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Utilitarianism Vs Deontology: a Case Study

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Utilitarianism Vs Deontology: a Case Study Essay

A man by the name of John was a technician at a nuclear power plant in the state of Ohio in the USA. During his time working at this power plant, a catastrophic freak accident occurred. During this accident John was present at the power plant performing his job, where he was positioned right at the source of where the accident occurred. He had received an extremely high dose of radiation, to the point where it was only a matter of time when he was going to pass away. John had no family or friends and was not in a relationship. He wishes to be allowed to die before the radiation sickness deteriorates his health and he begins to suffer the effects of radiation poisoning even worse. However, scientists working for the government wish to keep John alive so they can study the effects and perhaps develop new ways to combat the effects of radiation poisoning. John refuses to take part in these studies and wishes to die immediately. While he knows that the studies are for a good cause and may save other lives in the future, he is aware of the effects his body will go through and is not willing to consent to the tests. What is the morally correct thing to do here, Should John change his mind and consent to the tests? Should the scientists forcibly keep him alive against his will? What is more ethically correct, saving this innocent man from a great deal of pain but losing out on scientific advancement, or keeping him alive and perhaps making scientific advancements which will lead to the treatment of perhaps hundreds or maybe even thousands of others in the future? Should John even be given a choice in this situation or should a decision be made for him?

In this research essay I will look at ethical theories by Kant and Bentham such as deontology and utilitarianism and their different types, and also autonomy. I will then construct an argument for what the right thing to do in this case is, applying the various theories of ethics previously in my argument. I will also break down opposing arguments and argue why they are flawed and otherwise incorrect by analysing each theory and critically evaluating them, using various sources of information. For the purpose of my argument, I will refer to this situation as the “John case”


I believe that, in this situation, given the circumstances, that the most morally correct thing to do here is to keep him alive and study the effects of radiation in order to learn how to combat them. There are multiple stances one could take when analysing this situation. I have come to this conclusion after studying both deontology and utilitarianism, and their subsets. The correct thing here to do is to follow the moral theory of act utilitarianism. Two of the main ethical theories which have caused division in Western moral philosophy is between the theory of deontology and the theory of consequentialism. Deontology is a moral philosophy based around rules. The core idea of deontology is that a person who strives to be moral must also perform his duty, without any exceptions, and no matter the consequences. However, as there are multiple subsets of deontology, there is no one set “duty” as referenced in deontology, but rather multiple ones depending on the version of deontology being applied. However, a key aspect of all deontology is that one should not just consider the outcome of an action, but, more importantly, the morals being used to arrive at the decision.

Act deontology is a version of deontology that focuses on not defining its principles. It is opposed to rule following as it views that every situation and every person making the decision in said situation will be different, and as such every situation, no matter how similar they appear to be, will be different. It places much stock in the idea of human judgment. In act deontology, the responsibility of decision making thus relies solely on the views of the decision maker, and what they deem to be the correct decision. There are both advantages and disadvantages to act deontology. Act deontology is perhaps correct in that, a moral rule cannot be applied in each new situation simply because it was the correct decision in the past, as no situation can ever truly be identical and thus different factors must be considered before reaching a decision. However, act deontology is impractical, especially for the situation I have given. It is built on the idea that arbitrary decision making is suitable for each situation, when there can be greater factors at play. This is the issue in the John case, as there are perhaps scientific advancements at stake along with the possibility of this research being able to save thousands of lives in the future.

Rule deontology is a form of deontology that insists a person’s decision should be based on how he sees a situation at the time, and it asserts the idea that decisions should be based on a set of rules to be followed, rather than considering what the outcome of the decision is. The advantage of rule deontology is that the principles contained can be very general. This allows for them to be fleshed out more, allowing for more detail. However, for the John case, rule deontology is completely unsuitable. There are no rules set out for this kind of situation, due to the complexity and uniqueness of the situation. Rule deontology, in this circumstance, would force the decision maker to choose between conflicting rules.

Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most forefront thinker when it comes to deontology, had his own version of deontology. The main idea of Kant is that duty must always come before the consequences. Actions are not right or wrong because of the consequences, but because it is simply a morally incorrect thing to do, regardless of what happens because of the action or inaction. In his view, actions are right or wrong, not the consequences of those actions. While it may be commendable, it is also not truly morally correct to act in accordance with what we perceive is the right thing, but to act simply for the sake that it is our duty, even in times when we do not want to. According to him, some principles are simply moral in themselves. A key facet of Kant’s ethic’s is his “categorical imperative”. For Kant, actions are only morally right if they follow the categorical imperative. Kant’s ethical theory was based on the belief that all human beings are entitled to equal consideration. Although every human is different, and we all find ourselves in different situations. It follows from this that no moral human being would act in another way towards another human in a way the he himself would not like to be treated. According to Kant, this imperative is divided into a different number of formulations. Kant believed that humans were rational thinkers, autonomous and capable of knowing universal and objective moral laws. He believed that each human being should only act out of duty, not because of the consequences of said duty. Kant believed in multiple maxims in his categorical imperative.

  1. “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law of nature.” This means that, if you wish to act morally, you should act as if what your moral decision is what will become the law for everyone, including yourself.
  2. “So act as to treat humanity, both in your own person, and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means.” What Kant means by this is that treating people as if they are tools used to be further ambitions and ends is highly unethical and morally wrong.
  3. ”Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a law making member in the universal kingdom of ends”. Kant holds the view that everyone must be respected as everyone possesses their own emotions, hopes, fears, just as you and I do. He feels that everyone should be respected equally. Kant believes that everyone should act as a member of a community of “ends”, all who possess the same ability to make moral abilities. Each member of this community should respect the wishes and needs of others and allow them the freedom of decision.

It should also be important to note that Kant was vehemently against suicide, no matter the circumstances. According to Kant himself, “he who so behaves, who has no respect for human nature and makes a thing of himself, becomes for everyone an object of freewill. We are free to treat him as a beast, as a thing, and to use him for our sport as we do a horse or a dog, for he is no longer a human being, he has made a thing of himself, and having himself discarded his humanity, he cannot expect that others should respect humanity in him” According to Kant, the apparent motive for all suicide is simply to “avoid evil” By this, he means avoiding suffering, pain, and other negative outcomes in one’s life. As stated, Kant believes that treating people to a means to and end is fundamentally wrong. For him, however, this also includes yourself.

However, there are multiple issues with Kant’s ethical theories. It is too rigid. This can be seen in using multiple examples when applying Kantian deontology to a situation. An interesting example was put forward by. What if, during the times of Nazi Germany, we were hiding Jews in our house? Imagine then that an officer of the SS knocks on our door and asks if we are hiding any Jews. If we consider Kant’s theories, then we must remember our duty not to lie to the SS officer, regardless of the consequences. As Kant is very general in his theories, it becomes harder to apply to complex situations. Another issue with Kant is that what makes us human, according to his beliefs, are our abilities to reason and our possession of both duties and rights. He holds the belief that non-rational actors, such as non-human animals, do not have the ability the possess animals. Because of this, according to Kant, we can do as we like with them. But how far does this go? What about a person who lacks the ability to be a rational actor, for example, a person of very low IQ, or perhaps someone with mental illness? Can we also do as we like to them? According to Dimmock et al. 2017, “the challenge to Kant’s theory is that the scope of morality seems bigger than the scope of reasons” He highlights the example of abusing an animal, for example kicking a cat. While it might not be morally right to do this, Kant’s theory does not back this up as the cat is not a rational agent and thus, we should not hold the same morals towards his treatment as we would a human being. When considering the “John case”, we cannot apply the use of Kantian ethics. The John case is simply far too complex to apply Kantian deontology to the situation. While John right now may be a rational agent, what happens when his body and mind begin to deteriorate from the radiation sickness, and he can no longer even think for himself? Will he still be a rational agent then? According to Kant’s theories, he will simply be reduced to another animal, fit to be treated as such by humans. Referring to the suicide example I proved above, where would a Kantian deontologist stand on the John case? As we can see, Kantian deontologists do not believe that suicide is a thing that should ever be considered. It is also wrong to kill others – regardless of the consequences. So, what does a Kantian deontologist do in this situation? Simply let John suffer, even when he does not want to? This does not respect John’s autonomy as a rational agent. It is impossible for them to take a stance as the situation creates a paradox in their thinking. Ending John’s suffering is morally wrong as it only takes the consequence into account but experimenting on John would be considered treating him as a tool, a mean and not an end. Their only stance regarding the John case is to not take a stance. In this situation, it is implicit that Kantian deontologists would simply let John die naturally. However, if they will simply let him die anyway, then why not allow scientists to perform experiments on him? Both things will produce the same outcome, and if these tests are unobtrusive as possible then there simply is no difference.

Contrary to the school of deontology is the school of consequentialism. Perhaps the most prolific form of consequentialism is its subset, utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the view that the consequences of ones actions plays a major role in whether ones actions are moral or not. The end goal of utilitarianism is the achievement of happiness or pleasure for the largest number of people while still producing the least amount of harm. It differs greatly from the deontological school of thought in that utilitarianism does not depend upon rules. While deontology assumes there are naturally right actions, utilitarianism puts more weight on the outcome of the action and its motives rather than the action being committed.

Jeremy Bentham is similar to his counterpart Kant in that he is perhaps the most forefront of thinkers in his school of moral theory. Bentham’s key belief is that a person should always attempt to provide the result that allows for “the greatest good, or greatest happiness, of the greatest number”. However, with utilitarianism, the good and evil of these decisions should be measurable. It is a key principle of utilitarianism is that making a calculation to decide the cost vs the benefit should be made. Bentham developed a method that would allow for these decisions to be made. He designed it to allow to determine ways to provide pleasure and reduce pain as much as possible.

Another key Utilitarian, John Stuart Mill, disagreed with certain aspects of Bentham’s utilitarianism. Mill stated that different pleasures have different levels of quality and that not all should be considered equal. For example, Mill stated that reading a book had a higher intellectual quality than intellectually lower physical pleasures, as it is something only humans possess the capacity to enjoy. Whereas Bentham viewed all pleasure as equal, Mill did not and this was a key difference between them.

Act Utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that states in every situation a person should, if they aim to achieve the right outcome, decide which action will produce the largest amount of pleasure over pain. This is opposed to following a universal moral code such as the ones seen in deontology. An act utilitarian will not simply keep a promise because it is his moral duty, he will keep the promise if it leads to the greatest amount of good. In every case, the act utilitarian must always decide what will produce more good than evil, no matter the cost. In this way, one could say act utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that is focused on responses rather than rules. I think act utilitarianism could perhaps be the key moral theory to be applied in the “John case”. We can clearly see that, from the majority’s perspective, keeping John alive, while causing him pain, will produce a lot of good in the long run for humanity. In this way we are producing more pleasure than pain keeping him alive. This is why I believe in act utilitarianism.

Another form of utilitarianism is rule utilitarianism. It is similar to rule deontology in that a set of rules should always be applied when coming to a decision. Rule utilitarians believe in certain rules – for example, do not murder or do not steal. They believe that when these rules are followed, will generally create the best consequences for the highest amount of people. The difference between deontology and rule utilitarianism is that rule utilitarianism is designed to create the best consequences for the greatest number of people. This is the desired outcome – in deontology it is to uphold universal moral values. Rule utilitarianism is also not suitable for the “John Case”. For who’s rules are we to draw from when reaching a decision? Rule utilitarianism, like deontology, is not flexible enough for complex situations like the “John case”. While it may serve its purpose and can oftentimes work when creating moral guidelines for the average person, the situation here is not one for the average person and thus we must follow the rules of act utilitarianism.

Overall, I believe the “John case” is a very difficult and complex situation. However, a conclusion must be reached. After studying various moral theories, I have no choice but to conclude that the correct moral theory here is act utilitarianism. While John may be an innocent victim, his sacrifice could save hundreds, if not thousands of lives in the future and save quite a lot of people and their loved ones from much pain and misery. In this way we can state that keeping him alive would be simply the most “good” decision, the most morally correct. It simply leads to the most happiness for the most people, and this, I believe, is indisputable. While it may not be an easy decision, it is one that can be reached when considering the good of humanity.


  • Dimmock, M. Fisher, A. (2017) Ethics for A-Level. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.
  • Johnson, R. Cureton, A. (2019) Kant’s Moral Philosophy, Stanford, available: [accessed 28 Nov 19]
  • Rich, K, L. (forthcoming) Nursing Ethics: Across the Curriculum and Into Practice. Burlington: Jones and Bartlett Learning
  • Seedhouse, D. (1998) Ethics: The Heart of Healthcare. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons

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