The importance of human life, is really relative to the person is evaluating it. It differs from person to person. To me, I value life dearly, because everything which has happened to me is pleasant so far. But to some other people, it may not have been such an enjoyable experience. And in some cases, people change their view of human life, as incidents happen which affects the way they evaluate the importance of their lives. Such as people who experienced near-death, or people who attained freedom after long periods of hardship and torture. These people would definitely view their lives, and those who went through the same experiences, in a different light.
If we were to analyze Utilitarianism closely, we would realize that they do not put any values on human life. In the Utilitarian point of view, every human life is worth the same. No matter what the status of the entity.
Even if he were a president, or a teacher, or a janitor, or a beggar, everyone would be considered as one "unit" of human being. What Utilitarianism is all about, is consequences. How an action results in a consequence. If the consequence of an action is something good, then we gain positive utility, and negative utility otherwise. Therefore, Utilitarians justify their actions by calculating the utility they derive from the consequences of their action.
Even in Utilitarianism, we could categorize them into mainly two parts. Benthams just emphasizes on treating the utility gained or lost as a unit by itself. Whereas Mills insists that even when judging an action only by the reviewing the consequences, we have to consider the magnitude of utility gained or lost by doing the action. Which is somewhat closer to the real life scenario. Therefore, there are many ways to look at whether or not to carry out an action, using the Utilitarian view.
Here, we analyze a scenario where the US embassy has been attacked by terrorists. Several people have been held hostages by the terrorists. They will be released if the US government will pay a certain amount of money. We can look at this situation in several ways. If we give the terrorists the money, and the hostages are set free, there would definitely be immediate positive utilities coming from the hostages themselves and the terrorists. People who are witnessing the situation would also get a positive utility, since they would be relieved that no one was hurt, and everything is back to it's peaceful self again. The probable negative utility would come from the government, where they lost some amount of money. If we were to consider all of these together, we would ultimately figure out that the positive utility derived from the action is overwhelming. Therefore, it might be better to give the terrorists the money. But if we were to think deeper into the consequences, we might have thought of the long term effect that it might have on the government, the terrorists, and the community. If the government kept paying a ransom every time a hostage situation occurs, the government would be deemed as a very weak one. The community would then live with a fear, that the government is unable to overcome the terrorist threats all the time. Therefore, most seemingly is incompetent at other things as well. Whereas for the terrorists, they might develop a mentality that the government is afraid of them. As they "earn" more and more money from the hostage situations, there would be increasingly widespread of terrorism, as the government is incapable of handling them. Hence, in the long term, there seems to be an overwhelming negative effect on the whole community, and the government. Therefore, we should also seriously consider not giving in to the terrorists.
When we take the amount of money that the government is paying the terrorists into consideration. A lot of other consequences come into consideration. If the amount of money we are dealing with is small, relative to the funding the government has, it is not a bad bargain to exchange that for the lives of the hostages. Since the money isn't going to be anything useful to the community, because the amount is too little. And saving the hostages would bring about peace and order among the community for a while. Whereas if we were to consider a huge amount of money which can be used by the government to better the conditions of the community, or used in ways that benefit the people. We might thought twice before actually paying the terrorists the ransom. If we implement Mill's theories, we could say that the positive utility gained if the government were to save the money, and use it to benefit the larger community, is going to be greater than the positive utility gained by exchanging the large amount of money for freeing the hostages. In fact, the government could keep the money, and furthermore, stamp out terrorism in the future, by showing that they are refusing to bow down to the terrorist. Therefore, casting a light to the future of the community, as terrorist acts are going to be scarce.
Now what if the variable is the status of the hostage captured by the terrorists? Would the government differ in the amount of money paid because of it? If we were to view it in terms of Bentham, I would think that the government would not pay different amounts of money for two people with different status. Because as stated before, Bentham's views are people are all individual units, and the value of each human life is equal. The consequences of the actions are also of equal values of utility. Therefore, according to Bentham, the government shouldn't distinguish the status of a person by paying different amount of money for different status of the person. Whereas if we were to take Mill's stand in Utilitarian theory, similar to Bentham, all human life are of equal value. But the magnitude of the consequences may differ. For example, if a janitor were to be killed as a result of not paying the ransom, most probably the only people who will be affected by this would be the immediate family, and close friends and relatives. But if you were to consider the effect in the event the president was killed, not only the family would be affected, but the whole community, as they just lost a leader, and maybe even the whole state would be in turmoil as they recover from the shock of losing a leader. Therefore, in this case, the government should be willing to pay a larger amount of money for the president rather than the janitor.
In yet another scenario, the terrorists might be wanting the release of their fellow terrorist held up in some US jail, or even in the jails of another country. Now we have to consider more consequences. Well, releasing a prisoner certainly would not affect the government's financial stability, but think about what more terrorists would do. If one of their compatriots were to be caught and imprisoned, all they had to do to free them, is to stage a hostage situation. Even if the prisoner was in a jail of another country, the government could well put enough pressure on the government of that country to release the prisoner. But what good those that do? It would only harm the relationship between the two countries. Therefore, using the Utilitarian point of view, it certainly is not a good idea to succumb to the terrorists' demand.
Personally, for someone who values human life greatly, I believe that the government should do everything possible to free the hostages. Because ultimately, their responsibility is to look after the welfare of the people they are serving. Certainly, I do not mean to succumb to the terrorists all the time. My suggestion is to give in to their present demand, but definitely step up on security and hopefully prevent any future similar incidents to occur. Prevention is the best cure, they say.
In conclusion, I believe that Utilitarianism is still widely practiced throughout the world today. Maybe not in it's exact original form, but various mutations of it. And more realistically, people do not think of long term consequences that much. Individuals usually just see the immediate consequences of their action, and judge their action on it. Utilitarianism has pretty much been a part of everyone's philosophical view even without them knowing it.