Below I provide an excerpt from a book, by Bernard Williams, which describes a hypothetical situation he proposes concerning morality. After reading the excerpt, you will realise that there are only two options to answer the dilemma with, these are best identified with two different theories of morality below.
Utilitarianism is a theory created, initially, by Jeremy Bentham, and then later developed by the liberal philosopher (a personal favourite of mine) John Stuart Mill.
Its main aim is to maximise happiness to the greatest amount of people possible, even though this may come at a cost of pain to the few. It is a theory concerned with how things turn out, or end, so it would be known as a consequentialist theory (concerned with consequences).
Jeremy Bentham’s initial utilitarianism is now known as ‘Act Utilitarianism’ due to John Stuart Mill revising the theory, creating a different ‘Rule Utilitarianism’ so as to address some criticisms that arose with Bentham’s version. Bentham believed that the greater amount of happiness an act brings, the more valuable it is to society and he devised a special method of calculating happiness. He called this the ‘Hedonic Calculas’ where acts where measured according to the: intensity, duration, certainty, fecundity (likelihood of more pleasure arising prior to the act), propinquity (distance in time between the act and the gain in pleasure), purity (if the pleasure is mixed with pain), extent (amount of people it includes).
An example of the Utility principle can be seen in the film ‘Armageddon’, where Bruce Willis sacrifices his life for the good of the many and saves the World (he blows up a Comet with himself on it to divert it from hitting Earth)
John Stuart Mill agreed with Bentham’s Utility principle, where a good act is one that brings ‘the greatest good to the greatest number’ but believed that instead of tediously measuring EACH act according to a calculus, he thought it wiser to establish a set of rules (laws) that used the Utility principle as a basis for the creation. He also did this to dodge the criticism that Utilitarianism is a ‘swine morality’- where things may only be concerned with lower pleasures(e.g. -sex,food etc.) In contrast to Bentham, rather than concentrate on individual acts; a generalized set of rules (or laws) should be created with the concept of Utilitarianism at it’s heart.
At the other side of the spectrum lies deontological ethics, more concerned with what you do rather than the consequence the decision you make will bring. Deontological ethics believes that we should act according to a set of rules; ‘duties’ and ‘obligations’ that we must fulfil, regardless of the result.
Immanuel Kant, a very popular 19th century philosopher (mentioned also in this post), was a deontological theorist, who searched for what was inherently good in the world. In his findings he came to the conclusion below:
Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.
Thus he believes that an act can be declared to be good and moral when people make decisions out of duty for moral law. From this he goes onto expand his ideas and creates his ‘Categorical Imperative’, the main maxims of this theory are shown below:
- Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
- Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
- Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends
“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protesters of the advantage of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the prisoners himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, there will be no special occasion, and the captain will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of that kind is going to work; any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men are against the wall and the other villagers understand the situation and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”
So are you a Utilitarian? Inflicting pain and death on one man resulting in the freedom of the 19 Indians and thus maximising the happiness of the greatest amount with pain to a small number. (We are theorising so if he kills one man, the man in charge will honour his promise)
Or do you agree with deontology? That there are some universal rules that we must obey, such as do not kill (as we wouldn’t like to be killed ourselves), even if the consequence of our actions means that 20 other men die.
Which burden is heavier? Killing 1 man or letting 20 die?