Comparison of Utilitarianism and Emotivism

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Utilitarianism & Emotivism

The first question which was ever asked by the conscious man was, perhaps, what is right and what is wrong. Today, thousands of years later, we struggle still with that very idea. One may find their truth in their own lifetime, but as they die their truth does not remain, rather, the question is born anew with the next generation, and only remnants of their conclusions linger. And so, I explore what is right and wrong, here, in 2018, at the University of Southern Indiana, since I cannot accept the answers of my forefathers without my own questionings. Thinkers of old tell us of things like Utilitarianism and Emotivism. They tried, through these theories, to teach us how to handle the trials of life, such as abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Now, though, I will sift through a few of the theories which seek to describe our being, Utilitarianism and Emotivism, and find what they may tell us today of abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia.

Section 1 - Ethical Theories

Utilitarianism. General Beliefs

Utilitarianism is the belief that what is right is the course which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. That, of itself, is a very broad statement, which philosophers have broken down into two main flavors. There is act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism states that what is right for the greatest number of people should be considered for each circumstance from a point of view which is independent of any pre-standing laws or moral conceptions. Rule utilitarianism differs in that it considers what is right in a circumstance to be not only governed by what will provide the greatest good, but also by what follows the laws of man or generally accepted moral rules. The main tenant of utilitarianism is that the pleasure of one must be sacrificed for the pleasure of many (Driver, 2009).

Utilitarianism - Standards-Setter

The moral compass of Utilitarianism is set by the quantity of good of one path versus another. Specifically, hedonic calculus, laid out by Jeremy Benthall, is intended to calculate the overall good of one decision versus another. By deriving which path will cause the greatest good, not just good for oneself and family, the right and moral path can be chosen (Driver, 2009).

Utilitarianism Applied to

Utilitarianism, both the Act and Rule sects, is viewed to apply to all people, everywhere, throughout history. No one is exempt from the utilitarian rule of choosing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There has never been a king, nor beggar, who should have not first considered the well-being of the masses before eating his bread. Utilitarianism is all encompassing (Smart, 1961).

Utilitarianism- Cultural Displays

It was with great risk during the Holocaust, that certain brave and utilitarian citizens of Germany, and their controlled lands, risked their own lives to preserve those of the persecuted Jewish people. The harboring of the Jews, an act which would fall under Act Utilitarianism since it disobeyed the laws of the land at that time, was an act which forgot the happiness of the individual in order to give small happiness to the many hiding Jews, and thus was a grand example of utilitarianism. Also, one must recall one of the greatest stories ever told, that of King Leonidas and his 300 (more like a couple thousand) Spartans and how they sacrificed themselves to slow the Persian advance so the rest of the country could prepare. This act fulfilled the wishes of the utilitarian Greeks, who wanted nothing more than to sacrifice themselves, to preserve the larger population back home. In fact, that's what the entire Spartan military was based around.

Utilitarianism- Strengths

One of the greatest strengths of utilitarianism is that it is a simple idea, almost intuitive, that everyone can understand and apply in their own life if they so choose. Another strength is that it protects the little guy. Utilitarianism does not consider the difference between people, it just states, if people are involved, pick the path that hands out as much happiness as possible.

Utilitarianism- Weaknesses

Utilitarianism has quite a few weaknesses, here are some of the big ones. The absolute biggest is that it puts too much focus on happiness. Happiness, in and of itself, is a silly goal, because life will occasionally make us unhappy no matter what we do, so it's good to focus on some other aspects of life aside from just being happy. Life upsetting our happiness brings us to the next weakness; how can we predict the future? The whole idea of decision making in Utilitarianism is that one chooses the path most likely to bring about the most happiness. Life doesn't usually run with our plans, though, and many times a decision we might think is great, ends up making people miserable (Williams, 1973).

Utilitarianism- Personal View

I agree with most of what Utilitarianism expresses, however, I disagree strongly when it attempts to be universal. Sometimes, the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people must be ignored, and I detest the idea of sacrificing a few for the many as a rule of thumb. It is a dangerous game when we indulge the human lust for happiness, sure Benthall tried to compensate for this obvious flaw by chiding not to lust after things of the flesh, but I believe that we should lust after nothing too greatly, even happiness, that goes against the rule of moderation. We should learn to endure the low points and the struggle, so we might better appreciate the happiness when it comes. And, the idea of giving humans the happiness they always desire is dangerous to the natural world. I'm sure many people would be quite happy to have their own beach house on the Galapagos Islands, but at what cost to nature would that human happiness come? As a general guideline, though, Utilitarianism does very well. In day to day choices, by all means, aim for the greatest happiness, but be weary of the exceptions.

Emotivism- General Beliefs

Emotivism argues that one cannot claim that anything ir moral or immoral, because their response to an issue is based only on their emotional response, not any certain morality. The guiding phrase of Emotivism is Only statements that can be verified empirically can be true or false. This quote was originally said by A.J. Ayer, one of the founders and contributors to the philosophy of emotivism. His statement essentially means that there can be no truth or falseness in a moral claim since either direction cannot be proven empirically (Satris, 1987).

Emotivism- Standards-Setter

The idea of Emotivism essentially leaves no room for anything being moral or immoral. When a person deems an action wrong, or immoral, a subscriber to emotivism simply replies that their reaction is only an emotional response to the matter at hand. The claim is that there is no solid basis in science behind one's reaction to an immoral act, therefore, any reaction had by a personal is irrational and cannot be forced upon another person (Satris, 1987).

Emotivism- Applied to

Emotivism applies to everyone, in that no one can make a claim of morality or immorality. The theory holds all people equal in that no one can prove whether or not their own feelings are true for everyone, therefore they cannot be true at all (Stoljar, 1993).

Emotivism- Cultural Displays

It is quite difficult to find examples of a society working off an Emotivist schematic since it is quite difficult to have a society in which everyone can do what they want. However, one such example could be the golden triangle of Southeast Asia, where between gang members, there is no moral judgement cast, only the necessity to carry out their jobs. Another such example were the Mongols which once ruled the Eurasian steppe. As they carried out their raids upon neighboring kingdoms, little to no moral compass guided the warriors, all aversion to the slaughter was seen as cowardice, which could be seen as an emotional response and not a moral call.

Emotivism- Strengths

One of the greatest strengths of emotivism is that the theory includes all people and considers them equal in their inability to cast moral judgement. Another strong quality of the theory is that it does not restrict people too tightly, it allows for a great deal of freedom in what people are morally allowed to do.

Emotivism- Weaknesses

Emotivism has many weaknesses. The most damning of these weaknesses is the fact that emotivism fails to consider the arguments which can be debated scientifically as well as morally, regardless of one's emotional response, such as abortion. Another very large issue is that if no one can say what is right or wrong, then no one can punish another for their actions, and, therefore, people are free to run about and do whatever they please, and what is left is total anarchy.

Emotivism- Personal Ideas

I believe that Emotivism is a completely preposterous idea. The notion that there is no inherent moral code in mankind is completely ridiculous. Emotivism ignores thousands and thousands of years of human experience and survival that teaches us the best way to survive. I believe this development is what we call morals and emotivism throws it all away to place the moral heart of humanity in the hands of our most flippant attribute, emotions! The moral code of man has, for the most part, stood for hundreds of years, yet our emotions blow as the breeze changes. Emotivism has gone out of style in recent years, and I think that is no less than it merits.

Section 2- Ethical Applications

Utilitarianism- Abortion

Abortion is the action of killing and removing an unborn fetus from the mother's womb. This practice is carried out all over the world for several reasons, some of the most common among these are as follows; a lack of financial capabilities, incest, rape, and also just not wanting to have a child. Utilitarianism would possibly condone abortion if the act would make more people happy than just one person. Using hedonic calculus, the unhappiness of the fetus not being born would have to be compensated by more than just the mother's life being made easier. Perhaps, if both the father and mother felt their lives would be better without having the child, then Utilitarianism would approve of abortion.

Emotivism- Abortion

Abortion, as stated above, is the killing and removal of an unborn fetus. Emotivism would most certainly approve of abortion. The theory would argue that anyone who thinks abortion is morally wrong because it is the killing of a fetus, is simply repulsed by the idea of it and is emotionally disgusted. The emotivist would tell a woman debating an abortion to go for it, since there is no proof that what she is doing is wrong to begin with.

Utilitarianism- Euthanasia

Euthanasia is the killing of person who wishes to pass. A person wishing for euthanasia may want it for a number of reasons. One could desire it because of an illness, old age, or depression. There are also many different flavors of euthanasia, but for this paper we will focus upon voluntary euthanasia. The debate comes with whether it is ethical for a doctor, who has taken the Hippocratic Oath to never do harm, to force the passing of a human being. The utilitarian thinker would not approve of euthanasia if the subject had many loved ones that would be devastated at their passing since that is happiness for one, but unhappiness for many. However, if the subject was alone and would not be missed, Utilitarianism would smile upon euthanasia as a very morally righteous deed.

Emotivism- Euthanasia

Euthanasia, as was stated above, is the killing of a patient who desires death. Since emotivism does not concern itself with the morality of breaking the Hippocratic Oath, or making loved ones unhappy, it would have no problem with euthanasia being a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Euthanasia would not be moral under the theory, since nothing is, but it would be acceptable.

Utilitarianism- Capital Punishment

Capital punishment is the government ordered execution of a criminal of the highest order. It is the greatest sentence that US courts are capable of handing out, and that is not in all states, some states have banned these executions. Utilitarianism, would, however, never ban these executions. If the legal process of getting to the execution could be carried out more effectively, then capital punishment would save a lot of money for the government, which comes from tax payers' pockets. Also, capital punishment assures that a heinous criminal will never be free again. These factors considered, Utilitarianism would approve of capital punishment.

Emotivism- Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment, as covered previously, is the government ordered execution of a criminal. Emotivism would chuckle at the idea of capital punishment being immoral. Under emotivism, it cannot be proved that even killing an innocent is morally wrong, so the killing of a murderer is just given free game. The theory would say to anyone that doesn't agree with killing that they just have weak stomachs for the matter and are therefore just having negative emotions about the matter


In this paper I have discussed the ethical theories of Emotivism and Utilitarianism, and their applications to the matters of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. Through writing on the subject, I have formed my own picture of Utilitarianism. The picture looks like this; Utilitarianism is a middle-aged woman, I see my mother, who can't help but be a people pleaser. She tries so hard to make as many people as possible happy, that she ends up making bad choices and neglecting herself and those that are most important to her. I'm afraid that utilitarianism falls into this trap. It is too focused on providing the maximum amount of happiness to always protect what is truly important. However, most of the time, like a people pleaser, utilitarianism handles itself well and is able to provide good for many. Emotivism, however, has painted quite a gloomy image of itself in my mind. One can probably gather from my examples of who has used Emotivism in the sections above, but I can see no decent group of people agreeing with emotivism. Notice I say decent people, and I define these decent people as people having great value to themselves and their fellow man, and caring for what is important in life, and living in a compassionate way. But Emotivism comes to close to promoting the opposite of a decent moral life for me to care for it at all.

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Comparison Of Utilitarianism And Emotivism. (2019, Aug 08). Retrieved July 19, 2024 , from

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