The government has the obligation to ensure that its citizens have a holistic life through the formation of policies and provision of amenities. These policies touch on the social and economic aspect of the society. Social policies cater for the general welfare of the citizenry while the economic ones tackle trade regulations, total government expenditure and exchange rates. The government also has the burden of ascertaining social justice and overall equality.
Different schools of thought have emerged over the centuries on how governments can ensure social justice and general well-being of the citizenry. These include the theories of absolutism, egalitarianism and Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a normative theory that was formulated by Jeremy Bentham in which he states that the highest principle of decency is to maximize happiness, the overall balance over pain. He argued that it utilitarianism is the aggregate of pleasure after all aspects of suffering, and its effects have been deducted from the general population. John Mill furthered this argument by stating that utilitarianism was not only quantitative but qualitative (Myerson).
Egalitarianism, on the other hand, is the thought philosophy that all men are equal in status. This equality is stretched out to include social, economic, legal and political aspects of life. This is aimed to avoid or minimize the various forms of social and economic injustices that are prevalent in society. It also holds that individuals of equal talent from dissimilar social classes should have equal access to the same positions for which their abilities qualify them and that it is undue if inequalities result from a civilizations failure to afford this kind of equal opportunity (Scheffler). It is categorized in three forms, namely: political egalitarianism that deals with the equality of a person, men and women; social which is the pillar of economic egalitarianism and finally religious and spiritual egalitarianism.
Egalitarianism has propagated a lot of social and political reforms in both Europe and Africa. Egalitarianism makes the assumption that there is a uniform measure of what levels success is and that all members of the society ascribe to this notion. It also gives the less hardworking members of the society some of form of entitlement; they believe that wealth or political say should be equal thus this institutionalizes further inequality.
Absolutism is a political doctrine that states that all sovereign power is vested in a monarch or dictator. This power is unlimited, centralized and not subject to checks and balances (Absolutism). Absolutism has had many facets including the dictatorships of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. This doctrine has its origins in Europe, specifically absolute monarchy when a lot of states were breaking away from the traditional medieval era. This form of power was exercised by feudal lords, kings, and even the church and was widespread in the 17th and 18th century. Monarchical absolutism was more often than not thought of divine power, ordained by a deity and justified some of the tyrannical rules of leaders who subjected to torturous punishments according to the divine law.
Absolutism instead completely impounds on the liberties of the individual. Monarchs often acquired legitimacy by getting foreign territory. This cemented his/her rule over the subjects and also meant that a large military structure had to be put in place to enable these conquests. Absolutism gave rise to the class structure i.e. nobility, feudal aristocrats and commoners and peasant landowners. The nobles often gained their titles from political services other than birth and the state sold titles to them to generate income for the running of the kingdom. Commoners paid the majority of the taxes that were required to fund the majority of these battles. The class system instituted by the monarchies not only denigrated the peasants but also oppressed the women, making it seem as if they were lesser subjects.
Classic Utilitarianists, namely Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, really advocated for the theory of absolute pleasure even at the expense of the minority. They standardized everybodys happiness and concluded that the total of a societys happiness was based on the summative value of utility experienced by the majority. This logic was flawed in two ways, namely that it infringed on the personal liberty of the individual. For instance, if a group of people are displeased with a minoritys religion, they have the power to demand that their religion is banned. This is weighed as being beneficial to the overall population but inflicts pain on a few because they have been denied the liberty to worship whomever they want. This interpersonal comparison of utility is completely flawed because different people have differing measures of pain and pleasure. Also the fact that actions are considered morally upright or wrong is based on its effects means that some decisions made are not morally appropriate even if the majority consider it pleasurable.
For example, some of the social policies or decisions made based on this theory include those made by doctors and lawyers. A doctor can argue that by facilitating the death of an ailing patient, he/she can save the life of another using the deceaseds organs. Similarly, a judge can sentence an innocent soul to imprisonment because it is for the benefit of society. Thus having such rules means that a doctor who kills one patient to save the lives of many others risks making the society cautious of approaching doctors due to compromised ethics. This would further translate to an increased morbidity in the population as patients do not trust doctors therefore not going to seek medical attention. Thus, also the judge risks having the citizenry doubt his objectivity. This is because the judicial system is entrusted with the responsibility of enacting justice and securing people from criminals. Therefore, these kinds of decisions compromise the integrity of the judicial system.
The weight of the cost analysis on human lives has a bearing on the overall quality of life of individuals; a classic example is also given of the Tobacco Company in the Czech Republic run by Philip Morris that aimed to maximize on its business because smoking of cigarettes was socially acceptable. However, the costs of healthcare in relation to smokers rose significantly, and the government resorted to imposing higher taxes on cigarettes. Philip Morris then conducted a cost analysis research and found that the government gained greatly from cigarette smoking, he discovered that although cigarette smokers cost the government tonnes of money in treatment while alive, eventually the it saved on money when they died because it did not have to spend money on healthcare, pension and housing for the elderly. The utilitarian view that general deaths from lung cancer benefit the government poses a moral challenge as it seems callous that the government should save money based on other individuals premature death. Therefore, the cost analysis premise is terribly flawed.
Another classic example is the case of the Ford Pinto in the United States of America, these cars tanks were prone to explosion should they collide with another car. However, Ford conducted a survey and realised that repairing or making the necessary alterations to the car would cost them more money, therefore, decided not to change anything on the care. They also calculated that the number of deaths from these exploding tanks was not as outstanding and hence resorted to placing an amount on anybody who died or was injured in the accidents. This saved the company tonnes of money but was morally unethical as it was proper evidence that the company did not value human life. When taken to court by one of the users, the jury discovered this tactic and awarded the plaintiff $2.5 million. Thus, the notion that a monetary value could be put on a human life was dismissed.
Many philosophers opposed the theory on utilitarianism on grounds that pain and pleasure were not the only things that determined the overall well-being of the individual. Furthermore, it infringed on the liberty of the individual as what was considered good for most, end up hurting a few. John Mill then aimed to enrich this theory by stating that utilitarianism was not only quantitative in nature, but also qualitative. He believed that governments should maximize utility. He stipulated that utility should respect the rights of the individual instead of shutting off the dissenters; this would only lead to an unhappy society in the long run. He mentions that a society that forces its majority into conventions risks having one that conforms to customs and norms that eventually damage its credibility. This then hinders innovation and any form of social reform.
Does utilitarianism eventually benefit the individual? Many philosophers argue that it does not because it hurts one individual at the expense of others happiness. An example is wealth redistribution to curb inequality in the society. One would think that redistribution of wealth would make a majority happy but in essence, the people at the apex of the wealth scale suffer as their money was not gained through fraud or coercion. This also includes taxing the wealthy more to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and to enable the government to provide more services for the average citizen. Libertarianism, therefore, does not go hand in hand with this theory as it opposes redistribution of wealth, paternalism and moral legislation
All three doctrines (absolutism, egalitarianism and utilitarianism) offer an approach on how moralism should be perceived and upheld. However, they present a singular approach to dealing with how justice and fairness are executed. Despite their limitations, they complement other theories such at libertinism to strike a proper balance in the society.
Absolutism. n.d. 2 December 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/topic/absolutism-political-system>.
Blick, Robin. Fascism in Germany: How Hitler Destroyed the World's Most Powerful Labour Movement. Steyn Publications, 1975.
Jannik Boesen, Tony Moody and Birgit Madsen. Ujamaa- Socialism from Above. Copenhagen: Centre for Development Research, 1977.
Myerson, Roger B. "Utilitarianism, Egalitarianism, and the Timing Effect in Social Choice Problems." Econometrica (1991): 883-897.
Scheffler, Samuel. "What Is Egalitarianism?" Philosophy & Public Affairs (2003): 5-39.
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