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
utilitarianism.
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 terrorist.
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