Mill's Utilitarianism: Sacrifice the innocent for the common good? Term Paper

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Mill's Utilitarianism: Sacrifice the innocent for the common good?

When faced with a moral dilemma, utilitarianism identifies the

appropriate considerations, but offers no realistic way to gather the

necessary information to make the required calculations. This lack of

information is a problem both in evaluating the welfare issues and in

evaluating the consequentialist issues which utilitarianism requires be

weighed when making moral decisions. Utilitarianism attempts to solve

both of these difficulties by appealing to experience; however, no

method of reconciling an individual decision with the rules of

experience is suggested, and no relative weights are assigned to the

various considerations.

In deciding whether or not to torture a terrorist who has planted a

bomb in New York City, a utilitarian must evaluate both the overall

welfare of the people involved or effected by the action taken, and the

consequences of the action taken. To calculate the welfare of the people

involved in or effected by an action, utilitarianism requires that all

individuals be considered equally.

Quantitative utilitarians would weigh the pleasure and pain which would

be caused by the bomb exploding against the pleasure and pain that would

be caused by torturing the terrorist. Then, the amounts would be summed

and compared. The problem with this method is that it is impossible to

know beforehand how much pain would be caused by the bomb exploding or

how much pain would be caused by the torture. Utilitarianism offers no

practical way to make the interpersonal comparison of utility necessary

to compare the pains. In the case of the bomb exploding, it at least

seems highly probable that a greater amount of pain would be caused, at

least in the present, by the bomb exploding. This probability suffices

for a quantitative utilitarian, but it does not account for the

consequences, which create an entirely different problem, which will be

discussed below. The probability also does not hold for Mill's


Mill's Utilitarianism insists on qualitative utilitarianism, which

requires that one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but

also the quality of such pain and pleasure. Mill suggests that to

distinguish between different pains and pleasures we should ask people

who have experienced both types which is more pleasurable or more

painful. This solution does not work for the question of torture

compared to death in an explosion. There is no one who has experienced

both, therefore, there is no one who can be consulted.

Even if we agree that the pain caused by the number of deaths in the

explosion is greater than the pain of the terrorist being tortured, this

assessment only accounts for the welfare half of the utilitarian's

considerations. Furthermore, one has no way to measure how much more

pain is caused by allowing the bomb to explode than by torturing the


After settling the issues surrounding the welfare, a utilitarian must

also consider the consequences of an action. In weighing the

consequences, there are two important considerations. The first, which

is especially important to objectivist Utilitarianism, is which people

will be killed. The second is the precedent which will be set by the

action. Unfortunately for the decision maker, the information necessary

to make either of these calculations is unavailable.

There is no way to determine which people will be killed and weigh

whether their deaths would be good for society. Utilitarianism requires

that one compare the good that the people would do for society with the

harm they would do society if they were not killed. For example, if a

young Adolf Hitler were in the building, it might do more good for

society to allow the building to explode. Unfortunately for an

individual attempting to use utilitarianism to make for decisions, there

is no way to know beforehand what a person will do. Furthermore, without

even knowing which building the bomb is in, there is no way to predict

which people will surely be in the building.

A subjectivist utilitarian would dismiss this consideration and would

examine only what a rational person would consider to be the

consequence; however, even the subjectivist utilitarian must face the

question of precedent setting. Utilitarianism considers justice and

humane treatment to be good for society as a whole and therefore

instrumentally good as a means to promoting happiness.

Utilitarianism considers precedent to be important, but does not offer

any method of determining exceptions. It is impossible to determine how

much effect on precedent any given isolated action will have. In the

case of determining whether or not to torture the terrorist, one must

consider whether it is good for society to allow torture to be used as a

method of gaining information. If it is bad, one must determine whether

this action will create a precedent. If it will create or contribute to

the creation of a precedent, one must compare the detrimental effects of

this precedent with the other consequences and welfare caused by the

action. Utilitarianism offers no method for comparison.

The problem is that a person faced with making the decision cannot get

the information. Even through experience, it is hard to judge how much

effect each action has on precedent. More specifically, it is hard to

determine whether an action is worthy of being an exception to a rule.

Utilitarianism offers no resolution to this problem.

Utilitarianism also considers the Theory of Desert to be instrumentally

valuable to the promotion of happiness. It is generally good for society

to reward people for doing right and to punish them for doing wrong.

Using this belief in the value of justice, a utilitarian would have more

trouble torturing the child of the terrorist than with torturing the

terrorist. The dilemma would be similar to that of precedent. A

utilitarian would ask how much it will harm society's faith in the

punishment of evildoers and the protection of the innocent to torture

the child.

The sum of the consequences would then be compared to the sum of the

welfare considerations to decides whether or not to torture the

terrorist and whether or not to torture the child of the terrorist. In

some way, these things must therefore all be comparable and assigned

weights; however, Utilitarianism offers no method of comparison. There

must be some percentage of consideration given to the harmful precedent

set compared to the amount of pain caused by the deaths, compared to the

pain the terrorist or the child being tortured feels, compared to the

harm society will be saved from by the deaths of people in the

explosion, compared to the good that society will be deprived of by the

deaths in the explosion.

The overarching problem with utilitarianism as a method for decision

making is that not enough of the necessary information is available and

there is no scale on which to weigh the various considerations.

Basically, the subjective utilitarian would probably consider that the

deaths of many is worse than the torture of one. Depending on how much

weight is given to the detrimental effects of the precedent which would

be set by torturing the terrorist, the utilitarian could consider this

to outweigh the greater pain caused by the explosion or not. Different

people have different moral consciences, which dictate different

actions. These differences will dictate where the person puts the most

weight in the utilitarian considerations, since utilitarianism does not

specify. Similarly, depending on how much weight is given to the

detrimental precedent of torturing innocent children, the utilitarian

could consider it to outweigh the pain caused by the explosion or not.

In the end, utilitarianism does not help in making the moral decision.

The information necessary to calculate all of the considerations

identified by utilitarianism is not available. Furthermore, what is

required is a method of comparing and weighing the considerations, and

this method is not defined by utilitarianism. In the end, the decision

maker is still left to make the decision based on internal moral

feelings of what is right and what is wrong which do not come from


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