There are different types of ethical philosophies that you could have the chance to study in the PPE course. One of the most famous is theories in ethics (and one that has proven popular as a topic in interviews!) is that of Utilitarianism.
The theory of Utilitarianism is that the best moral action is the one that maximises utility. Utility can be defined in different ways but the general definition is the well-being or happiness of sentient beings. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of Utilitarianism, defined utility as the aggregate pleasure caused by an action (total pleasure minus any pain) and viewed all forms of pleasure equal. John Stuart Mill developed this definition by taking into account the quantity and quality of the pleasure and he argued that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. Others have focussed on the idea that Utilitarianism should be considered in terms of suffering only – this is known as negative utilitarianism.
The theory of Utilitarianism is an agent neutral theory – it treats everyone as equal and says that all being’s utility should be given equal weight.
Act Utilitarianism says that acts should be assessed as good or bad purely based on their relevant utilities. This means that the morally right act is the one that leads to the maximum overall utility for all beings. This may mean that some beings suffer tremendously but it is the overall utility that matters.
Critics of Utilitarianism have many issues with the theory. Some have said that it ignores the idea of justice, others believe it is impractical and that different utilities of individuals skew the results. These critics have used the concept of the “Utility Monster”. This is a person who receives significantly more utility from consuming a unit of a resource than anyone else. For example, a normal person might receive one unit of utility from a bit of Ben & Jerry’s but a Utility Monster might get 100 units of utility from it. Utilitarianism would suggest that the Utility Monster should get the Ben & Jerry’s and would potentially skew the allocation of resources. The Utility Monster shows how utilitarianism might appear to be egalitarian but may not be.
For a Utilitarian, the reason for performing a particular action is because doing so will bring greater utility to mankind overall than not doing it. Utilitarianism means that an act itself does not have an intrinsic value of being good or bad – simply the definition of the act comes from the overall utility it provides.
Many philosophers over time have built on the theory of Utilitarianism – building on, and adapting it. Exploring the variations and developments of the theory can help you prepare for your interview and enable you to consider answers to some of the tricky questions below:
Suppose a surgeon could use the organs of one healthy patient to save the lives of several others. Would the surgeon be justified in killing the healthy patient for the sake of the others?
Imagine you’re a CIA agent. You have captured a high-profile terrorist and can stop a plan to blow up thousands of people but to do so you must torture the terrorist. Would you torture to save thousands of lives?
Should I kill myself so that I can donate my organs to other people?
I have promised to spend the evening with a friend. But then another friend calls to say that she needs someone to help her prepare work for the next day, and that she can’t find anyone else who will do it.