Utilitarianism—What Is It?

11.10.2017 |

Episode #1 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


Imagine you’re hacking your way through a dense and unforgiving rainforest. To your initial delight, you chance upon a clearing. Your heart quickly goes icy cold, though, as you notice 20 blindfolded men on their knees in front of you, ready to be executed. Just before giving the order to fire, the brutal leader of the troops about to conduct this sentence calls out and asks you to come to him. He explains that the men are rebels, but your happening upon them was so unlikely, he thinks it’s a sign that he should show mercy. He offers you a deal: He will let 19 of the condemned men go. The catch is, you have to execute the 20th man yourself.

This is a famous thought experiment by J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams (Utilitarianism: For and Against, 1973), one of many that we will be considering over the next ten days. With all of them, I encourage you to spend time considering your own intuitions about them, but to keep an open mind as to the intuitions of others. This course is about utilitarianism, an ethical theory that seeks to answer thought experiments and real-life scenarios. Utilitarianism comes in many forms, but most would say that you should kill that man in order to save the other 19. That will seem obvious to some readers and monstrous to others.


A Simple Model of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, an ethical theory that starts from the premise that actions are right/wrong because of their outcomes. Utilitarianism goes one step further than some other theories and says that things are right/wrong ONLY because of their outcomes. Someone’s intentions, for instance, are not thought to be relevant to whether an action is right. Consider the rebels about to be executed; a very basic model of utilitarianism would say there are only two options:

Option 1: Twenty people die.

Option 2: One person dies, nineteen people get to live.

Presented like this, as we accept that people continuing to live is a preferable outcome to them dying, then utilitarianism tells us that we must pick Option 2. Killing that one man makes you a murderer, it might offend God, or it might seem different because it is you doing the killing and not the evil general, but to the utilitarian, none of this matters. All that matters is that 19 lives are saved.

Utilitarianism is, however, one of the most controversial and despised ethical theories. Consider the myriad pieces of popular culture that reject it. The very word conjures images of cold dedication to efficiency, to science-fiction scenarios of horrendous suffering unleashed in the name of the “greater good.” These tropes, found in stories from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Halo 5, dog the theory in the public consciousness.

Over the next nine days, we will explore why the theory has survived, what new forms it has taken to answer its critics, and the success utilitarians have had in remaining one of the most prominent ethical theories. Tomorrow, though, we will begin with a brief bit of history.


Recommended reading

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: More than a few philosophy students have been saved by its accessible explanations and quality of detail. My own degree was built on the foundations of excellent teachers, detailed reading lists, and desperate deadline days checking the encyclopedia.


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