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Mill’s Utilitarianism

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 utilitarian 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 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 the bomb
exploding would cause a greater amount of pain, at least in the present. 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. The probability also does not hold for Mill’s utilitarianism.


Mill’s Utilitarianism insists on qualitative utilitarianism, which requires that
one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but also the quality of
such pain and pleasure. Mill suggests that to distinguish between different
pains and pleasures we should ask people who have experienced both types which
is more pleasurable or more painful. This solution does not work for the
question of torture compared to death in an explosion. There is no one who has
experienced both; therefore, there is no one who can be consulted. Even if we
agree that the pain caused by the number of deaths in the explosion is greater
than the pain of the terrorist being tortured, this assessment only accounts for
the welfare half of the utilitarian’s considerations. Furthermore, one has no
way to measure how much more pain is caused by allowing the bomb to explode than
by torturing the terrorist. After settling the issues surrounding the welfare, a
utilitarian must also consider the consequences of an action. In weighing the
consequences, there are two important considerations. The first, which is
especially important to objective Utilitarianism, is which people will be
killed. The second is the precedent, which will be set by the action.


Unfortunately for the decision-maker, the information necessary to make either
of these calculations is unavailable. There is no way to determine which people
will be killed and weigh whether their deaths would be good for society.


Utilitarianism requires that one compare the good that the people would do for
society with the harm they would do society if they were not killed. For
example, if a young Adolf Hitler were in the building, it might do more good for
society to allow the building to explode. Unfortunately for an individual
attempting to use utilitarianism to make for decisions, there is no way to know
beforehand what a person will do. Furthermore, without even knowing which
building the bomb is in, there is no way to predict which people will surely be
in the building. A subjectivist utilitarian would dismiss this consideration and
would examine only what a rational person would consider to be the consequence;
however, even the subjectivist utilitarian must face the question of precedent
setting. Utilitarianism considers justice and humane treatment to be good for
society as a whole and therefore instrumentally good as a means to promoting
happiness. Utilitarianism considers precedent to be important, but does not
offer any method of determining exceptions. It is impossible to determine how
much effect on precedent any given isolated action will have. In the case of
determining whether or not to torture the terrorist, one must consider whether
it is good for society to allow torture to be used as a method of gaining
information. If it is bad, one must determine whether this action will create a
precedent. If it will create or contribute to the creation of a precedent, one
must compare the detrimental effects of this precedent with the other
consequences and welfare caused by the action. Utilitarianism offers no method
for comparison. The problem is that a person faced with making the decision
cannot get the information. Even through experience, it is hard to judge how
much effect each action has on precedent. More specifically, it is hard to
determine whether an action is worthy of being an exception to a rule.


Utilitarianism offers no resolution to this problem. Utilitarianism also
considers the Theory of Desert to be instrumentally valuable to the promotion of
happiness. It is generally good for society to reward people for doing right and
to punish them for doing wrong. Using this belief in the value of justice, a
utilitarian would have more trouble torturing the child of the terrorist than
with torturing the terrorist. The dilemma would be similar to that of precedent.


A utilitarian would ask how much it would harm society’s faith in the punishment
of evildoers and the protection of the innocent to torture the child. The sum of
the consequences would then be compared to the sum of the welfare considerations
to decide whether or not to torture the terrorist and whether or not to torture
the child of the terrorist. In some way, these things must therefore all be
comparable and assigned weights; however, Utilitarianism offers no method of
comparison. There must be some percentage of consideration given to the harmful
precedent set compared to the amount of pain caused by the deaths, compared to
the pain the terrorist or the child being tortured feels, compared to the harm
society will be saved from by the deaths of people in the explosion, compared to
the good that society will be deprived of by the deaths in the explosion. The
overarching problem with utilitarianism as a method for decision making is that
not enough of the necessary information is available and there is no scale on
which to weigh the various considerations. Basically, the subjective utilitarian
would probably consider that the death of many is worse than the torture of one.


Depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental effects of the
precedent which would be set by torturing the terrorist, the utilitarian could
consider this to outweigh the greater pain caused by the explosion or not.


Different people have different moral consciences, which dictate different
actions. These differences will dictate where the person puts the most weight in
the utilitarian considerations, since utilitarianism does not specify.


Similarly, depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental precedent of
torturing innocent children, the utilitarian could consider it to outweigh the
pain caused by the explosion or not. In the end, utilitarianism does not help in
making the moral decision. The information necessary to calculate all of the
considerations identified by utilitarianism is not available. Furthermore, what
is required is a method of comparing and weighing the considerations, and this
method is not defined by utilitarianism. In the end, the decision-maker is still
left to make the decision based on internal moral feelings of what is right and
what is wrong which do not come from utilitarianism.