The greatest good for the greatest number

utilitarianism1In the second Star Trek movie (based on the original Star Trek characters, not the more recent movies) there was a touching scene in which Spock sacrifices himself to save the crew of the Enterprise. His words, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one” were not only moving, but they were a great statement of the philosophical principle of Utilitarianism. At the risk of over-simplification, the fundamental principle of Utilitarianism is fairly straight-forward – add up the cost versus benefit of a number of options and the one with the best trade-off between cost and benefit is the “right” thing to do. Spock’s self-sacrifice made perfect Utilitarian sense – the death of a single person to save a crew of hundreds. If only we can find a way to quantify the plus and minus side of every decision, in a Utilitarian universe we could always chose the “right” thing to do, armed only with a calculator.

We see this approach all over the place in the form of cost-benefit analyses. But these analyses are typically used for business decisions or for decisions with monetary implications – far less often do we total up lives lost and saved to determine what actions we should take.

What would you do, for example, to stop a war in which millions might die? Would you let the government execute a condemned murderer if his death would prevent a war? Or to put a finer point on the matter, would it be acceptable to execute someone like Charles Manson (currently serving a life sentence for multiple murders committed in 1969) in order to save millions of lives?

A strictly utilitarian answer would be “of course” since millions of lives saved far outweigh one to be taken prematurely – and a not very attractive life at that. But that’s an easy one – what about a political prisoner – would it be acceptable to trade the life of one agitator for the lives of millions? Or what about just a single person with no stain on their soul – could you pull a random stranger off the street to be executed, knowing that their death would save millions of lives? Or for that matter, what about a person who would be willing to volunteer sacrifice themselves, but who would be unable to sacrifice a stranger.

In each of these cases the trade-off would be exactly the same – one life lost in exchange for millions saved. So one might think that the decision would be equally easy to make in every case. In each of them the Utilitarian answer would almost certainly be that millions of lives outweigh a single life, no matter how “good” that life might be – the millions to be saved would almost invariably include others just as good as the person to be sacrificed, and likely many better. But how many of us could bring ourselves to condemn a good person to death, even knowing the benefit that would come of it?

Something else to consider is that we perceive the values of lives differently depending on whose life it is – the life of a loved one is almost certainly going to be more valuable to any of us than would be the life of a stranger; just as in the example given earlier, the life of a political prisoner would likely seem more valuable than that of a mass murderer. If you feel a little queasy with these choices you’re not alone – there have been any number of psychological studies showing that many would find it easier to passively let a death take place than to actively cause one, even if the net result was the same in both cases. So Utilitarianism might make sense logically – but as these examples show, it would be mighty hard to put into practice in the real world.

So – even in a relatively simple reckoning it seems there are some problems with Utilitarianism, and a lot of problems are a lot more complex. Take the controversy over torture – when (if ever) is it OK to torture a suspected terrorist to gain information that might help to avert a future attack? Or is it OK to assassinate enemy nuclear scientists to delay a nuclear weapons program? These, on first glance, would appear to be susceptible to utilitarian examination, but it’s a hard calculation – perhaps an impossible calculation – to perform.

Consider – torture might not kill a person, but how do we calculate their suffering today, not to mention the longer-term emotional impact? And yes – someone who’s planning on killing innocent civilians in a terrorist attack might not warrant a whole lot of sympathy, but it seems likely that a number of innocent people have been detained and tortured under the belief that they are terrorists. And not only that, but there is also a school of thought that no matter how bad the person being tortured might be, the act of torture itself diminishes all of us who participate, even if our participation is only in tacitly supporting those who perpetuate the torture. Just as John Donne said that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind” we can also say that anyone’s bad actions diminishes us because we are part of the society that permits – even encourages – those actions.

The bottom line is that many actions have moral and ethical dimensions that are not necessarily susceptible to utilitarian calculation – we deceive ourselves and others (if we are communicative about our opinions) if we try to pretend that a simple solution – the greatest good for the greatest number – is a universal solution to every quandary.

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3 Responses to “The greatest good for the greatest number”

  1. Ming Ivory February 12, 2013 at 9:08 AM #

    (I teach the social context of science and technology at James Madison University) There is a wonderful fictional story by Ursula Le Guin which delightfully presents the contradiction in utilitarian thinking. See “The Ones who walked away from Omelas”

    • Dr. Y February 14, 2013 at 12:09 AM #

      Thanks! LeGuin is one of my favorite science fiction authors and I know this title. I’m sure I’ve read it, but I’ve got to re-read it with this in mind.

  2. kevin October 7, 2013 at 10:44 AM #

    war does not decide whos right it decides whos left.

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