The actions are right if they promote happiness of all people, and they are wrong if they promote unhappiness of all people in society

Peter Reat Gatkuoth. Photo: File

“Actions are right insofar if they promote the happiness; and they are wrong insofar if they promote unhappiness of all people in society.”

By Peter Reat Gatkuoth

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursue of happiness” (Thomas Jefferson).


February 12, 2024 (SSNA) — “No act of kindness is too small. The gift of kindness may start as a small ripple that over a time can turn into a tidal wave affecting the lives of many people” (Health, 1930). Two centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham (1789) proposed a new moral theory. He claimed that the utility of an action’s effects rather than the decency of its goals, should be used to judge its goodness. Ultimate ‘utility’ according to Bentham, is human ‘happiness.’ As a result, he came to the conclusion that we should aim for “the greatest amount of enjoyment for the greatest number.” Bentham defined happiness as “the sum of pleasures and sufferings” in terms of psychological experience. This philosophy is known as ‘Utilitarianism’ because it emphasises the utility of behavioural outcomes. Utility is synonymous with the Principle of the Greatest Happiness, and utility is the foundation of morality. Activities are proper in proportion to how they likely to promote happiness and bad in proportion to how they tend to produce the opposite of happiness, according to Stuart Mill (2001).

Happiness is intentional pleasure in these circumstances, and the absence of pain and unhappiness implies suffering and pleasure deprivation. When implemented at the level of individual choice, this theory has some difficulties. We don’t always sure how the various influences on happiness will balance out. Furthermore, if well-intentioned behaviour has a poor impact, the theory considers it a moral. Consider the case of a compassionate mother who saves the life of her sick child, a youngster who grows up to be a criminal; moms are rarely penalised for their unconditional maternal love.

Happiness, according to this view, is the ultimate criterion for judging what is moral and what is not, and hence the ideal moral society is one in which everyone is happy and pain-free. However, such an approach could be problematic particularly when it comes to occupational health and safety, because people’s happiness does periodically collide.

If, for example, an individual or organisation believes that money is a fundamental means of increasing happiness and decreasing suffering, and decides to steal from its employees in the form of subpar health and safety protection, they will almost certainly be happier after the robbery is completed. The problem is that when an employee’s right to work in a pleasant and safe environment is taken away, he or she is more likely to be unhappy and suffer; thus, if the utility criterion were solely based on an individual’s happiness, it would be completely useless to guide people’s actions especially when there is a conflict of interests.

Mill (2001) recognised this, which is why he specifies that the utilitarian criteria is the maximum amount of happiness overall, not the agent’s particular satisfaction. Another key component of the above theory is the concept of the right, which stipulates what people and institutional agents must do in the interest of the good. Utilitarian theories are consequentialist in that they evaluate the moral worth of actions, policies or institutional arrangements solely on the basis of their consequences (Honderich, 1995), rather than, for example, on the basis of certain inherent characteristics of actions or moral agents’ intentions.

To put it another way, consequentialists and utilitarians believe that no action is right or wrong (good or evil) in and of itself. Acts are instead considered as tools that can be more or less useful, effective and efficient in attaining positive outcomes. The moral worth of activities, policies, practises or laws affecting occupational health and safety is thus determined by their impact on the amount of utility in the world according to utilitarianism (Honderich, 1995). Utility relates to pleasure and the lack of pain in the preceding example. Utility can also refer to the fulfilment of personal desires, according to Hare (1981). This is without a doubt the most widely used strategy today (Goodin, 1993), and it is the one that underpins cost-benefit economic analyses in health and safety that employ the willingness-to-pay method to establish individual preferences (Roberts & Reich, 2002).

Utilitarian ethics is based on a consequentialist perspective of morality, which states that the correct conduct should be determined by the consequences of that action, with the purpose of maximising utility. Occupational health and safety are based on utilitarian ethics, which means making decisions with the goal of delivering the most good for the greatest number of people with the least amount of resources.

Utilitarianism’s simplicity arises from the fact that it is an ethical theory based on a single principle: utility. As a result, utilitarianism avoids the arbitrariness and complexity that a technique for resolving conflicts between distinct principles (for example, autonomy and equity or the right to privacy and the right to information) could appear to impose into moral judgement (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994).

Utilitarianism presents an ethical approach that tends to produce clearer, simpler and more exact solutions than other systems as it is supported by quantitative methods for judging utility. Its simplicity is also due to its theory of the right, which can be summarised as the need to maximise good in the world (Kymlicka, 2002). Indeed, it is widely accepted that it is sometimes preferable to suffer a little now, for example, by visiting a dentist on a regular basis, or even to deny oneself the satisfaction of certain preferences now, for example, by purchasing costly health and safety solutions, in order to have fewer workplace accidents or satisfy more preferences later (Rawls, 1971).

It is also quite intuitive to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before taking action and to choose the choice that provides the greatest net benefit. This theory has a benefit due to its objectivity. Every action or rule is subjected to a utility calculation that takes into account the pleasure/pain, preferences or interests of all those who may be affected. Instead of maximising the utility of individuals favoured by an agent or a social group, the goal is to maximise total utility (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994).

Utilitarianism can thus be viewed as an ethical theory that treats individuals fairly by considering their utility and treating them on a strictly equal basis especially when applied to social and political affairs (Kymlicka, 2002). More on the principle’s advantages: it indicates that any concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small group of people is morally undesirable unless it provides for the maximisation of utility. By providing methodologies for assessing or quantifying utility, utilitarians have effectively developed an accountability test for persons who wield such authority or resources.

Utilitarians have so provided the less fortunate with a means of evaluating the fairness of the benefits bestowed on the wealthy. Employees benefit from this since the principle makes greater resources available to them. The theory could have significant distributive implications due to the diminishing marginal utility of certain resources. In other words, someone’s utility from the first dollar (or the first apple) they can spend (or eat) in a day is significantly larger than their utility from the millionth dollar (or the millionth apple). Utilitarianism might thus support a massive transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poorest, who will derive greater utility from it.

According to the above, the happiness principle, as a variant of utilitarianism, is credited with attempting to maximise utility, utilitarianism can support the promotion and defence of a common or communal good even if it necessitates infringing on specific individual preferences or moral “rights.” As a result, utilitarianism may tolerate or even require the compulsory quarantine of those who refuse to get vaccinated during a pandemic if doing so maximises utility.

According to its critics, the happiness principle has been proven to be unduly demanding in some situations. According to utilitarianism, we have a moral obligation to act impartially all of the time in order to maximise utility or to follow the rules that allow us to do so. This is a complex concept, possibly too complex for many people to grasp. Utilitarians require that “we operate like saints who are devoid of human desires and aspirations,” according to Beauchamp and Childress (1994), because these interests and ambitions have no moral grounding for utilitarians.

In other words, utilitarians believe that there is no more justification, at least a priori, for us to pursue our own goals or help our friends, children, patients or community than there is for others to pursue their goals or help strangers. When utilitarianism is used to influence the decisions and actions of individual employees and business owners rather than analysing health and safety public policies and institutional structures, this criticism of the impartial maximisation of utility is likely to have more weight. In the first case, it may appear strange and overly demanding to place no value on personal relationships or goals pursued by individuals such as profit maximisation in the face of poor health and safety standards. On the other hand, requiring that our health and safety policies be impartial and maximise utility appears to be less odd at first appearance, and could even be considered one of utilitarianism’s strengths.

Individual utility has already been mentioned as an advantage of the happiness principle, although many people overlook the difficulties of assessing it. According to the theory, one must weigh the utility generated by various options and choose the one with the greatest utility. While the theory is simple, putting it into practise can be difficult. Indeed, in order to calculate utility, one must first identify, quantify and analyse the effects of various actions or regulations on a variety of products, all of which can differ significantly (varying types of pleasure and suffering, preferences or interests).

The difficulties of comparing different things are compounded by the difficulties of comparing different people, who may react differently to the same good or bad. For example, a prolonged knee injury can indicate a reduction in utility that is different for an athlete than for an office worker. When comparing and analysing occupational health and safety policy alternatives that affect many people and touch on numerous elements of their lives, the complexity of the utility calculation becomes obvious.

Will the installation of a certain number of health and safety protective equipment, a certain number of health and safety officials at workplaces or a certain number of hospital beds, given a certain budget, provide the most utility? If the utility of alternative options cannot be computed and compared because of excessive complexity, a lack of data or other circumstances, utilitarianism loses its usefulness as a decision-making tool. Furthermore, some researchers contend that utilitarianism places too much cognitive strain on moral actors, resulting in decision-making paralysis (Friedman, 1989).

Another criticism levelled at the premise is that it does not adequately address individual differences. As previously said, the principle is intuitive in nature since it applies to all decisions the idea that it is natural for an individual to tolerate a tiny amount of pain in exchange for greater pleasure. There is a significant difference between decisions that effects a single individual and those that effect a group of individuals. When a person decides to suffer a little in exchange for more pleasure, the result is a net increase in utility for that individual, who endures both the loss and the gain.

The net utility improves when a policy imposes a small amount of pain in order to produce a larger amount of pleasure; yet, some people may suffer the loss while others benefit from the gain (Kymlicka, 2002). This notion has been criticised for treating the majority unfairly. While utilitarianism has the advantage of being a potent weapon for questioning the concentration of riches and power in the hands of a minority, it also has the disadvantage of being used to justify oppression of minorities if it promotes utility for the majority. This is where the idea that utilitarianism might support majority rule comes from. This criticism, which is related to the previous one, is strongest when applied to “the comparison of small benefits to many individuals with large benefits to a much smaller number of individuals” (Brock, 2009), such as when headache relief is compared to the utility produced by a few heart transplants. In occupational health and safety, the utilitarian concept is applied to maximise the presence of good, which in this case is worker health and safety.

Occupational health and safety activities and actions, such as providing protective apparel and training staff, are evaluated in part based on the benefits and downsides they entail for population health (Cribb, 2010). Economic methods such as the quality adjusted life years (QALY) index and the disability adjusted life years (DALY) index, which are important to cost/utility economic studies, have been developed to undertake such studies. Thus, both in public health and for utilitarians, effectiveness and efficiency are critical variables in objectively evaluating activities, programmes, and interventions.

In the occupational health and safety sector, like in utilitarian theory, consequences are taken into account. In occupational health and safety, the health of the working population is prioritised. When the positive and negative effects associated with the decision to declare a specific workplace unfit for operation are being evaluated, and one of the consequences is the eviction of current tenants (as with direct consequentialism), it appears that more emphasis is placed on the consequences of a specific act or intervention (as with direct consequentialism). When drafting recommendations for restaurant inspectors to follow maintain safety, it appears that more attention is placed on the consequences of the guidelines, norms of conduct or professional standards that will apply to a wide range of circumstances (as with indirect consequentialism).

In addition to the foregoing, occupational health and safety, like utilitarianism, aims to have an impact on the entire employee population rather than, at first, on individual employees. As a result, worker health and safety may entail steps that negatively affect some individuals while increasing the overall health and safety of the workforce (Cribb, 2010; Nixon & Forman, 2008). Objectivity is often used to justify government-led occupational health and safety measures, initiatives and interventions. Authorities and practitioners in the field of occupational health and safety frequently justify their actions in terms of population-wide repercussions rather than, say, effects on people with whom they have a personal relationship or on groups that they may favour.

The utilitarian concept has significant drawbacks in occupational health and safety because it assumes that we know what happiness is and that we can predict the consequences of various behavioural options on it. It also needs that we be able to assess the results of adopting this principle; that is, we must be able to measure the increase in happiness as a result of doing so. On a deeper level, the concept argues that our behaviours have an impact on our pleasure. The majority of the time, all of this gets turned down.

Happiness is said to be an ephemeral concept that cannot be quantified. As a result, we can only make educated guesses about the effects of pleasure on behavioural options and can never be certain of our ideas. Some even argue that happiness is a fixed trait that cannot be altered. Such criticism typically concludes that we should stick to more solid, well-established values like “justice” and “equality.” Still on the above, another objection is that happiness is mere pleasure or an illusionary matter and hence not very valuable in and of itself. It is, therefore, not considered as the ultimate ethical value. Another moral objection is that happiness spoils; in particular, it fosters irresponsible consumerism and makes us less sensitive to the suffering of others. Still another objection holds that the goal of advancing happiness justifies a-moral means such as genetic manipulation, mind-control and dictatorship.

Conclusively, the approach which seems to prevail in occupational health and safety ethics is positioned somewhere between the adoption and the rejection of utilitarian theory. It consists of retaining the utility principle, while rejecting the utilitarian claim of being able to base the entire field of Occupational health and safety ethics on this single principle. Strictly speaking, this approach is equivalent to a rejection of utilitarianism, because the maximization of utility alone is no longer advocated (Honderich, 1995). The utility principle effectively loses its status as a fundamental and primary principle and is placed instead on an equal footing with other principles (equity, justice and autonomy) that must also be taken into consideration during ethical reflection and deliberation.

Editor’s note: Peter Gatkuoth is a South Sudanese and a member of Jonglei State. He is the author of the two books “The Rallying Cry for the Nation and the Sound of Hopes: Public Participation in Peace Process and State building in South Sudan (2023);” and “Multicultural Governance in South Sudan: A conceptual Framework for Understanding the Complexities of Multiculturalism (2023).” Gatkuoth has co-author the book entitled “Energy Transitions and the future of the African Energy Sector: Law, Policy and Governance.” He is also working on his New Book: “The Stewardship of the Nile River and its Tributaries:  Equity, Sustainability and South Sudan’s Quest (2024).” In most cases, Gatkuoth engaged in writing constructively on academic journals and other issues of any human concern in various fields of studies. He has been a columnist, writing on all human subjects’ matters. The writer holds BA, MA, LLM, MPP, MSc and currently, he is a candidate for MBA in Oil and Gas Management at The Uganda Christian University, Kampala. Additionally, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Leadership and Policy at Niagara University in Niagara Falls, New York.   The ideas presented herein are the result of research and reflect the author’s personal views. They do not represent any community in Jonglei State or any specific groups. For any questions or inquiries, please contact the author at [email protected].


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