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Utilitarianism in the Ebola Controversy of 2014

The greatest thinkers have made numerous attempts to give comprehensive definitions to the terms “good” and “bad.” In their works on moral principles and the essence of proper actions, John Mill and Jeremy Bentham defend the ideas of classical utilitarianism and focus on outcomes as the measure of appropriateness. This essay applies the principles of utilitarianism to the Ebola controversy of 2014 to evaluate their practicability.

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Bentham’s and Mill’s Moral System

Utilitarianism belongs to the list of ethical theories that place emphasis on actions’ most probable consequences and evaluate them from different points of view. This procedure is needed to provide a summary of the positive and negative outcomes of some decisions and decide if it is going to work in people’s favor in the final count. Even though Bentham’s and Mill’s opinions on particular aspects of life and the classification of pleasure differ, they agree on the critical principles of goodness. To both of them, an action is considered good and can be recommended for implementation if it promotes happiness among people who are affected by it (Riley, 2019). To promote the good, it is critical to make decisions that lead to the best possible outcomes for the majority of affected people. Conversely, actions that eventually maximize pain and suffering are classified as immoral and should be avoided.

The philosophers do not use the term “happiness” in its egoistic sense. It means that decisions’ ability “to promote happiness” is not limited by benefits for the person who performs some action even though they are considered as well (Riley, 2019, p. 186). In such a manner, both thinkers oppose egoism or a set of beliefs, according to which an individual motivated by the desire to satisfy his or her interests is not involved in moral conflicts.

The way that classical utilitarianism is related to other philosophical systems also deserves attention. To some specialists in philosophy, including Frederick Rosen, the moral system of Mill and Bentham shares a few features with Epicureanism when it comes to the understandings of happiness (Riley, 2019). In the Epicurean tradition, this mental condition is associated with “the sense of pleasure and exemption from pain” (Riley, 2019, p. 185). Bentham’s idea of the hedonic calculus involves “categorizing human actions” and determining the duration, intensity, probability, and extent of happiness they can promote to define their moral status (Delaney & Gorlova, 2019, p. 60). Thus, the proponents of classical utilitarianism partially agree with the hedonistic definition but place actions that help to achieve the common good above those concentrated on benefits for specific affected people.

Another important component of the system is the role of agents’ motives in making actions more or less appropriate. As it has been stated, utilitarianism gives the pride of place to the actual outcomes of implementing some decisions, and these consequences do not always align with agents’ values or key motivators. According to this system, benevolent intentions do not automatically make an action appropriate, and the converse is also true (Delaney & Gorlova, 2019). For instance, from the utilitarian viewpoint, a decision that is not caused by noble intentions but eventually leads to positive outcomes for the majority of affected people can be considered moral.

Ebola Evacuees in the United States

The summer of 2014 was a period of difficult decisions for the American officials. Due to the Ebola outbreak in West African countries, two medical missionaries, Kent Brantly and Nancy Whitebol got infected and were allowed to re-enter the United States to receive treatment (DiBlasio & Bacon, 2014). Being regarded as controversial, the decision to conduct medical evacuation resulted in public outrage (Murosko, 2016). Thus, the U. S.-based medical agencies involved in decision-making received dozens of calls and e-mails from people who feared that the situation would spin out of control (DiBlasio & Bacon, 2014). Despite the mass hysteria surrounding the authorities’ unwillingness to deny both healthcare providers’ right to be treated in their native country, the decision was made. Brantly returned to the United States on the second of August in 2014, and Whitebol was evacuated three days later (Grant, 2014). Everything was prepared to eliminate the threats of spreading the virus among healthcare workers and common people.

The most qualified physicians and nurses participated in the transportation of the patients. Also, special measures, including the use of medical evacuation aircraft, protective clothes, and isolated hospital rooms, were implemented to address the existing risks (Grant, 2014). From the perspective of ethics and moral appropriateness, the decision to treat those people in their native country was problematic. It was because it involved significant health risks for the medical staff working with them and could lead to unpredictable nationwide outcomes in case of any hygiene mistakes. In the great scheme of things, by spreading in the country with an enormous immigrant population, such as the United States, the virus would lead to a global catastrophe.

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Utilitarian Interpretation of the Case

Analyzing the discussed situation from the utilitarian viewpoint, it is pivotal to summarize the actual outcomes of treating the first Ebola patients in Atlanta and not abroad. To provide a thorough evaluation of the authorities’ decision, both Mills and Bentham would start by listing the positive and negative effects produced by the action. The exact number of affected people is difficult to estimate since no opinion polls related to the initiative were conducted. Overall, the actual negative effects include common Americans’ moral suffering related to the risks and the high-stress experiences of healthcare specialists responsible for safe transportation and treatment. Importantly, in the United States, there were other cases of the Ebola virus between 2014 and 2016, but none of them were the consequences of the discussed patients’ arrival (Murosko, 2016). Thus, despite the public panic, all threats were addressed effectively.

Next, the philosophers would provide a summary of positive things following the decision. Speaking about them, it is possible to list the sense of relief experienced by the patients’ families and the missionaries’ gradual recovery (Murosko, 2016). Due to sanitarian issues and problems with access to resources in African countries, their chances to survive in Liberia would be scarce (Murosko, 2016). Other positive effects impacting both the U. S. population and people in third-world countries included the decision’s ability to give a large impetus to further pharmaceutical research. During medical treatment in a hospital in Atlanta, Whitebol and Brantly became the very first human subjects to be given ZMapp – the drug that was later approved by the FDA (Mobula, 2015). Thus, if evaluated from the utilitarian viewpoint, the government’s decision promoted happiness, whereas the potential risks did not transform into real losses, such as human victims.


In the given case, considering the stated facts, the presented judgments seem to be right. However, the discussion above is the post-facto evaluation of the scenario, and the need to make reliable predictions is among the key factors limiting the uses of utilitarianism. Five years after the events, it is known that nobody caught the infection from the two evacuated patients. However, as a result of one mistake of the medical team, the situation would turn out differently, leading to human casualties. For instance, based on estimates, if the same outbreak of the virus occurred in the United States, it would result in the death of more than eighty thousand citizens (Mobula, 2015). Considering that, if applied in 2014, the utilitarian system could have led to different conclusions regarding the initiative, which makes it difficult to approve. At the same time, such disadvantages are not enough to condemn the entire system since its flexibility prevents it from being stopped by stereotypes about what is moral.

I regard utilitarianism in a positive way when it comes to the theoretical explanations of its key principles and ideas. However, I do not agree that it is an excellent tool to be used in real-life cases, especially when it comes to legal arguments or sensitive topics. In some instances, the thorough application of act utilitarianism can lead to the acceptance of what we know as crimes today. For example, hypothetically, the only way to stop some virus from killing thousands of people is to burn the first infected person alive. In this case, an act of murder becomes more “appropriate” since it prevents the suffering of numerous people and reduces human losses. Nevertheless, by emphasizing outcomes, utilitarianism can be used to produce practice-oriented decisions, reduce egoism, and promote a sense of collectivity, so I understand people who support this position.


Finally, utilitarianism is among the attempts to formulate the best algorithm to distinguish between morally appropriate and inappropriate actions and provide a reference point to inform decision-making. If applied to Ebola evacuations, this moral system can produce different results depending on whether the actual consequences of the authorities’ decisions are known. Despite the system’s advantages, the quality of predictions and a high degree of flexibility limit the ability to use utilitarianism in making such decisions.


Delaney, T., & Gorlova, D. (2019). Explaining how happiness is attained. In T. Delaney & T. Madigan (Eds.), A global perspective on friendship and happiness (pp. 57-66). Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press.

DiBlasio, N., & Bacon, J. (2014). Second American with Ebola to return Tuesday. USA Today. Web.

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Grant, S. M. (2014). I’m the head nurse at Emory. This is why we wanted to bring the Ebola patients to the U.S. The Washington Post. Web.

Mobula, L. M. (2015). When potentially lifesaving drugs are both experimental and in very short supply: A clinician’s story from the front lines of the battle against Ebola. The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, 93(2), 210-211.

Murosko, J. N. (2016). Communicable diseases and the right to re-enter the United States. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 24(3), 913-942.

Riley, J. (2019). Bentham, Mill, stoicism and higher pleasures. In G. Varouxakis & M. Philip (Eds.), Happiness and utility: Essays presented to Frederick Rosen (pp. 184-206). London, United Kingdom: UCL Press.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 17). Utilitarianism in the Ebola Controversy of 2014.

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StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Utilitarianism in the Ebola Controversy of 2014'. 17 October.

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