Mass Communication Talk

Consequentialism and Utilitarianism in Media Ethics & Governance

One of the principal ethical philosophies is consequentialism, a class of normative ethical theories. This theory can be seen as one of the leading moral perspectives in Western society, and it has dominated media ethics during the last century.
As its name suggests, consequentialism holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.

One of the philosophies within consequentialism – besides several classic variations – is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics which holds that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility in this context is happiness, or pleasure. In short, this is about ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. By asking what will bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people, utilitarians are trying to find out what is best for society as a whole.
Back in the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, developed the ‘hedonistic calculus’. This is a way of calculating how an act will result in the best outcome for the most people. He actually tried to transform ethics into an exact science! By weighing the “pleasures” and “pains” of any given action, his conclusion was that any action that produced more pleasure than pain was morally right.
In media and journalism, we can identify examples of a utilitarian way of thinking on a daily basis. Let’s take for example the invasion of privacy that occurs when a photo of a fatal car accident is published in a newspaper. We all understand that this will cause harm to the victim’s family, but at the same time it is perceived as important to inform the public about this accident and to warn them about risky behaviour.
John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but also the quality of pleasure. He stated that people are completely free to make their own choices, as long as their actions don’t harm others. Mill argued that, to be completely happy, we have to be free and independent. But unlike Bentham, he doesn’t agree that happiness can be calculated. Some forms of happiness are more worthy than others, so his viewpoint on utilitarianism is more qualitative than quantitative. Utility is thus defined by Mill as happiness with the absence of pain. And, in order for the action to be moral it must be the optimal choice in increasing utility and minimizing pain.
For most people, this way of thinking about happiness sounds quite logical and wonderful, and the utilitarian idea therefore dominated the landscape of moral philosophy. But, there are some famous critics on this way of thinking. One of these critics is John Rawls . We will be exploring his perspective on utilitarianism in the next clip. We will also apply the ideas of consequentialism and utilitarianism to our current media environment.
In the previous video we talked about consequentialism and utilitarianism, ethical theories that focus on the outcomes of one’s choices and actions. Let’s dive into these ideas a little further, by looking at criticisms of utilitarianism and what this theory means in our current media environment.
One of the most famous criticisms of utilitarianism came from John Rawls, who is perhaps the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. His book ‘A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, is a classic. In the book, he presents 2 principles of justice, which should guide the functioning of any society.
The first principle, the ‘liberty principle’, calls for a system of basic freedoms and equal rights for everyone. Consider for instance the principles of freedom of speech, the pursuit of happiness and political liberty. Political liberty means that everyone with similar skills and motivations should be able to hold political positions and offices and to influence elections, regardless of their social class, that is to say, political liberty to vote and run for office.
Rawls’s second principle is the ‘difference principle’. This principle states that societal inequalities can be justified, as long as they are to the benefit (when beneficial) of the least well off and of (for) society as a whole. So, while utilitarianism justifies principles by asking what is best for the greatest number of people, Rawls places justice for all above utility as the most important goal in society.
John Rawls also developed a thinking tool for coming to the most socially justifiable solution, especially when we have to make decisions about dividing resources: “the veil of ignorance”. According to Rawls, we can come to the fairest decisions if we use all our knowledge about the world and our rational thinking skills, but at the same time ignore who we are as a person. So, try this with me: forget your age, gender, race, intelligence, health, wealth, and forget the country where you were born. How would you divide resources if there is a possibility that you are one of the poor or unhealthy? Probably in a way that would benefit the least well off, right?
Another criticism of utilitarianism came from philosopher, and third president of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson warned that being too utilitarian could result in the “tyranny of the majority”: if you let people decide on what is best for the majority of people, this could result in paternalistic, racist or sexist world views and practices that benefit the majority but harm minorities. We will return to this notion, when I will discuss alternative paradigms, such as care ethics and feminist ethics.
Let’s now take a look at what consequentialism and utilitarianism could look like in our current media climate.
With the rise of media technology and technological devices such as computers and smartphones, we are now able to look up any type of information at any moment and be in constant contact with our friends and family. This has empowered us and made us smarter than ever before, and has resulted in many benefits for many people. From a consequentialist or utilitarian viewpoint this seems to be a good development, right?
Well, some people have argued that it can lead to “cyber‐centrism”. Cyber‐centrism refers to prioritizing tools over environment. It also means placing efficiency and convenience above moral concerns and values such as trust, human contact, privacy and safety. It has also been said we might become “technological determinists”, where the mere use of technology may become the ‘greatest good for the greatest number of people’, and we might lose track of the possible harm it does to others. Related to this is the so called knowledge gap, a negative consequence of media technology that creates and increases inequalities between people in terms of knowledge. Those who already have access to knowledge can increase such knowledge through technology, whereas those who do not have access to knowledge stay behind.

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