he Common Good?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 terrorist.
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
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
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 utilitarianism.