Comparing Utilitarianism to Deontology is a Type Error| 383 words
The colloquial interpretation of deontology and virtue ethics are instructions for being a good person. Deontology says: don’t do anything on this list of bad things, and you’ll be a good person. Virtue ethics says: don’t do anything that violates your heart’s sense of what is right and just, and you’ll be a good person.
However, utilitarianism isn’t a set of instructions for being a good person. Utilitarianism says: the best action is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number. Importantly, it doesn’t tell you how to find that action. This, I think, results in many people being put off by utilitarianism because they interpret it the way that they interpret the other ethical theories: as a set of instructions for how to be a good person. The result is a sort of garbled mess: to be a good person, you must take the action that results in the greatest good for the greatest number. This, however, isn’t a set of instructions for how to actually do that. This effect might be amplified because everyone sort of intuitively agrees that goodness is partially made up of the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilitarianism then gets parsed as something very unhelpful: in order to be rich, you must engage in the activity that produces the most amount of money.
Because of this distinction between “what is the best action” and “how to actually find the best action”, Being a utilitarian in practice involves a lot of hard work trying to figure out which actions are the ones that lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. Deontology and virtue ethics, on the other hand, don’t have such problems. The way to practice deontology is basically baked into the definition. I think this difference has good reason. It’s legitimately harder to be a utilitarian in practice than a deontologist. (Caveat: as long as you’re not asking questions like “where did this list of bad things come from?”)
Possibly this confusion results in a lot of people being put off from utilitarianism when they encounter it because they can’t really see how you could possibly be utilitarian in practice, but they can see how deontology or virtue ethics can translate into concrete recommendations for how to be a better person.