Mill's Utilitarianism, Sacrifice the innocent for the common good?

Essay by Chris RedmondUniversity, Master'sA, October 1997

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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.