Lesson 3: Utilitarianism

The Greater Good Sandel first takes a look at utilitarianism, the way our modern society usually does ethics. (See Chapter 2 of his book.) In the past we determined right and wrong by using laws or principles to evaluate an action. You did not kill, because there was a law that prohibited it. Today, utilitarians decide by measuirng the consequences of the action. You do not kill, because of what happens if you do. A larger role is given to the demands of the situation.

This approach is often summarized by “the greatest good for the greatest number,” which was John Stuart Mill’s more sophisticated way to define Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest happiness.” He argued the “pursuit of happiness” goes beyond individual right to common good.

A utilitarian might believe the four American soldiers in last week’s case study should kill the three Afghan shepherds, because it is better for three to die than four or more. However, as soon as we say that, most of us know it is not quite that simple. Life is too complex and the future too unknown to reduce ethics to utility alone. Wisdom is more than analyzing and measuring. Einstein supposedly had a sign in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, not everything that can be counted counts.” After examining all the interrelated issues involved, the special service unit might have judged their mission was compromised and should be aborted. The overriding goal of earning the friendship of the Afghan people might be better fostered if the shepherds were released and the soldiers returned to their base.

Most of us sense the limitations of the utilitarian approach when corporations make decisions by measuring financial costs and benefits. We were disgusted when Phillip Morris justified smoking in the Czech Republic by claiming it lowered health care costs by killing off smokers; or when Ford did not recall Pintos, because repairs would be more expensive than law suits resulting from probable deaths. Still, Sandel reminds us we tend to measure consequences when it comes to large numbers. We rationalize the torture of terrorists to save a city; we practice triage on the battlefield and in the emergency room.

Nonetheless, utility too often boils down to the most efficient way to get what I or my group want, no matter how much I try to convince others and myself otherwise. Even though Ivan Illich demonstrates riding a bicycle is the most cost effective transportation at any distant, we still prefer using cars or airplanes. Even though data shows lowering the speed limit would save lives, we resist doing it. Personal preference trumps prudence.

Others argue that utilitarianism ignores basic principles and rights that should take priority over perceived consequences. Sandel tackles this kind of issue in his case study about cannibalism. After a ship wreck four sailors find themselves running out of food on a life boat. The youngest is ill and appears to be dying. The other three elect to kill and eat him. A simplistic utilitarian position might argue it is better for three to survive than four to die. An argument from principle or law, such as the American right to “life”, might declare one person can never be sacrificed for the community. That principle was employed when the three lifeboat survivors were tried and hanged for their cannibalism.

In spite of these limitations, many theologians agree with Mill that his utilitarianism is the epitome of Jesus’ ethics, because it is based on what really benefits people. Mill wrote, “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”

Most Christians want to go further, however, believing more weight must be given to principles such as “Do not kill.” Last week, some of our responders wondered if all moral principles can be set aside in war. This becomes problematic when the Powers That Be declare terrorism has forced us into an never-ending war. If we succumb to their reasoning, Christian ethics are totally useless because they are never relevant.

That means we must tackle what values our pluralistic, democratic society should be promoting. However, next week I’ll look at Libertarianism, another modern approach Sandel presents in chapter 3. You might ponder if our common welfare ever trumps our personal freedoms and when our society’s security trumps our individual rights.

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  1. Bob Nordvall says:

    The cannabilsm case referred to seems to be the 19th century English one, Regina vs. Dudley and Stephens. The “cannibals” were sentnced to death, but the Queen commuted the sentences. This power to commute the sentences may well have been in the judges minds when they gave the death sentences. Thus the judges could have it both ways (1) making a strong moral statement but (2) knowing the death penalty was unlikely to occur.

    You correctly spot the practical weakness of utilitarianism — it is often not clear which action brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So we predict taht he action we prefer is in fact the one that will bring the greatest good. Our selfsih desires become intwined in the moral calculus.

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