Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that focuses on the outcomes and consequences (a form of consequentialism) of action by upholding the ethics of a choice that would produce the greatest good for the largest number of involved people or stakeholders. It moves outside the scope of one’s interests to take into account the needs of others. It is a flexible moral framework as it helps to account for the negatives and benefits of a specific action, thus weighing a balanced approach.
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However, it remains one of the few moral frameworks that can justify something like the use of force or deceit, any potentially unethical (as considered by most) action if it results in the greater good. Despite a logical basis to this theory, it remains highly controversial with its limitations. One limitation is that no one can predict the future to determine with certainty the full consequence of any given action. Furthermore, it has little regard for justice and individual rights, making it difficult to apply in situations in the modern world (Barrow, 2010.).
Utilitarianism can apply to either specific actions (act-utilitarianism) or general rules of moral behavior and conduct (rule-utilitarianism). In act-utilitarianism, the framework is applied to each situation of choice where alternative acts are evaluated to determine which brings the best outcome (or one with the least bad consequences). As mentioned earlier, it can justify inherently immoral acts such as torturing a suspected terrorist to prevent as an example.
Rule utilitarianism establishes a more general code of conduct based on similar principles. For example, a rule, to tell the truth, can be deemed necessary by moral utilitarianism because there have been numerous examples in society and history where lying resulted in horrendous consequences. However, it may seem paradoxical since rule utilitarianism establishes boundaries that individuals must follow, but this suggests that individual actions which maximize utility (act-utilitarianism) no longer apply.
Nevertheless, it is plausible because rule utilitarianism provides general rules which leave it up to the individual to decide how to conduct themselves. In certain situations where a human being is notoriously bad at making judgments at the moment, this can be helpful to maximize positive utility. Rule utilitarianism allows departure from rigid guidelines leaving the choice up to individuals and to behave as in the case of act-utilitarianism (Barrow, 2010). This is how the process of ethical decision-making works in utilitarianism.
In general, utilitarian philosophers support a view of morality that seeks to increase good things in the world and decrease negative aspects. That often leads to utilitarianism reject common law, systemic or societal traditions, or customs, examining morality from a pragmatic perspective of its contribution to human beings. Despite its seeming simplicity, utilitarianism can be complex as it requires recognition of 3 key factors: understanding good and evil, whose good must be maximized (since many moral dilemmas place one group of humans against another), and comprehension of whether actions or policies are made right or wrong by their actual or foreseeable consequences (Nathanson, n.d.).
In the scriptures, there is a line “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). The ethical situation surrounding compensation for collegiate and non-professional athletes is complex, and when viewed from a utilitarian perspective, benefits organizations such as the NCAA and negatively affect athletes.
As the situation currently stands, collegiate athletes are provided with basic needs for their training and often a scholarship in their education. However, all money made from their promotion and image, which can reach millions of dollars is maintained by the NCAA and respective universities. Student-athletes are often struggling to balance education, rigorous training, and sometimes needing to have a job as well to support themselves for anything other than basic needs.
The NCAA runs a system where athletes are required to train and perform well, contributing hours of their time as well as risking injury to bodies, with little chance for a professional career (less than 2% get drafted). Meanwhile, the NCAA does not hold responsibility for the quality of education and has strict guidelines regarding athletes being able to participate in other aspects of life such as starting a business or entering a contest. The system is exploitative to some extent in the best consideration and potentially destructive for students in the long-term at its worst (Reed, 2017). Therefore, it does not matter how the NCAA profits off student-athletes, but the focus of the issue is whether there is fairness.
Utilitarianism supports the greater good, which in this scenario is not the case. NCAA executives and university sport program leaders profit off multimillion-dollar franchises which are supported primarily by the performance and images of these athletes used in promotional materials. Outside the elite coaches, support staff makes very little money, while student-athletes earn nothing at all. Based on the framework, it would be logical to make an action or policy that would benefit the greater good, with the largest number of people positively affected and their struggles relieved at least partially by financial compensation.
The best solution would be to establish a base stipend for student-athletes which is a respectable income per month, along with a small percentage royalty based on their performance and use in promotional material. This solution helps to establish a more egalitarian approach to fiscal responsibility and financial compensation, distributing funds to those in need while still upkeeping relatively high salaries for executives.
Practically, this solution is legally and financially possible. After significant public pressure, and the beginnings of legislation to regulate student-athlete compensation, the NCAA has announced it would explore means by which to share the revenue stream with athletes for the use of their image or likeness. Recent legislation in California suggests student-athletes should hire sports agents and sign individual endorsement deals. However, the NCAA as a collegiate organization wants to distinguish professional sports from collegiate athletics and wants to pursue other pathways to avoid essentially making student-athletes employees (Setty & Young, 2019).
Using the scripture quoted at the beginning of this section, the morally right thing to do based on utilitarian logic would be to compensate properly the athletes based on the work they put in while risking their health and lives. Since it is a policy needing to be implemented, act-utilitarianism would be most applicable to evaluate the consequences of such a decision. The greater good of a large number of student-athletes involved nationwide currently and in the future is at stake, and making such a decision can greatly improve their lives both on a personal and collegiate level.
Barrow, R. (2010). Plato, utilitarianism and education (vol. 3). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
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Nathanson, S. (n.d.). Act and rule utilitarianism. Web.
Reed, P. (2017). College athletes continuing financial struggles without representation. The Spectator. Web.
Setty, G., & Young, J. (2019). The NCAA will allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness in a major shift for the organization. CNBC. Web.