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Philosphy – Mills Utilitarianism

Mill’s Utilitarianism: Sacrifice the innocent for the common good?
When faced with a moral dilemma, utilitarianism identifies the
appropriate considerations, but offers no realistic way to gather the
necessary information to make the required calculations. This lack of
information is a problem both in evaluating the welfare issues and in
evaluating the consequentialist issues which utilitarianism requires be
weighed when making moral decisions. Utilitarianism attempts to solve
both of these difficulties by appealing to experience; however, no
method of reconciling an individual decision with the rules of
experience is suggested, and no relative weights are assigned to the
various considerations.

In deciding whether or not to torture a terrorist who has planted a
bomb in New York City, a utilitarian must evaluate both the overall
welfare of the people involved or effected by the action taken, and the
consequences of the action taken. To calculate the welfare of the people
involved in or effected by an action, utilitarianism requires that all
individuals be considered equally.
Quantitative utilitarians would weigh the pleasure and pain which would
be caused by the bomb exploding against the pleasure and pain that would
be caused by torturing the terrorist. Then, the amounts would be summed
and compared. The problem with this method is that it is impossible to
know beforehand how much pain would be caused by the bomb exploding or
how much pain would be caused by the torture. Utilitarianism offers no
practical way to make the interpersonal comparison of utility necessary
to compare the pains. In the case of the bomb exploding, it at least
seems highly probable that a greater amount of pain would be caused, at
least in the present, by the bomb exploding. This probability suffices
for a quantitative utilitarian, but it does not account for the
consequences, which create an entirely different problem, which will be
discussed below. The probability also does not hold for Mill’s

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Mill’s Utilitarianism insists on qualitative utilitarianism, which
requires that one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but
also the quality of such pain and pleasure. Mill suggests that to
distinguish between different pains and pleasures we should ask people
who have experienced both types which is more pleasurable or more
painful. This solution does not work for the question of torture
compared to death in an explosion. There is no one who has 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 the
explosion is greater than the pain of the terrorist being tortured, this
assessment only accounts for the welfare half of the utilitarian’s
considerations. Furthermore, one has no way to measure how much more
pain is caused by allowing the bomb to explode than by torturing the
After settling the issues surrounding the welfare, a utilitarian must
also consider the consequences of an action. In weighing the
consequences, there are two important considerations. The first, which
is especially important to objectivist Utilitarianism, is which people
will be killed. The second is the precedent 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 weigh
whether their deaths would be good for society. Utilitarianism requires
that one compare the good that the people would do for society with the
harm they would do society if they were not killed. For example, if a
young Adolf Hitler were in the building, it might do more good for
society to allow the building to explode. Unfortunately for an
individual attempting to use utilitarianism to make for decisions, 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 predict
which people will surely be in the building.

A subjectivist utilitarian would dismiss this consideration and would
examine only what a rational person would consider to be the
consequence; however, even the subjectivist utilitarian must face the
question of precedent setting. Utilitarianism considers justice and
humane treatment to be good for society as a whole and therefore
instrumentally good as a means to promoting happiness.

Utilitarianism considers precedent to be important, but does not offer
any method of determining exceptions. It is impossible to determine how
much effect on precedent any given isolated action will have. In the
case of determining whether or not to torture the terrorist, one must
consider whether it is good for society to allow torture to be used as a
method of gaining information. If it is bad, one must determine whether
this action will create a precedent. If it will create or contribute to
the creation of a precedent, one must compare the detrimental effects of
this precedent with the other consequences and welfare caused by the
action. Utilitarianism offers no method for comparison.

The problem is that a person faced with making the decision cannot get
the information. Even through experience, it is hard to judge how much
effect each action has on precedent. More specifically, it is hard to
determine whether an action is worthy of being an exception to a rule.

Utilitarianism offers no resolution to this problem.

Utilitarianism also considers the Theory of Desert to be instrumentally
valuable to the promotion of happiness. It is generally good for society
to reward people for doing right and to punish them for doing wrong.

Using this belief in the value of justice, a utilitarian would have more
trouble torturing the child of the terrorist than with torturing the
terrorist. The dilemma would be similar to that of precedent. A
utilitarian would ask how much it will harm society’s faith in the
punishment of evildoers and the protection of the innocent to torture
the child.

The sum of the consequences would then be compared to the sum of the
welfare considerations to decides whether or not to torture the
terrorist and whether or not to torture the child of the terrorist. In
some way, these things must therefore all be comparable and assigned
weights; however, Utilitarianism offers no method of comparison. There
must be some percentage of consideration given to the harmful precedent
set compared to the amount of pain caused by the deaths, 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 the
explosion, compared to the good that society will be deprived of by the
deaths in the explosion.

The overarching problem with utilitarianism as a method for decision
making is that not enough of the necessary information is available and
there is no scale on which to weigh the various considerations.

Basically, the subjective utilitarian would probably consider that the
deaths of many is worse than the torture of one. Depending on how much
weight is given to the detrimental effects of the precedent which would
be set by torturing the terrorist, the utilitarian could consider this
to outweigh the greater pain caused by the explosion or not. Different
people have different moral consciences, which dictate different
actions. These differences will dictate where the person puts the most
weight in the utilitarian considerations, since utilitarianism does not
specify. Similarly, depending on how much weight is given to the
detrimental precedent of torturing innocent children, the utilitarian
could consider it to outweigh the pain caused 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 by utilitarianism is not available. Furthermore, what is
required is a method of comparing and weighing the considerations, and
this method is not defined by utilitarianism. In the end, the decision
maker is still left to make the decision based on internal moral
feelings of what is right and what is wrong which do not come from


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