, 110-113).
I think a simple but good example of Utilitarianism is the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana, we can say, makes people happy and is relatively harmless, (in spite of gov't propaganda to the contrary.) The laws against marijuana persecute many otherwise harmless people and occupy much government manpower and wealth. Paying taxes to fund one's own persecution makes people unhappy. Legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana, much as is presently done with liquor, would eliminate a stupid and counterproductive law. This in turn, will increase tax revenues, reduce government costs, and end the persecution of harmless people. Another good example would be the use of torture in interrogation of suspected terrorists or criminals. The utilitarian approach would consider this action justified because the people who will benefit will outnumber the people harmed greatly. In this instance, it would provide intelligence information that could make the majority of people safer.
The modern version of the theory of Utilitarianism, called Rule-Utilitarianism, promotes the idea that individual actions should be assessed based on whether they abide by a set of (optimal) rules (Rachels, pg. 119). Rule-utilitarianism differs from act-utilitarianism in that compliance to certain rules, rather than the desirable consequence of an action itself, is the criterion for considering an action morally right. The theory of utilitarianism, in general, accepts/supports the notion of doing little evil for a greater good.
One of the arguments against utilitarianism is the Slippery Slope argument. Slippery slope is defined as “an idea or course of action which will lead to...
Cited: Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism, liberty & representative government. Wildside Press LLC, 2007.
Rachels, James. "The Utilitarian Approach." The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Seventh ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 98-124. Print.
Please join StudyMode to read the full document