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Utilitarianism and Ethical Treatment of prisoners Featured

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Utilitarianism and Ethical Treatment of prisoners

Ethics refer to the study of the moral value of human behavior and the rules and principles that are meant to govern the behavior. Philosophers have come up with various theories to explain the concept of ethics further. Such theories include; Utilitarianism, deontology and virtue. This essay will focus on one of the above theories in relation to the ethical treatment of prisoners


A prisoner is a person who has committed a kind of criminal offence and for that reason he or she is confined at a designated place for a specified duration of time. It is up to the courts to determine if an individual is guilty of the crime or not. If found innocent, he or she is set free but if found guilty, he or she is sent to the prison or penitentiary for a duration specified by the court. A prison is a correctional facility where the law breakers are detained. Even if detained the right of the prisoner should be upheld. Though he is deprived some rights e.g. freedom of movement, other basic rights such as the provision of food, clothing and medical care should be upheld. It is unethical to confine an individual to the correctional facility and expose the individual to danger. For example denying of prisoners food or rationing of their food is not ethical.

Denying them access to medical attention is also unethical as this can result to deaths that would otherwise have been avoided.In especially the 3rd world countries the state of their prisons is deplorable. Prisoners are confined in this prisons looking healthy but unfortunately, when they are released, they look weak and sickly. The condition of the prison’s housing facilities is deplorable and unhygienic. It is unethical to lock any human being in housing facilities that are dirty and without basic amenities like toilets. Though criminals they are expected to spend time in the prison so that they change their way of life. Unhealthy sanitary conditions does not help a prisoner to have a peace of mind and recollect on the crimes he committed and the changes he wants to make in his life (Banks, 2004).
The classical theory of utilitarianism can best be used to solve the issue of unethical treatment of prisoners. Utilitarian theory states that the moral worth of an action should be determined specifically by it usefulness in maximizing utility and minimizing negative utility. Morality here refers to the behavior that differentiates the decision and intention and actions of individuals that are good or bad (Shaw, 1999).The world as a whole has a moral code on how people should conduct themselves, on what is rights and wrong. It is a worldwide fact that to commit murder is wrong, to steal is wrong, and to intentionally inflict injury on another person is wrong. The acts of the utilitarian theory can be used in prisons so as to aid the prisoners in correcting their behavior. For example, one act states that when faced with a choice, we should consider the consequence of each of the choice and select one that is right.
A prisoner charged with robbery will reflect on the choices he made in committing the crime that landed him in jail (Banks, 2004).The government can also apply this act to find out the best way to assist the prisoners correct their behavior. Torture and beatings will not correct their behavior but will make them more aggressive so that choice is not the best. On the other hand, introduction of short courses in carpentry, masonry, tailoring etc will have a pleasurable effect as the prisoners will acquire a useful skill (Shaw, 1999).Rule Utilitarianism states that human beings should focus on the potential rules of an action and determine what would happen if he or she follows the rules. A rule that results to happiness is morally right and should be followed. For example in a prison rules regarding the provision of food, medication to prisoners if followed will result to the harmonious interaction between the prisoners and the security officers guarding the prison.
It is therefore best to provide the basic needs to the prisoners as lack of it would result to riots and in serious scenarios, killing of security guards. The rules can also be used by prisoners so that in future they can determine what rules in a state or country will result to him living peacefully with the rest of the citizens. Learning of the rules will result to positive behavior. Rule has however been contrasted by relativism that some points do have absolute truth. For example though it is a rule not to kill, it may be necessary to do so in circumstances of self defense.
Motive utilitarianism suggests that our first moral task is to instill within ourselves and others the inclination, skills, and mental ideologies that are likely to be most useful in an ordinary set up, For example teaching reading skills, carpentry and masonry to prisoners so that they can be better people in the society. Negative utilitarianism (NU) on the other hand requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number (Shaw, 1999).Other contrasts include: emotivism that states that ethical statements do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Ethical egoism states that when faced with a situation, an individual should first consider what is in their own best interest.


Ethical egoism and emotivism contrast with utilitarianism as it focus on an individual treating others just as he treats himself. Relativism will go hand in had with utilitarianism such that one should first consider if following of a rule might pose a risk to himself or not. An individual might have in self defense, though wrong it is understandable that the individual had no other choice and would have been harmed by the assailant.


Banks, C. (2004) Criminal justice ethics: theory and practice. SAGE

Shaw, W. (1999). Contemporary ethics: taking account of utilitarianism. Wiley-Blackwell

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