Military Orders That May Be Unethical Utilitarianism Essay

Length: 6 pages Sources: 5 Subject: Business - Ethics Type: Essay Paper: #78928233 Related Topics: Ethical Egoism, Birth Order, Mills Theory, Nazi Germany
Excerpt from Essay :

¶ … Military Orders that May be Unethical

Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory states that ethics are determined by the social group in which the moral determination is made. It has been described by various philosophers as the great happiness principle or pleasure principle. In essence, what is ethical or moral is determined by what makes a person or a group of persons the happiest. If a course of action brings the majority of people happiness, then it is ethical. On the contrary, if a certain set of actions brings the majority unhappiness, then it is unethical. Utility is thus the ultimate form of happiness and the best way by which to achieve happiness both for the individual and for the majority of the population within a given society. This seems logical but can become complicated when applying the concept of utilitarianism to a larger group, such as a government. Whether the government in question is a democracy or a dictatorship, the individual soldier will likely encounter an issue wherein his or her personal views on an issue are counter to what has been ordered of them. A government which is built on a philosophy of utilitarianism will believe or at least assert that it is doing what is best for the people, but ethics can be an individual consideration as described by the philosophy of ethical egoism. Essentially, what one person considers to be ethical may be counter to the majority and vice versa which creates a conflict within the soldier.

In a utilitarian realm, the government will make rules for the good of the people and the leaders will give orders to soldiers for the good of the people. According to John Stuart Mill, the author of Utilitarianism, "Whatever can be proved to be good must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof" (Mill 2002,-page 4). Good or bad are moral distinctions which are designated by the society which imposes them. Good is an adjective which is applied to moral scenarios wherein the majority population approves whereas bad is the adjective which is applied to those scenarios which the population majorly disapproves. The government, as an instrument of the people, will largely make rules which correspond to the will of the populous, although that can be different in a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime.

Utilitarianism has two forms: rule and act. Rule utilitarianism demands that what has been determined to be the source of greatest happiness for the masses will become the law of a given community. "The great majority of good actions are intended not for the benefit of the world, but for that of individuals, of which the good of the world is made up; and the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not on these occasions travel beyond the particular persons concerned, except so far as is necessary to assure himself that in benefiting them he is not violating the rights, that is, the legitimate and authorized expectations, of anyone else" (Mill 2002,-page 19). This is largely seen in democracies or even monarchies where the will of the people can impact the power of the monarch. Act utilitarianism, on the other hand deals with the action which would create happiness for the individual. Actions are performed which will be of most satisfaction to the person instead of what is best for the majority population. This form is usually applied in cases of a single, unchecked ruler such as a dictator (Bayles 1968). In discussing utilitarianism and its application to the real world, the position of the soldier can be applied within the parameters of these two types. If a soldier is ordered to commit an act based on what is seen as best for the people then he or she will have to deal with act utilitarianism, that is to say his or her own happiness and whether or not following orders will violate their own pleasure. Rule and act utilitarianism can thus be in direct conflict with one another if both exist in a single setting.

Most governments are organized with rule utilitarianism, creating legislation which provides for the best circumstances for as many of its citizens as possible. This may seem a simple situation, but when applied to real-world situations, it can become complicated...


When applying utilitarianism to a government and potential legislation, the intention is to create a set of rules or laws which provide happiness for the largest amount of people. For example, the government will formulate laws which prohibit theft or arson in order to protect the populous from the will of criminals. However even this is complicated when the orders given to protect some will directly harm other people. Strict adherence to the word of the laws as would be required through rule utilitarianism do not allow for situations where individual determination and discretion may not align with the rules of the government but with this philosophy there is not room for mitigating circumstances.

Some have argued that utilitarianism is in opposition to justice because it is so rigid (Popkin 1950,-page 66). To combat this argument, these philosophers have written about ways in which utilitarianism could be applied to the real world. For example, John Stuart Mill advocates the rule form of the philosophical theory, but that it is "weak rule" utilitarianism. By this, he meant that rules are designed to ensure that all human beings behave according to the moral and ethical positions of the society in which they live regardless of personal ethics. However, there will be occasions in life where the action that a person feels that they wish to do, or in some cases need to do, in which case their personal desires no longer coalesce with the rule of the society.

Exceptions must have a place in morality if the rules of the society are to be strong enough to uphold themselves when the rules are broken. "In order that the exception may not extend itself beyond the need, and may have the least possible effect in weakening reliance on veracity, it ought to be recognized, and, if possible, its limits defined; and if the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another, and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates" (Mill 2002, 28). In such cases, the individual must act in the way in which he or she sees fit. There must be exceptions to every rule or else there is no room for individual judgment. Take for example the rule in most societies against the act of murder. When someone is attacked with a knife or some other weapon, their life is in danger. If they do not respond to that attacker with force, deadly force if necessary, their life will be forfeit. The rule says that no one must kill anyone. Had the person being attacked not killed their would-be murderer, they themselves would be dead. Strict utilitarianism would not allow for the argument of self-defense in certain cases of murder (Rosen 2003,-page 132). There are other exceptions as well, including murder in regard to government enemies. If a soldier is ordered to kill his enemy in order to provide safety and security for the masses, he is still committing a murder himself.

On a larger scale, this question of ethics and individuality can be seen in the history of Nazi Germany (Faria 2000,-page 224). After the war, when people were put on trial, many of them leaned on the excuse that they were only following orders in committing their atrocities. Some stated that they tried to avoid committing acts of evil or that they had no choice but to kill or else face execution themselves. This is emblematic of the problem when there is a dichotomy between the will of the individual and that of the government. The German government, acting purportedly for the best interest of the people, gave orders to soldiers which they then had to enact. The Nazis claimed that the best course of action for Germany was the eradication of enemy peoples and the focus on the interest of the country rather than concern over international diplomacy. If they had any moral objection to murder and genocide then they did not do anything about these qualms. When the individual's ethics do not agree with those of the government, then it is unfortunately usually the individual who is overridden.

The reason that people behave according to the morality of their society, according to Mill, is not because they feel compelled to do so because of their own moral sensibility but all to do with obligation that they feel towards those rules. There are two types of obligation: perfect and imperfect. "Duties of perfect obligation are those duties in virtue of which a correlative right resides in some person or persons; duties of imperfect obligation are those…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Bayles, M.D. (1968). Contemporary Utilitarianism. Anchor Books.

Mill, J.S. (2002). Utilitarianism. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Popkin, R. (1950). A note on the 'proof' of utility in J.S. Mill. Ethics. 61(1).

Rosen, F. (2003). Classical Utilitarianism from Hume to Mill. Routledge.

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