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Introduction to Moral Philosophy Week 2

Utilitarianism, first theorized by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) then expanded on by John Stuart Mill (1748-1832) is a philosophical framework that views moral arithmetic as the solution to the individual and societal problem.


The very first sentence of Bentham’s most famous work, The Principles of Moral and Legislation, declares: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” In one sentence, Bentham divides human nature into two fundamental characteristics that explain why we behave the way we do—why we seek pleasure and try to avoid pain, why we judge some things to be good and others evil. 


Bentham argues that morality, as a result, must maximize the amount of pleasure and minimize the amount of pain in the world. He proceeds to draw out the Principle of Utility: when we have a choice between alternative actions or social policies, we must choose the one that has the best overall consequences for everyone concerned.


Sounds convincing, right? Well, let’s put Bentham’s Principle of Utility to the test with a series of thought experiments.


The Trolley Problem

(inspired by a thought problem introduced by philosopher Philippa Foot)


There is a runaway trolley zooming down the railway tracks, heading towards five people who are tied to the tracks and unable to move. You are standing in the train yard, some distance away from tracks, so you don’t have enough time to untie the five people. However, you are right next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. You notice that there is one person on that side track. You thus have two courses of action:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track

  2. Pull the lever, which would divert the trolly onto the side track so it kills one person


What is the ethical thing to do?


Think about how you would answer this question, then write down a response that explains your answer. 


Let’s move onto a variation of the same problem. The general scenario is still the same. There are five people on the main track, to which the runaway trolley is currently heading, and one person on the side track. This time, however, the person on the side track is someone you love deeply—imagine a parent, a mentor, a sibling, or a friend. You can, again, either:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five strangers on the main track

  2. Pull the lever, which would divert the trolly onto the side track so it kills the one person that you love deeply


What is the ethical thing to do?


Did you answer this question differently? If so, and if not, explain your decision.


Here’s a more modern variation of the Trolley Problem, due to Judith Jarvis Thomson:


Imagine you are a brilliant transplant surgeon with five patients, each in critical need of a different organ, and each of whom will die without a transplant. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, you discover that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect you. You have two courses of action:

  1. Give the tourist his routine check-up. Your five patients in need of transplants will die the next day.

  2. Kill the tourist to provide his healthy organs to your five patients, saving their lives.


What is the ethical thing to do? Once again, explain your decision.


Critical Reflections

A strict utilitarian would choose the second option in all three scenarios. This is unsettling for many people. What would happen if we were only to think about the consequences of our actions?


Many advocates of war, for example, justify the deaths of those associated with the opposing camp in utilitarian terms; perhaps the most infamous case would be the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—does an allied victory morally outweigh both the deaths of 200,000 innocent civilians and destruction of an entire urban milieu?


If you are disturbed by the potential of stringent utilitarianism, you might agree with philosophers like Thomas Nagel. In his essay “War and Massacre”, Nagel argues that consequentialist thinking reduces human beings to numbers, which depersonalizes and trivializes human life. Violations of some moral rules, including torture and the killing of civilians during any kind of war, are too inhumane to be justified by moral arithmetics. 


What do you think? Do you agree with Nagel? Can you think of a line of reasoning that would consolidate utilitarianism with Nagel’s aversion to murder and torture? Can you think of any other moral dilemmas that have happened in your life or in history in which someone decided to act like or unlike a utilitarian?



The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings into Moral Philosophy (Third Edition), edited by James Rachels (2003)

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