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Meta-Ethics. Utilitarianism and Katianism on 'The Life of David Gayle' - for or against the death penalty

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

In the film ‘The life of David Gayle’ Gayle is accused of killing and raping his best friend. Gayle has overwhelming evidence stacked against him and is consequently executed. He hires an investigator to find out the truth - he doesn’t say one way or the other if he committed the crime. The reporter later finds out that he is innocent, his friend killed herself as she was dying of cancer. They both wanted to prove that the death penalty can kill innocent people.

Utilitarian’s look at the consequences of an action while Kantians look at the motives. For each of these moral views it is possible to argue both ways in some aspects, though only a Utilitarian would actually support the action fully.
Utilitarian’s would like what Gayle did because the consequence would be that it would show that innocent people are hurt and their families left grieving due to the death penalty which utilitarian’s may be against anyway. However, they may not support the course of action Gayle took as the consequences left him dead and his family without him.
A Kantian would support Gayle’s actions because his intentions were praiseworthy as he was showing what was wrong with the death penalty out of duty and not because he was to gain anything from it. Yet, when asked if he had killed his friend he refused to respond and say that he did not and by doing this he was in some form lying which is one of the rules a Kantian would not agree with as it is your duty to be honest.

The greatest happiness principle is seen as the basis of utilitarianism. It states that the more happiness or greater number of people made happy the more morally praiseworthy an act must be. In showing the failings of the death penalty Gayle may be saving other innocent lives. There is also Gayle and his own family and friends to consider though. In his death his friends and family have to grieve which a utilitarian would only think fair if the grater happiness of people is ensured.

Within utilitarianism there are two methods of thought; act and rule.
Act Utilitarian
They would believe we must look at each individual case on its own merits and judge what was best in the situation. An act utilitarian would most likely have done what Gayle did because of the results in showing that the death penalty is used despite Gayle having to sacrifice himself to prove it. They might have been more in favour of it is he hadn’t himself died as a results but it is plausible that the argument would not be so strong if he had not died. People may have argued that as he did not die he was found innocent in the end despite what might have happened and the whole affair would have had much less of an effect.

Rule Utilitarian
They would believe there are there are set rules and obligations which we must follow and abide by. Such utilitarian’s would be less inclined to do as Gayle did because in doing it he lied and also in some form killed himself and caused his own murder making somebody a murderer by not attempting to stop it from happening. It would depend on whether the rule utilitarian was taking the hard or soft line stance. Hard line would be those who never break the rules no matter what the circumstances. Soft line are those who deviate from the rules if the situation would benefit greatly from it. So they may think that what Gayle did was good because of the proof of his innocence might put a stop to the other innocent people dying.
The consequentiality principle is the first factor to be considered in the utilitarian point of view. This is when the moral rightness of an act is determined by the consequences. The consequences of Gayle’s actions, other than his death, are good as they show what is wrong with a system which kills. The second of these principles is the hedonic principle which refers to the view tat pleasure or happiness is the only thing worth valuing. Although hedonism usually refers to people who like to spend their time eating, drinking, partying and being generally indulgent in pleasure philosophers would terms hedonism in a broader sense. In this term hedonism is not only in reference to bodily pleasures but also to intellectual and aesthetic pleasures such as reading or admiring art. In utilitarianism it is not only about ones own pleasure but also the pleasure of others and in his death Gayle is ensuring others survive and are able to experience these joys. He is though limiting his own pleasures but only for the happiness of others. The equity principle is the aspect of the greatest happiness principle which emphasises that everybody’s happiness counts equally. In this case Gayle is ending his life and any future happiness he may have felt for the happiness of anybody who may have ended up in the same situation as he had he not shown that it is a failing of the system.

Kantianism’s deontological stance begins with the sovereignty of reason. Kant was trying to uncover a moral system based purely on reason in the hope that it would produce a moral philosophy that is objectively true and universally valid. Kant thought it was important to base our actions on a reason because that is the only way to ensure that our morality is objective and in no way selfish. In Gayle’s case his intentions were good as he was attempting to show flaws of a system made by us and which we are part of which is his duty. His method may not have been looked upon so kindly though. Gayle broke many of Kantians moral rules in order to achieve his final aim so he was looking more at the consequences his actions would have rather than the actions themselves. The good will part of Kantianism states the goodness of an act doesn’t come from its consequences but from goodwill which is intrinsic to the act itself and which must always be good no matter the results. Courage, power, and intelligence are irrelevant to Kantians as these things can be qualities of both good and evil deeds but goodwill is only a quality of a good deed. The reason for Gayle’s actions was to prove something and to do so for a friend who also wanted to prove it. He may have thought his intentions good but he did it because it was something he wanted to prove to show others that he was right. Duty is the only motive a Kantian believes to be good. Kantians believe that to act from duty is to do so because it is the right thing to do and not for any other reason. Gayle had other reasons for doing what he did and so a Kantian believes, one basic test for identifying morally praiseworthy maxims of action that require duty alone. Maxims are general rules of behaviour which can be applied to particular situations such as ‘never lie’ and ‘never kill’.

The categorical imperative is a command with no conditions. Gayle did not follow any categorical imperative in what he did. His actions were based on a hypothetical imperative “die as a result of the death penalty and you might save other from the same fate”. These categorical imperatives are; universal law formulation, end in itself formulation and kingdom of ends formulation. The universal law formulation states that a categorical imperative must in principle be capable of being applied to any human being in the same circumstance and not just the individual being judged. It would always be wrong for Gayle to have followed the hypothetical imperative which he did. End in itself formulation is the idea that you should never use people to suit your own need and you should treat then as individuals who need respect. In a way Gayle is mistreating himself so as to achieve his aim which a Kantian would be entirely against. The kingdom of ends formulation say that we must both act as though we are enforcers and abiders of the moral law thus creating a community in which everyone is treated as an end and never simply as a means. Gayle is treating himself as a means to an end, he is allowing himself to die so the others wont in the future rather than looking out for his own needs as an equal human to those he’d be saving.

Thus, it seems a utilitarian would be much more likely to support what Gayle did because they are able to look at the resulting consequences and see that perhaps, if it saves others, that the initially wrong actions would be worth it. A rule utilitarian would be less inclined to think that as it breaks too many of their rules such as never lie and never kill (although it is himself dying). A Kantian would be definitively against the actions. The motive may appear good and kind but they do not fulfil the requirements to the Kantian view as there are fat too many things wrong with it and the intentions are not going to have an initial effect as he is using himself as a martyr which again a Kantian is definitively against.

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Jade Gracie (author) from United Kingdom on July 01, 2012:

Thanks for the comment. There is also the problem of utilitarianism though that the happiness of the greatest number can mean being unjust to a minority, so racism for example could actually be defendable with utilitarianism but generally i agree it is a little better than kantianism

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on June 30, 2012:

This is a very complicated and ambiguous case model. As you state, both schools of philosophical thought can have cases made for them in this instance. I try to stick to the Utilitarian school because it embodies both the "do most good for oneself or others" and the "do no harm to others" value systems. Kant's reason base system is a good starting point but usually cannot deal fully with nuanced dilemmas such as this. I concur the Utilitarianism best applies in this case. He may allow himself to be executed but that is his choice for the greater good. Very thought provoking Hub, Jadesmg.

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