…entre nous soit dit…

between me you and the gatepost.

Philosophy: Utilitarianism

So, I’m doing philosophy at university this year as one of my subjects. It’s pretty fascinating, although I must say that it is a whole lot more inspiring when you can actually discuss it in tutorials as opposed to just sitting there, listening and tuning out in the lectures. I usually tune out, and then get lost when the professors do the lectures. Either that or else I get all muddled up and confused and then I lose what was being said, because I’m busy trying to figure it out.
This past weeks topic was Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has a quantative and reductionist approach to ethics and put simply is basically about achieving It can be simplified pretty easily to “the greatest good for the greatest number”. It’s all about the math really – the more people there are happy, the better. The numbers always win. Good old trustworthy Wikipedia describes it as:
“…the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome: put simply, the ends justify the means. Utility, the good to be maximised, has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain)… It may be described as a life stance, with happiness or pleasure being of ultimate importance.”
For out tutorial discussions, we were given a couple of situations that we had to consider both from a moral point of view and a utilitarian point of view as to what is the right and wrong actions. We got some good arguments going, but there’s always different moral answers.
Situation One:
You’re standing on a bridge over some train tracks and you see a train coming. Tied to the tracks right below you is 5 people. Next to you (coincidentally) is a lever which you can pull that will move the train from the track it’s on, to another one next to it and in doing so it will miss hitting the 5 people. However tied to the other track is 1 person.
The dilemma: do you pull the lever or not?
From a moral point of view, only you can answer what you would do – pull the leaver or not. Personally, I would if I was able to react fast enough. Of course it would be emotionally traumatising knowing that you had pulled the leaver that had killed someone, but you saved five others. If I didn’t pull the leaver I would feel even worse because I would know that I could have saved those people, but instead I just watched them die and didn’t do anything.
From a utilitarian perspective, the answer is a yes without hesitation. You would of course opt to save the five lives over the one life, because that maximises the happiness in society. By having five people who can experience happiness and create happiness, that is a lot more than only one person on their own can create or experience. The numbers always win.
Situation Two:
 Same situation with the train, except this time there’s only one track and instead of there being a lever to pull to save the five people, there’s only some big bulky muscled up wrestler who is big enough that if you pushed him off the bridge, he would stop the train with the sheer size of his body. He would die, but the train would stop after hitting him and therefore it would save the other five people. (and yes theoretically speaking you are strong enough to push him over and yes he will land on the tracks)
Once again, from a utilitarian point of view, the answer is without a doubt yes – push him. You would  be able to, once again, save those 5 people instead of them all dying.
From a moral perspective however, most people would say no or be hesitant. For me, I wouldn’t be able to do it. There seems to be a line which I draw between pulling an inanimate object that changes a course of fate, and pushing a warm blooded, living breathing person to their death. Having that physical connection and knowing what you’re dooming them to by that action, would have so much more of an emotional and psychological affect on you. 
By pushing that innocent person, you are condemning them to death and putting them in the situation that they were previously no part of. However if the person from the first situation was already tied to the tracks, then they were already involved in the situation to some degree or an extent. I think that physical contact with the man, makes it feel just that little bit more like you’ve made the choice to kill them and the blood is on your hands. Whereas in the first situation, I think I could have eventually persuaded myself that there was really nothing else I could have done.
Situation Three:
Continuing from the topic of the week before, abortion, we had one situation involving this, however it is probably the most complicated one to consider of them all. If a woman gets pregnant (no matter how that happens – rape or accident), but doesn’t want to keep the child, should she be made to carry through with the pregnancy for the full 9 months and then give the child away for adoption, instead of being allowed an abortion?
We decided that from a moral stance, the woman should be allowed to make up her own mind as to whether or not she wants to carry through to term, because it is her body and is a basic human right to decide what happens to your own body. She should be allowed to choose based on her own decision and not told what she has to do by other people. However, we never really decided on a definite answer from a Utilitarian point of view though.
Now on one hand, the suffering that she may go through for those 9 months will be far less than the lifetime of joy that the child will be able to have if it is born. So the happiness outweighs the suffering here. However it must also be taken into account, other factors such as what happens if both the mother and child are emotionally and/or psychologically damaged for the rest of their lives, as is often the case. Then the happy life that the mother could have had would be outweighed by the two now unhappy  lives, which is negative. 
What happens if the mother kills herself because she had to carry through the pregnancy or she dies giving birth? Then we end up with the same numbers as before – 1 life, which isn’t even guaranteed to be happy. What if the mother would have had 3 children later on in life, but due to being forced to carry through an untimely pregnancy, then she is put off childbirth for life? Then the world has lost the possibility of 3 more happy lives for only 1.
There are simply too many variables to consider in this situation. To simply say that if we stop abortion and as a result have more people being born, then there will obviously be more happiness in the world, and as such it will satisfy the utilitarian way of life, is to suggest that we should start up breeding farms in order to make the world a happier place. That idea failed tragically in Romania where contraception was outlawed in 1985 and abortion had already been banned in the hopes that the communist party could force the “pure Romanian birthrate” and population to rise dramatically. Their failed plan, implemented by Ceausescu, resulted in large numbers of dangerous illegal abortions and tens of thousands of unwanted children being abandoned into the state orphanages. The severely malnourished children that ended up in the orphanages were given micro-transfusions of blood (an archaic practice) in an attempt to raise their immune systems, but ended up resulting in an AIDS epidemic from needles being reused and unscreened blood. This plan was a disaster to say the least.
Situation Four:

At a hospital, there are five patients who all need an organ transplant in the next few hours in order to survive. One needs a heart, another a lung, two need a kidney each and the last needs a new liver. Coincidentally there is a patient in the hospital with a broken ankle that just happens to have the same blood type and matching tissues to the other 5 patients. The person with the broken ankle has just come out of surgery for their ankle and is still asleep. They other 5 people will be dead before the anaesthesia wears off. A doctor there knows how to remove organs quietly and make the bodies go away, so he takes out the organs and gives them to the other five patients.
Morally, we are shocked by this. Harvesting one man’s organs is a crime and shocking to our society of course. Fact is, that there is a black market out there that survives on exactly this kind of murder, although it usually happens in a more crude way and not in a hospital. Morally though, this is extremely and utterly wrong to the vast majority of people.
From a utilitarian’s perspective, this is (given a shallow and very basic analysis) right, because once again, the numbers win out. However, if examined closer, there are more things to consider. Such as if the society begins to think that their organs could be harvested if they go into hospital for something as small as even plastic surgery or a broken arm, then they will eventually stop going to the hospitals, and as a result people won’t have any health care, get sick, and that will mean mass unhappiness of society, which is the complete opposite aim of utilitarianism.
All these situations are hard to decide on, and I think it’s really up to the individual as to what is right and wrong morally, because it’s based on what our limits are. Utilitarian perspectives can be relatively easy to decide on because it’s just about doing the math, but on a deeper examination, there can be so many more variables and possibilities that need to be taken into consideration before the numbers can be worked out.
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March 12, 2009 - Posted by | homework, life, morals, observation, people, philosophy, university

1 Comment »

  1. i prefer to think of it as the bauer philosophy… but in any case it never holds up in real life because there are always thousands of other possibilities

    the abortion one was just silly, though, because by the same logic we should be banning contraception

    Comment by grubstreethack | March 14, 2009 | Reply


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