What is the basic guiding principle of morality? I argue that it is utilitarianism. In fact, I argue that morality is a convoluted, unnecessarily emotionally loaded, vague, and ultimately meaningless concept if it is considered to be anything but utilitarianism. This post won’t be remotely floaty-minded as some of my others have been. It may have structural errors or lost trains of thought, since I haven’t carefully edited it. I may also sound rather mean or condescending towards those who might disagree with me towards the end. Again, lack of careful editing. (I accidentally typed that as “carefule diting” and was tempted to leave it that way to prove my point.) The main points are made largely in terms of the arguments themselves, with little effort to soften the blow for anyone who may find my opinion to be an extreme one. I ask your forgiveness in advance. It would take a longer time to write this in a way that might be more persuasive on an emotional level. However, anyone who disagrees is welcome to comment. I will respond in as much detail as necessary.
Of course, it is hard to avoid sounding cold, calculating, even cynical when discussing utilitarianism–especially when defending so strong a version of it as I do. I haven’t the energy to go through this piece and add jokes here and there to lighten the mood, so just pretend I did and laugh now and then even though there is no attempt at humor in this whatsoever.
I take a position of very rigid utilitarianism. I’ve never seen a good challenge to the principle. People have made numerous attempts at counterexamples to it over the years—scenarios that pose a moral dilemma which purport to have an obvious solution that is contrary to the notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I have found these counterexamples unconvincing because they always do one of two things. Either the solution they think is obvious IS in accordance with the utilitarian principle, even though the writer didn’t realize it because it wasn’t immediately obvious—or the right solution is the one they consider obviously immoral, because they have reasoned it to be so by a faulty principle. These counterexamples do, however, force us utilitarians to further qualify our position, making it more complex than the impression that the basic principle would give.
An example would be slavery. An anti-utilitarian might say “Oh, maximizing utility, you say? You want maximal utility, bring back slavery! That would let so many people get more work done and still get to relax. But of course, slavery is wrong despite being in accordance with utilitarianism—therefore, utilitarianism is wrong, or at least limited!”
But no. Slavery is NOT in accordance with utilitarianism. It is not the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Many people benefit from slavery; this is true. However, it is not enough for many to benefit—not if it is as the expense of others, who suffer. To keep only one factor in mind, that of quality of happiness/suffering rather than number of people involved, let us say there is a society which has the same number of slaves and slave-owners. The slave-owners are very happy. The slaves, however, suffer the indignity of a lack of freedom to own anything, including themselves. It is here that we need to qualify the principle of utilitarianism—suffering must outweigh happiness. We must give greater weight to the ideal of minimizing suffering than to maximizing happiness.
The reason minimizing suffering is secondary to maximizing happiness is that a neutral level of happiness is, well, “okay.” It is acceptable to be at a medium level of happiness; we can say this from personal experience. Too much less than a medium level, however, becomes acutely unpleasant. It becomes clearly unacceptable before long. Happiness beyond the level of “okay,” however, we should consider a luxury. Important, yes—but not desirable if it pulls others below the threshold of acceptable comfort. Thus, it is not okay for a man to have the added happiness of having a slave at the price of the unacceptably low level of comfort the slave feels.
One might ask “What if the slaves ENJOY being slaves?” This will, quite simply, not be the case across the board. However, if the slave enjoys his position, it is likely because he has been raised with such little ambition that he simply does not know how much more he will enjoy being free to pursue his own ambitions. There may be exceptions. A slave may be considered part of the family and wish to serve the family as one would serve their own flesh and blood. In this case, freeing that individual slave may not actually improve their position in life—however, it would give them the freedom to leave if they so chose. That freedom to leave if their preference changes is also an important benefit. In this case, it comes with little cost to the slave-owning family to allow it if the slave does not with to go—and at a significant enough gain if the slave does wish to go, to more than offset the lack of such free labor the family must now endure. In this case, also, freeing the slave is the morally obligatory action, because it brings about the greatest good.
Another example would be gladiator battles for the enjoyment of those privileged to watch them. Old-school Roman coliseum battles where slaves fight to the death. We again have slavery—but what if there are so many fewer slaves than free men and women? Is it moral to kill two people, or even one person, for the enjoyment of a thousand? A person using this argument to discredit utilitarianism as a universally desirable principle would say that this maximizes the good, yet is clearly wrong.
But in what way is it clearly wrong? It is clearly wrong, I would say, specifically because it goes against the principle of utilitarianism—as does all slavery. Starting with the principle of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” plus the qualifier we’ve established that suffering outweighs happiness, we can add another qualifier—suffering outweighs happiness so much, so much, that the suffering of one person for the benefit of a thousand is still undesirable. Those people watching the gladiator battles will not be forced into a state of abject suffering by being denied the fun of watching two people fight to the death. They will be inconvenienced. They will get over it, whereas a man whose freedom and/or life is taken away by force generally cannot endure such a thing with a medium level of happiness intact.
Now, a harder counterexample—let’s say there is a runaway trolley car that is headed towards five workers on the track. These five workers are distracted in some way; there is no chance whatsoever that they will get out of the way. You are on a bridge overlooking the track, between the trolley and the workers. There is a heavy man leaning over the rail to get a better view. Let’s say you know for sure that the weight of the heavy man will certainly stop the trolley car if he falls in front of it. You have the chance to push him over the edge, and doing so will stop the car and save the five people further down the track. (He is heavy enough that he will stop the car—but you are not.) Is it moral to push him?
In real life, this may not be so easy to be sure of; but it’s a fine example of an extreme sort of a potential counterexample to utilitarianism. It is an example that Michael Sandel brought up at his OCU lecture to provoke careful thought about basic moral values and assumptions.
I was one of less than a dozen people–out of maybe five hundred audience members–who voted “yes” when asked if it was moral to push the man over the ledge—to actively, violently, kill him—to stop the trolley car and save the lives of the other five people. It seems a simple question of one life vs. five lives—why, I wonder, did so few people agree that it was moral to kill one man to save five? I suspect there were three reasons that so few people raised their hands, but the third is most significant.
1. A few people may have misunderstood the question and thought they were being asked if they actually truly WOULD push the man off; it was pretty clear they were really being asked whether it was moral to do so, without regard to whether they really would live up to their moral judgment. Sandel would have done better to clarify that. Probably, however, most people understood the question.
2. A few others may have been hesitant to raise their hands, fearing to be seen as someone who would consider actively killing an innocent person as being justified under any circumstances.
3. Most people, however, probably understood the question and were honest about their answer. They had a genuine moral objection to violently killing the one man to save the five.
Before addressing why so many people considered pushing the heavy man to save five people to be unjustified—perhaps akin to murder—let us examine a simpler scenario Sandel provided us with previously.
Sandel’s earlier scenario:
You are now the driver of a runaway trolley. The brakes don’t work, but the steering does. There is a fork in a track up ahead. There are five people on the track you’re headed down. If you do nothing, those five people will lose their lives. There is one person on the other track—if you turn the wheel, you will kill that one person instead. What do you do?
Most people said they would turn the wheel. They would turn the wheel and kill one person—or, we might say, allow the trolley car to kill them—rather than do nothing and let five people die. I won’t worry here about those who objected even then. The point is, most people saw no problem with turning the wheel and running over one person unavoidably, in order to avoid running over five others. It was a simple case of one life vs. five.
Why, then, is pushing the heavy man over the ledge seen as more murderous than to turn a wheel and kill a man? It is still a decision of one life vs. five. It is seen as unjustifiable to push the heavy man, I think, because of the act’s visceral, violent nature. It is an emotional objection to killing a man with one’s own hands, rather than turning a wheel.
One person noted that the five people down the track were workers; they were on duty, and they knew there were some risks to the job. The bystander, however, was just that—an innocent person going on with his life. Perhaps we may grant that the death “in the line of duty” of a person with a known hazardous job may be a lesser tragedy than the death of a man going about his daily life. But is it five times lesser? I am skeptical. For five police officers or five firefighters who die saving a single person, one could perhaps make the case that it was best to let them die so that the one civilian could live—but simple trolley track workers? How dangerous a job that is considered, I am not sure, but I highly doubt it is considered so hazardous that they go in expecting to put their lives on the line, as police, soldiers, or firefighters would. The possibility of this being an especially dangerous profession is, however, a possible rebuttal to my argument.
But let me provide a change of my own to the scenario—suppose the five people on the track are also ordinary citizens, just like the heavy man whose girth could stop the trolley at the cost of his life. In this case, I suspect most of the people who voted “No” and would not push the man would still not push the man. Admittedly, this is just speculation. My hunch is, however, that most people paid more attention to the violent nature of pushing the heavy man rather than to the occupation of those who would die so that he may live.
One objects to violently killing one person so that five people may live because it seems categorically wrong, it seems wrong, fundamentally, to kill one man so violently under any circumstances. Of course violently killing a fellow human being is always terrible. And we feel that. We recoil at the very thought. And yet, killing him will prevent an equal tragedy from befalling five others—and so, it is the greater good to kill him. There is another instance of suffering in addition to his death, however—our own suffering.
We will suffer when we push him over the ledge and watch him die. We will suffer for long afterwards. We may suffer for the rest of our life. We would suffer the feelings of guilt, even though we would truly have done the right thing. But how much more suffering it would be for the families of the five men who would have died had we failed to act. How much more guilty we would truly be, even without feeling it, if we had let those five people die, even as we may delude ourselves into thinking we did the right thing merely because we’d feel less guilty.
We put too much stock into whether an action makes us feel good or guilty; this is not always a good way to tell whether something is right. We may think it is some magical sense, which invariably tells us what is right and wrong. But we can feel guilty for doing what is right. We can feel guilty for putting a dog outside, or for punishing a misbehaving child. We may feel good when we buy expensive presents for those we love, even though we’d be doing a world of good more if we gave more money to a charitable organization to feed the hungry in Africa. We wouldn’t feel as good about helping the hungry in Africa not because it wouldn’t be as good to help them—but simply because we cannot see them.
What makes us feel good or guilty is largely psychological. Sometimes it is a reliable sense of what is best. Sometimes it is not. It is not a reliable indicator of what constitutes a “categorically” right or wrong action. When we allow ourselves to think so, we place our own feelings above the needs of others. We murder four people by not pushing the heavy man, because now five will die instead of one. And why will they die? They will die because we were just too selfish to do something that would make us feel guilty. That is what it boils down to.
If you disagree, think about your own reasons, and your own feelings. Can you explain, with reasoned arguments, what mistakes I have made in my reasoning? I did start to rush this post towards the end, so I am sure I have overlooked certain objections. I am confident that I can effectively respond to any counterarguments that might be made, but I probably could have done more to anticipate them in advance.
I don’t mean to blame anyone who holds the opposing view. Nor do I mean to speak condescendingly. The assumptions about morality I have spoken of—however misguided—are hard-wired, biologically and socially. They’re part of the most basic aspects of our worldview. It’s hard to discern them if one is unpracticed. I didn’t formulate the rigid utilitarianism I hold today overnight. It took years for me to learn to articulate these concepts. It’s not obvious at first glance what the right thing to do is. I do, however, consider it obvious upon close and careful inspection, perhaps a great deal of it. The biases that can prevent someone from seeing the solutions to some dilemmas—or seeing the ambiguity of others—can be nearly impossible to see in oneself.
I could more fully defend the principle behind utilitarianism in opposition to other principles, but that wasn’t the main purpose of this post. Maybe, however, it would have been more prudent to start with that. I don’t have time now. If you disagree with my assessment of utilitarianism or my solution to the “heavy man and the trolley” problem, I invite you to explain to me why I am wrong.