Megan Kim Utilitarianism: an Inadequate Ethical Theory?

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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In the United States, racial profiling and race-based police discrimination are often seen as favorable enforcement tactics among law enforcement. The purpose of using these tactics are to apprehend criminals, as well as prevent further crimes from taking place. Though it is illegal, these unjust actions are seen as acceptable due to the laws of the ethical theory, utilitarianism, in that it aims to benefit the majority.

However, in recent years, this has led to many cases of police brutality, specifically towards people of color. Innocent members of minority groups are being brutalized in ways that have left entire communities distraught and afraid. Minorities are being stripped of their basic human rights to life and liberty. Therefore, when utilitarianism is applied solely based on quantity, it is an inadequate ethical theory. As mentioned earlier, racial profiling and discrimination used by law enforcement is seen as justifiable under the definition of utilitarianism. This ethical theory can be originated back to English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. According to “Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics” written by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, utilitarianism deems that an action is morally right as long as it promotes the greatest amount of benefits for the majority of those involved.

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Furthermore, assuming that the “…?action produces maximum benefits…, utilitarianism does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or coercion” (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU). Utilitarianism is only concerned with the consequences of an action, rather than right and wrong principles. In this case, the majority are caucasians and the minority are people of color. Meaning, insofar as the majority is receiving the benefit of security that comes with arresting criminals, racial profiling and race-based police discrimination is acceptable. Often times, those being singled out by the use of these unjust tactics are wrongfully accused and victims of prejudice. The negative effects that the minorities experience, such as fear, humiliation, and violence are completely overlooked. With that being said, police officers can specifically target people of color and subject them to undue arrests because it aims at protecting the overall well-being of the majority. Moreover, when looking at racial profiling and race-based police discrimination from an ethical view, it is clear that these actions are unethical and lead to greater consequences for minorities. In the article, “Police Tackled Me for Stealing a Car. It Was My Own” by former Northwestern PhD student, Lawrence Crosby, Crosby recalls his own experience as he was violently arrested due to racial profiling.

In October 2015, Crosby was outside repairing loose molding on his car when an anonymous woman called 911 and stated that a black man in a black hoodie was attempting to steal a car. Shortly after, Crosby found himself with his hands in the air and several guns pointed at him. Although Crosby repeatedly identified himself as a PhD student and explained that the car was his own, officers beat him and handcuffed him. After it was confirmed that the car was indeed Crosby’s, officers still arrested him under the charges of resisting arrest (Crosby). This is a clear example of the harsh effects racial profiling has on people of color. Crosby did nothing wrong, yet he ended up face down on the pavement fearing for his life. To escalate matters even further, officers carried on with their discriminatory actions by arresting him in spite of his innocence. Targeted based on racial preconceptions, Crosby was no longer the engineering PhD student, but branded as a criminal. Instances like this are leaving minorities angry and afraid, not only for themselves, but for their entire communities.

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The blatant disregard for their lives has ended in feelings of resentment and distrust towards law enforcement. As a result, minorities are unable to freely pursue their lives without fearing that they are at risk, which is unjust and wrong. However, British philosopher, John Stuart Mill criticized Bentham’s view of utilitarianism and argued that there is more to be considered than just the majority. As stated in the novel, ?Utilitarianism? by John Stuart Mill, ?“…some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that… the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone” (16). ?Meaning, that pleasures should not be determined by quantity, but by quality. Higher quality pleasures are most desired, as they produce happiness on an intellectual level, whereas lower quality pleasures satisfy on a sensual level. Moreover, Mill goes even further to state that “?…if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give decided preference…, that is the more desirable pleasure” (16).

With that being said, if people were asked to give a preference between arresting criminals to feel a sense of security or having the freedom to pursue all of life’s project, they would most certainly choose to pursue their life’s projects. Thus, pursuing life’s projects would be the higher pleasure that everyone ultimately desires and should have equal access to. If the use of racial profiling against minorities led to the ability to seek life’s projects, only then would it be acceptable. However, utilitarianism through a quantitative lense does not allow for quality of pleasures to be factored in. Minorities are being deprived of this higher pleasure and experiencing unjust consequences. Therefore, utilitarianism becomes an inadequate ethical theory when it is solely based on quantity, and quality of pleasures is overlooked. In conclusion, when using utilitarianism to justify racial profiling and race-based police discrimination, it’s important to consider all aspects of the ethical theory. It is wrong to state that utilitarianism is overall inadequate in addressing issues as such. The quantitative view merely pads the repercussions and depicts utilitarianism in an incomplete way. Utilitarianism is a sound ethical theory, insofar as the quality of pleasures is being factored in to justify actions.”

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Megan Kim Utilitarianism: An Inadequate Ethical Theory?. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from