he Common Good?Mill’s Utilitarianism: Sacrifice the Innocent For The Common Good?When faced with a moral dilemma, utilitarianism identifies theappropriate considerations, but offers no realistic way to gather the necessaryinformation to make the required calculations. This lack of information is aproblem both in evaluating the welfare issues and in evaluating theconsequentialist issues which utilitarianism requires be weighed when makingmoral decisions. Utilitarianism attempts to solve both of these difficulties byappealing to experience; however, no method of reconciling an individualdecision with the rules of experience is suggested, and no relative weights areassigned to the various considerations.
In deciding whether or not to torture a terrorist who has planted a bombin New York City, a utilitarian must evaluate both the overall welfare of thepeople involved or effected by the action taken, and the consequences of theaction taken. To calculate the welfare of the people involved in or effected byan action, utilitarianism requires that all individuals be considered equally.
Quantitative utilitarians would weigh the pleasure and pain which wouldbe caused by the bomb exploding against the pleasure and pain that would becaused by torturing the terrorist. Then, the amounts would be summed andcompared. The problem with this method is that it is impossible to knowbeforehand how much pain would be caused by the bomb exploding or how much painwould be caused by the torture. Utilitarianism offers no practical way to makethe interpersonal comparison of utility necessary to compare the pains. In thecase of the bomb exploding, it at least seems highly probable that a greateramount of pain would be caused, at least in the present, by the bomb exploding.
This probability suffices for a quantitative utilitarian, but it does notaccount for the consequences, which create an entirely different problem, whichwill be discussed below. The probability also does not hold for Mill’sutilitarianism.
Mill’s Utilitarianism insists on qualitative utilitarianism, whichrequires that one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but also thequality of such pain and pleasure. Mill suggests that to distinguish betweendifferent pains and pleasures we should ask people who have experienced bothtypes which is more pleasurable or more painful. This solution does not work forthe question of torture compared to death in an explosion. There is no one whohas 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 theexplosion is greater than the pain of the terrorist being tortured, thisassessment only accounts for the welfare half of the utilitarian’sconsiderations. Furthermore, one has no way to measure how much more pain iscaused by allowing the bomb to explode than by torturing the terrorist.
After settling the issues surrounding the welfare, a utilitarian mustalso consider the consequences of an action. In weighing the consequences, thereare two important considerations. The first, which is especially important toobjectivist Utilitarianism, is which people will be killed. The second is theprecedent 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 weighwhether their deaths would be good for society. Utilitarianism requires that onecompare the good that the people would do for society with the harm they woulddo society if they were not killed. For example, if a young Adolf Hitler were inthe building, it might do more good for society to allow the building to explode.
Unfortunately for an individual attempting to use utilitarianism to make fordecisions, 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 predictwhich people will surely be in the building.
A subjectivist utilitarian would dismiss this consideration and wouldexamine only what a rational person would consider to be the consequence;however, even the subjectivist utilitarian must face the question of precedentsetting. Utilitarianism considers justice and humane treatment to be good forsociety as a whole and therefore instrumentally good as a means to promotinghappiness.
Utilitarianism considers precedent to be important, but does not offerany method of determining exceptions. It is impossible to determine how mucheffect on precedent any given isolated action will have. In the case ofdetermining whether or not to torture the terrorist, one must consider whetherit is good for society to allow torture to be used as a method of gaininginformation. If it is bad, one must determine whether this action will create aprecedent. If it will create or contribute to the creation of a precedent, onemust compare the detrimental effects of this precedent with the otherconsequences and welfare caused by the action. Utilitarianism offers no methodfor comparison.
The problem is that a person faced with making the decision cannot getthe information. Even through experience, it is hard to judge how much effecteach action has on precedent. More specifically, it is hard to determine whetheran action is worthy of being an exception to a rule. Utilitarianism offers noresolution to this problem.
Utilitarianism also considers the Theory of Desert to be instrumentallyvaluable to the promotion of happiness. It is generally good for society toreward people for doing right and to punish them for doing wrong. Using thisbelief in the value of justice, a utilitarian would have more trouble torturingthe child of the terrorist than with torturing the terrorist. The dilemma wouldbe similar to that of precedent. A utilitarian would ask how much it will harmsociety’s faith in the punishment of evildoers and the protection of theinnocent to torture the child.
The sum of the consequences would then be compared to the sum of thewelfare considerations to decides whether or not to torture the terrorist andwhether or not to torture the child of the terrorist. In some way, these thingsmust therefore all be comparable and assigned weights; however, Utilitarianismoffers no method of comparison. There must be some percentage of considerationgiven to the harmful precedent set compared to the amount of pain caused by thedeaths, 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 theexplosion, compared to the good that society will be deprived of by the deathsin the explosion.
The overarching problem with utilitarianism as a method for decisionmaking is that not enough of the necessary information is available and there isno scale on which to weigh the various considerations. Basically, the subjectiveutilitarian would probably consider that the deaths of many is worse than thetorture of one. Depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental effectsof the precedent which would be set by torturing the terrorist, the utilitariancould consider this to outweigh the greater pain caused by the explosion or not.
Different people have different moral consciences, which dictate differentactions. These differences will dictate where the person puts the most weight inthe utilitarian considerations, since utilitarianism does not specify. Similarly,depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental precedent of torturinginnocent children, the utilitarian could consider it to outweigh the paincaused 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 byutilitarianism is not available. Furthermore, what is required is a method ofcomparing and weighing the considerations, and this method is not defined byutilitarianism. In the end, the decision maker is still left to make thedecision based on internal moral feelings of what is right and what is wrongwhich do not come from utilitarianism.