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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 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. 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 
objectivist 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 will 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 decides 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 deaths 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 



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