Consider a hypothetical situation in which you are on a jurydeciding whether to convict four policemen on charges of police brutality. You know that the policemen are innocent, but if you acquit them the general public, believing them to be guilty, will riot and innocent people will die. If you convict the policemen, they will go to jail for a few years and there will be no riots.
In this situation, a juror who subscribes to the theory of utilitarianism would convict the innocent policemen. The utilitarian would do so to maximize the total, cumulative welfare of everyone who would be affected by the jury’s decision. In this paper, I argue that utilitarianism advocates for a morally incorrect action in this case, because it considers only the results of convicting the policemen, not the action of convicting them. Because the action of convicting the policemen is morally wrong, and the rules of utilitarianism require utilitarians to convict, utilitarianism is a flawed moral framework.
To prove that a utilitarian would choose to convict the policemen, I will first consider what utilitarianism is and what kinds of actions it deems morally correct. Utilitarianism is a moral theory comprised of consequentialism, a theory of what is right, and welfarism, a theory of what is good. Consequentialism states that the only thing that matters when evaluating the morality of an action is the results of the action.
Welfarism states that when evaluating the results of an action, the overall wellbeing of humans is the only thing that matters, where wellbeing is akin to pleasure or happiness. ‘Therefore, utilitarianism is the view that when evaluating the morality of an action, the only factor that should be taken into consideration is how the action’s results affect the total wellbeing of the human population, counting each person’s wellbeing as equally important aseveryone else’s. Simply put,utilitarians strive to make as many people as possible happy.
Given this definition of utilitarianism, I will examine which parts of the case a utilitarian would take into account when deliberating on whether to convict or acquit the four policemen. As stated above, the utilitarian wouldonly consider the effects of his or her decision on the human population. I will first consider the effects on total welfare if the juror were to convict the policemen, and then I will examine the results if the juror were to acquit them.
If the juror were to convict, the suspect as well as the majority of the general population would be pleased, as they would believe that justicehad been served. The four policemen would be distraught, as they would be facing jail time for a crime they did not commit. The defense, having lost the case, would be dismayed. Their families and friends, having to watch their loved ones go to jail, would also be upset. The time spent in jail would be painful for the policemen, their friends who miss them, and their families, who miss them and also likely rely on them for financial support.
If the juror were to acquit, the four policemen would be happy, their friends and families would be happy, the defense would feel satisfied, and a small fraction of the population who had followed the trial and believed them to be innocent would be pleased.On the other hand, the majority of the public would be very upset as they would see the legal system as being unjust. There would be rioting, which would destroy some people’s property, making them poorer and less happy.
For a while, people living in the communities with riots would live in fear that their property will be destroyed, or that they or someone they know will be injured or killed. Most importantly, some people would be killed in the rioting, which would result in a huge decrease in overall happiness, both from those whose lives ended too soon, and from their friends and families who would never see them again.
I have laid out the basic results of both deciding to convict and deciding to acquit. The utilitarian decides which action produces better results, or, in this case, less harmful results, and chooses to perform that action. Weighing the two sets of results against each other, better results come from choosing to convict. If the juror chooses to convict, four people go to jail, negatively affecting their happiness for a few years. If the juror chooses to acquit, many people will be injured, many will die, and neighborhoods will devolve into chaos, substantially affecting the wellbeing of thousands of people. The utilitarian must vote to convict, to minimize harm to the human population.
Although the utilitarian, dutifully following the rules of utilitarianism, would convict the innocent policemen, this action is morally incorrect, and acquitting the innocent men is the morally correct course of action. To convict the policemen, sending them to jail for several years, would be morally wrong. Sending people to prison is a harmful act; it keeps them separated from their friends and families, it places them in uncomfortable living accommodations, it takes away their freedoms, and it exposes them to the dangers of other prisoners. Inflicting harm is only permissible in certain situations, such as punishment or self- defense.
The four policemen have done nothing to merit punishment, so it is immoral to punish them. Convicting these innocent policemen is analogous to finding a random person on the street and punching her in the face; to do either would be to act unjustly and immorally. Utilitarianism as a code of ethics fails, as it advocates for an immoral action in this situation.
A utilitarian might respond to this argument first by challenging the idea that utilitarianism requires the juror to convict the policemen. Taking all results of the juror’s potential actions into account, a utilitarian might conclude that acquitting the policemen would promote the maximum amount of total welfare. A utilitarian might argue that by convicting the policemen, the juror is creating instability in the American judicial system. By knowingly convicting innocent men, the juror is disregarding the duties of a jury and setting a precedent for juries to go rogue, making their own decisions without regard for the evidence presented in court.
The utilitarian would then argue that this would destabilize the judicial system, decreasing total welfare in the long run more than the riots, so the utilitarian juror would actually choose to acquit. There are problems within the premise of this argument. It is unlikely that anyone would find out that the policemen were innocent, and that the juror, knowing of their innocence, chose to send them to jail. Everyone believes that the policemen are guilty and thinks that convicting them is the just thing to do.
Therefore it is unlikely that convicting the policemen would have far-reaching effects on the integrity of the judicial system. Moreover, the utilitarian is still choosing to acquit for the wrong reason. He still does not realize that, disregarding total welfare, convicting is inherently wrong because it punishes innocent people who do not deserve to go to jail.
A more plausible utilitarian argument is that it is morally permissible to inflict harm upon the policemen because it will prevent harm to members of the community, who would be injured or killed in the rioting following an acquittal. The utilitarian would admit that it is unfortunate to have to inflict harm on the policemen, but that by convicting the policemen, the juror is causing less harm than if he were to acquit. The problem with this argument is that the juror is not actually causing any harm by acquitting the policemen.
When the juror acquits the innocent policemen, he ensures that justice is served, and that four men are not imprisoned without cause. Members of the community who then choose to riot and kill other people are the ones causing harm and acting immorally. The juror is not responsible for the actions of these misguided individuals. When one acts morally, there is always the possibility that the ripple effects from the moral action can lead others to act immorally. However, this does not mean that one should act immorally.
The utilitarian might then argue that the juror is morally obligated to do whatever is in his power to prevent the deaths of innocent people. The juror knows what he must do to save these people, and therefore he must do it. The flaw in this logic is that in order to prevent injustice, the juror must commit an injustice of his own. One should always do one’s best to prevent injustice, but a moral code can never require those who follow it to commit injustices, and as I have shown above, condemning innocent men to years in prison is an injustice. The ends do not justify the means in this case.
In summary, utilitarianism in this case advocates for a morally incorrect choice. It is morally wrong to convict the policemen because it is unjust, as doing so causes them undue harm. Because utilitarianism cannot provide the morally correct answer in this situation, as it focuses solely on results and not actions themselves, it cannot be a plausible moral theory.