Utilitarian Stories Criticisms of Utilitarianism

1 The argument from duty

It may be right for a Utilitarian to break a promise, frame an innocent individual or justify telling a lie. 

(i)The story of the dying millionaire  ( Pojman  Ethics, discovering right and wrong)

Suppose you are on an island with a dying millionaire. As he lies dying he entreats you for one final favour. “I’ve dedicated my whole life to baseball and for 50 years have gotten endless pleasure and some pain rooting for the New York Yankees. Now that I am dying I want to give all my assets $2 million to the Yankees. Would you take all this money (he indicates a small box containing some money in large bills)” back to New York and give it to the Yankees so that they can buy better players?” You agree to carry out this wish, at which point a huge smile of relief and gratitude breaks out on his face as he expires in your arms. After travelling to New York, you see a newspaper advertisement placed by your favourite charity. World Hunger Relief Organisation (whose integrity you do not doubt), pleading for $2 million to be used to save 100,000 people dying of starvation in East Africa. Not only will $2 million save their lives, but it will also purchase equipment and kinds of fertilizers necessary to build a sustainable economy. You decide to reconsider your promise to the dying millionaire in the light of the advertisement. What should you do with the money?

(ii)The sheriff           (Pojman, Philosophy: The Pursuit of Wisdom)

Suppose that a rape and murder is committed in a racially volatile community. As the sheriff of the town you have spent a lifetime working for racial harmony. Now just when your goal is being realized this incident occurs. The crime is thought to be racially motivated and a riot is about to break out that will very likely result in the death of several people and create long-lasting racial antagonism. You see that you could frame a down and out tramp that you already have in your cells for the crime so that the trial will find him guilty and he will be executed. There is every reason to believe that a speedy trial and execution will head off the riot and save community harmony. Only you (and the real criminal, who will keep quiet about it) will know that the innocent man has been tried and executed. What is the morally right thing to do?

(iii)The criminal

For years Bert committed crimes all over the town. Police and judges knew that he was the culprit of the crimes but he always had a good alibi and the Police never had sufficient evidence either to arrest him or charge him with any offences. One day he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A bank robbery took place while he was in the bank making waiting to see the manager. When the Police arrived they interviewed everyone who had been at the bank including Bert. At last they had found him at the scene of a crime when it occurred and they wrongly assumed that he was part of the gang who robbed the bank. Bert was taken to court and the judge realizing that there was no evidence against Bert, still convicted him because on so many other occasions Bert had just got away with it. The judge felt that although he was acting unjustly, it was in the interests of public safety to find some way of getting Bert into prison so that the public at large could feel safer because a criminal had been put away.

   In the case of the millionaire’s helper, a utilitarian would not give the money to the Yankees, but despite his promise, he would give it to the World Hunger Relief Organisation.The utilitarian sheriff would execute one innocent man     in order to save the lives of rioters and preserve racial harmony.  He would argue that it is worth killing one innocent man in order to save many lives and the social harmony in the town.

The utilitarian judge would put a man in prison despite a lack of evidence, but would do so in order to allow ordinary citizens peace of mind that a known, rather than a proven criminal was no long walking the streets.

Point 2 revolves around how we can know what the consequences might be ultimately.

Story (iv)  The drowning man

I see a man drowning in the river. Should I jump into the river and save him? The utilitarian would say yes because he would be grateful and so would his family and so would his friends and so would the generations of people who become descendants of this man.

But how can you know what the consequences will be? Suppose the man turns out to be a murderer or a paedophile or a suicide bomber. How can you truly know the consequences of your actions?

Story (v) The story “Genesis and catastrophe by Roald Dahl

This is the story of a doctor who saves both a mother and child in a difficult birth. The mother has had several miscarriages and a number of her children have been either still-born or have died in infancy. The latest baby does not look strong but the doctor assures the worrying woman that all will be well despite appearances. The child will be well and will flourish and bring her great credit. The doctor’s final words to the mother are, “You’ll be all right now, Mrs Hitler.”

How can anyone know what the consequences of an action will be?

Third Objection a utilitarian may abandon moral integrity. – there is a need to do the right thing.

Story (vi) The story of Jim                   (Smart and Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against)

Jim is a botanist working deep in a jungle in a South American country when he gets separated from the rest of his group. Fortunately for him, he happens upon a village. Unfortunately, he also happens on an execution about to be carried out by a captain, Pedro, and a group of soldiers. Pedro sees Jim and soon discovers that he is a famous botanist working alongside the South American country’s government to discover plant medicines to help the ill people of that country. Jim in turn discovers that Pedro has orders to execute 20 people from the village as a reprisal for the shooting of a soldier in the village the previous day. Pedro explains that he chose the 20 by getting all 200 people in the village to line up in any order they liked. He then simply picked out every 10th person. And now these 20 are to be shot. Jim is appalled and argues that, in his country, this is not just – perhaps it might be fair for one life to be taken to compensate for the lost life of the soldier, but not an innocent life, and certainly not 20 lives. Pedro replies that this is how things are done in his country. But wait, he has a solution. Since Jim is an honoured guest and helping his country, Pedro says that he can persuade his superiors that, in this case, he can avoid killing all 20 people by saying that he is honouring Jim by adopting his (Jim’s) country’s type of justice. But, in return, Jim must adopt a bit of the South American country’s justice: Jim must choose one of the 20 people for execution and then shoot that person himself. The other 19 will then go free. Jim is in a moral dilemma

The utilitarian approach (with its appealing simplicity) to this dilemma is that Jim chooses the one of the 20 potential victims with least utility (perhaps the oldest, the least healthy, the baby?) and then shoots him/her. The utilitarian approach (with its appalling simplicity) is then to say that Jim has done a good thing. What this example demonstrates more than anything else is that utilitarianism is not enough to fully cope with human behaviour. What we would like to say is that Jim may have done what was best in the circumstances, but we would not call the killing of an innocent individual good as utilitarianism insists.

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