Classical utilitarianism states that in any given situation you should choose an action that engenders the greatest good for the greatest number of people because that is the most ethical way to live a life. This doctrine encourages making choices based on the way it makes you and others feel, and supposes that those choices should promote the greatest happiness, otherwise they aren’t the right ones. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were two famous classical utilitarians who identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. Hedonism is related to utilitarianisms because it represents the pursuit of pleasure. The origins of utilitarianism are often traced back to Epicurus, but seen to be most influential by John Stuart Mill. He wrote the book Utilitarianism, not only to prove the moral value of the philosophy but also to respond to misconceptions about it. In this book he argues, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant” . This quote illustrates what Mill means by utilitarianism in the sense that it proves why your job is not only to protect yourself, but others around you, even if they are complete strangers. “His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”
Consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an obvious example. Did he know by advocating freedom he was risking his life for the greater good of humanity? Probably, “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land” . Less than 24 hours after these eloquent words, James Earl Ray assassinated King. Are these the words of someone who is only interested in himself? Clearly not! He knew he was risking everything to save the future of the world for the greatest number of people.
On the contrary, just because someone is willing to risk their own life for the greater good does not make them a Utilitarian. Especially not Martin Luther King. At times the qualities of utilitarianism can seem slightly calculated. A standard objection to utilitarianism is that it could require us to violate the standards of justice, something that King definitely wouldn’t do. Imagine a crime has been committed in a local family park, say a rape and murder. There is no lead on the criminal and police are worried about causing any more uproar and chaos in the town, so they decide to punish someone easily blamed. For example, maybe they choose a black male bystander. Utilitarianism seems to require punishing the innocent in certain circumstances like this. Even though Dr. King lived a life focused on improving the lives of large numbers of people he was never willing or able to make it happen by killing the people opposing his ideas.
Another criticism the philosophy faces is the frequency of unintended consequences. A person might set out with positive intentions planning for consequences that would benefit the maximum number of people and end up with a completely opposite result. Take the example from the crash course video. A doctor who believes in utilitarianism is encouraged to kill his unpleasant solitary neighbor to harvest five of his organs and distribute them to five sick people. Five nice people survive and one pretty uncool guy dies. Sounds nice, right? Wrong. The fact of the matter is, the outcome of these transplants is completely unknown. All five of these patients could reject their new body parts and die, and now we have six dead people on our hands, one who was totally innocent and who was intentionally killed by a utilitarian. Or in the most extreme of cases, maybe this neighbor dude has some unknown disease in his organs and causes these guys to go crazy and kill all of humankind…because that is very possible. But hey, it’s simply a thought experiment. So now you’ve got a utilitarian who set out for the greatest good and ended with the worst possible outcome, and he killed the original man on purpose. He broke the rules, and didn’t get anything out of it. Imagine how often good intentions produce unexpected outcomes.
This idea of utilitarianism is in complete contrast to the ideas of Immanuel Kant, an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. Kant states that a set of rules should depend on the rightness or wrongness of actions and not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty. From the crash course we watched this would be the principle of Batman. Contrary to utilitarianism, in Kant’s view, killing is wrong even if it benefits the majority of people. Hence, Joker lives a long time even though Batman could’ve killed him easily. I agree with Kant. To take his point even further, killing is never an act of justice. I also do not think that to be a happy and successful society we have to kill the people who cause disorder, but instead work together to spread happiness…cliché I know. In fact, in the act of killing to do the most good we are actually doing harm. There is no way for murder to be the best solution. We must always actively look for better options.
A mixture between Utilitarianism and Kant’s philosophy may be the most ethical option, but rules need to be flexible enough that our culture can adapt to them, and we must be open to change when these rules become out of date. Kant gives us justice as a measure of what is right, and utilitarianism gives us the desire to help other people. In each case we must determine what will be the most effective course of action for us as individuals and a society.