Utilitarian Theory: How to Understand Fairness, Justice, Morality, and Ethics in the State.
On this page, we discuss the concepts of fairness, justice, morality, and ethics as they relate to Utilitarianism. Any argument on this page can be understood by closely reading UTILITARIANISM by John Stuart Mill (1863). That said, Mill’s theory is no different than from Plato’s theories from his Republic from the 300’s BC to John Rawls’ theories from his Theory of Justice from the 1970’s.
Each theory is an attempt to express the idea that “justice, morality, ethics, fairness, etc.” are all defined best as “that which does the greatest good, and avoids the most pain, for the most people.” Being of benefit to the majority becomes the test of “the highest virtue.” This guiding “first principle,” when is augmented by ethics, becomes the key to finding balance in society. From this perspective, this theory, a metaphysic ToE, is at the heart of political science and political philosophy. It offers a path toward a definition of moral concepts like ethics, justice, morality, fairness which aren’t easy to define empirically.
TIP: See our page on “what is justice?” and “what is fairness?” for a different take on the theory.
A Utilitarian Theory of Justice; What is Fairness?
We all have a sense of what is fair and equitable, what is right and wrong, good and evil, etc. but abstract concepts like these are difficult to define or prove.
Can you hold “a wrong” in your hand, show me “a fair,” or tell me what “an evil” sounds, tastes, feels, looks, or smells like? You can present empirical data and facts, but part of the idea is conceptual and not easily shown. We have to look for the intersect of pure reason and empiricism to spot the constructs manifesting on the physical plane and knowing that we’ll never fully be able to illustrate the abstract in concrete terms. TIP: See Plato’s Theory of Forms as it equates to his Theory of Justice contained in his Republic.
The idea that Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are unalienable rights, the ideas of freedom of speech and separation of church and state, the idea of the ten commandments are all purely empirical. They require us to accept some amount of reason and philosophical argument alongside our facts, statistics, and pure information.
You can’t show someone “an inalienable right,” except through arguments that use the concept.
We may pledge allegiance to our country, but we use a concept symbolized by our flag, an object.
We can’t hold the purpose of law in our hands, but we are bound to it by implicit and explicit social contracts and take for granted that we could face legal consequences for breaking a rule we had perhaps have never heard of before or never even realized we agreed to follow.
We consider these things just, but what is justice?
If we don’t reject all the above ideas in a nihilist fashion, then we must accept that they “are real” and “do matter” and that we can “judge the moral from the immoral, the ethical from the unethical, the legal from the illegal” and be “correct.”
Here are some basic definitions of fairness, justice, morality, and ethics that use a basic utilitarian theory. We use the following definitions here on this site when we claim something is fair, just, moral, ethical, etc.
- Utilitarian Theory: Utilitarianism is an idea first put forth by Aristotle in his Ethics, it is the idea that “that which is the best for the greatest number of people is what is best,” or as Mill puts it “that which brings the happiness to the greatest number of people is best.” The happiness of mind and soul trumps happiness of the flesh; passion should not rule this rule and reason should. Later theories point out that we have to be careful and consider caveats. For example, genocide can’t fit in with an enlightened utilitarian theory which seeks the greatest good as an end but isn’t so one-dimensional that it could be used as an excuse to bring great suffering to the minority.
- Morality: Following the natural law in a way that generally would be considered ethical, just, fair, and compassionate. Religions touch upon morality, but religion is not morality itself.
- Ethics: Following wisely established law and custom in a way that is informed by morality. Ethics describes real-world “good behavior.”
- Fairness: Fairness can be thought of as a modern catch-all word that implies that something is moral, just, ethical, and utilitarian. It doesn’t mean it is perfect; it means that it is ethical, just, and moral enough to be “equitable” and “fair.”
- Justice: An outcome that is fair, ethical, and moral in which reason and the commonly accepted law, both natural and civil, was applied wisely.
None of the above terms alone can tell us “what is good” or “what is arete” or “what is virtue and vice.” When considered together, along with the empirical evidence from our senses and reason, they have meaning.
Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36. John Stewart Mill’s take on Utilitarianism isn’t the end-all-be-all, but it is one of the better-stated sociopolitical theories and a good starting point.
TIP: On our site, we claim “an estate tax is fair” and “a progressive tax is fairer than a flat tax.” Here we are saying that “these things are for the greater good” and are just, moral, and ethical. I don’t have a fair-o-meter that I can use to get a specific reading. Instead, we must fall back at least partially on such philosophical concepts as ethics, morality, justice, law, right, wrong, good, and happiness.
PHILOSOPHY – Political: Original Position [HD]. John Rawls presents a well thought-out experiment in modern political science regarding justice. In simple terms, if you had to be born in any nation today, but you couldn’t pick who you would be, what nation would you pick? Or what state? What period? The idea is to take yourself out of your shoes and think about the “greatest good” using statistics, from another angle. Watch the video as it explains the veil of ignorance and original position clearly.