Quote of the page
Even when all the experts agree, they may well be mistaken.
- Bertrand Russell
Utility, rights and virtues are the three main factors to consider in determining the morality of action. Different moral theories have different conceptions of how they are related. Here we focus on some of the more basic points.
Utility is a measure of the consequences of an action. A certain action might lead to a certain amount of happiness and a certain amount of suffering. The difference between the two - the net difference between the happiness and the suffering - is the utility of the action.
Utility is obviously an important consideration in morality. When a government evaluates a certain policy, it would have to consider both the good and bad consequences of the policy. The utility to consider would include not just short-term utility but long-term utility. Rapid economic development might lead to a lot of happiness for the present generation, but in the long term a lot of suffering might result due to environmental pollution or valuable traditions being destroyed by market forces.
The moral theory known as "utilitarianism" says that in any situation, the morally right thing to do is to act in such a way to maximize utility. However, many philosophers argue that maximizing utility might not always be right, and might lead to rights being violated. Discriminatory policies against homosexuals might create a lot of happiness for the conservative majority of a population, but if those policies cannot be morally justified, then perhaps they should not be implemented even if they bring about more utility.
Rights then, function as utility trumps. They serve to protect certain interests which we deem to be so important that, all else being equal, they cannot be violated in the name of bringing about more utility. Here are a few points to note about rights:
Morality goes beyond simply the protection of rights. We have the duty of not violating other people's rights, but morality also recognizes that there are things we ought to do even if we are not required to do them. Virtuous actions belong to this category.
Virtues are morally valuable character traits like courage, integrity, honesty, fairness, generosity, etc. We are not required to be nice or helpful, and failure to do so need not violate anybody's rights. If an old lady is carrying a heavy bag, it might be argued that I have no duty to help her. Even if I don't help her, I have not violated any of her rights. But if there is nobody around to help out, it would reflect very badly on my character if I don't help her. So being a virtuous person often involves doing more than what is required of us.