Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry? If you answered in the affirmative to these questions, then you might be a utilitarian, the moral system founded by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and encapsulated in the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Would you cut off your own leg if it was the only way to save another person’s life? Would you torture someone if you thought it would result in information that would prevent a bomb from exploding and killing hundreds of people?
Modern utilitarianism is instantiated in the famous trolley thought experiment: You are standing next to a fork in a trolley track and a switch to divert a trolley car that is about to kill five workers unless you throw the switch and divert the trolley down a side track where it will kill one worker. Most people say that they would throw the switch-kill one to save five.
The problem with utilitarianism is evidenced in another thought experiment: You are a physician with five dying patients and one healthy person in the waiting room. Would you harvest the organs of the one to save the five? If you answered yes, you might be a psychopathic murderer.
In a paper published online in December 2017 in the journal Psychological Review entitled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm,” University of Oxford scholars Guy Kahane, Jim A. C. Everett and their colleagues aim to rehabilitate the dark side of utilitarianism by separating its two dimensions: (1) “instrumental harm,” in which it is permissible to sacrifice the few to benefit the many, and (2) “impartial beneficence,” in which one would agree that “it is morally wrong to keep money that one doesn’t really need if one can donate it to causes that provide effective help to those who will benefit a great deal.”
You can find out what type you are by answering the nine questions in the authors’ Oxford Utilitarianism Scale. I scored a 17 out of a possible 63, which was at the time described as meaning “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximising happiness is all that matters.”
The cheeky reference to Immanuel Kant sets up a counter to utilitarianism in the form of the German philosopher’s “categorical imperative,” in which we can determine right and wrong by asking if we would want to universalize an act. For example, lying in even limited cases is wrong because we would not want to universalize it into lying in all instances, which would destroy all personal relations and social contracts. In the physician scenario, we would not want to live in a world in which you could be plucked off the street at any moment and sacrificed in the name of someone’s idea of a collective good.
Historically the application of a utilitarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures and accidents-better to incinerate the few to protect the village. More recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five million (Jews:“Aryan” Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.
Yet if you live in Syria and a band of ISIS thugs knocks on your door demanding to know if you are hiding any homosexuals they can murder in the mistaken belief that this fulfills the word of God-and you are-few moralists would object to your lying to save them.
In this case, both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are trumped by natural-rights theory, which dictates that you are born with the right to life and liberty of both body and mind, rights that must not be violated, not even to serve the greater good or to fulfill a universal rule. This is why, in particular, we have a Bill of Rights to protect us from the tyranny of the majority and why, in general, moral progress has been the result of the idea that individual sentient beings have natural rights that override the moral claims of groups, tribes, races, nations and religions.
Still, if we can decouple the sacrificial side of utilitarianism from its more beneficent prescriptions, moral progress may gain some momentum. Better still would be the inculcation into all our moral considerations of beneficence as an internal good rather than an ethical calculation. Be good for goodness’ sake.