By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'. The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services.
It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared.
Utilitarian ethics considers the balance of potential benefit and harm. If the potential benefits are sufficiently high to outweigh possible harms, then it is deemed to be ethical. But for this to apply, all must have a potential for gain, particularly those who may be explicitly harmed.
In ethics, for a utilitarian justification to apply, equal consideration should be given of the interests of all those affected, both those who may benefit and those who may be harmed; no one group should be sacrificed for the greater good without their consent. This criterion clearly is not being applied by the government.
From a utilitarian perspective, it has weak ethical credentials. So what is the government really about?
A clue comes from a comment made by Mr Ian Duncan-Smith in an interview with Nick Robinson on the BBC. Speaking of people on benefits, he said "I want to change your life..to be a better person'. This clearly reflects a view held about those on benefits: they are not good people. At best it represents an inadvertent viewpoint 'look we want to help you back to work'. At worst it reflects a deep-seated attitude that stigmatises those on benefits as 'work-shy scroungers'.
I have commented on this in a previous post. To stereotype a group as 'scroungers', 'work-shy' or suffering from 'welfare dependency' seeks to set them apart so they can be attacked and made to experience the most significant potential harm in the utilitarian equation.
It tries to win public support by turning them one against the other. It is profoundly unethical because it is applying judgement to a group as though it applies to all within the group.
To get people back to work is much more complicated than merely cutting benefits until it 'pays to work'. Unemployment is contextual; being able to find work depends on location, age, how long someone has been unemployed, training and skills. Whether it 'pays' to go back to work depends on commitments, mortgages, transport costs, children's schooling.
The government position goes back to the 'get on your bike approach' to the unemployed in general. It represents an attitude that those on benefits don't want to work. In general, there is no evidence for this.
A decent government in times of austerity would consider a duty to protect the most vulnerable. This government is signally failing in this duty.