For the Greater Good (Or the Drawbacks of Utilitarianism)

From Harry Potter scenarios to policy decisions, Utilitarian Principle influences many aspects of our present life. But to what extent does this produce a valid and positive effect in our lives? And at what point do we detach ourselves as individuals from the greater good?

Let’s get right down to it.


What is Utilitarianism?

Most people are familiar with the concept of Utilitarianism, even if you don’t recognize it by the name. Simply put, it means the “greatest good for the greatest number”. It was propounded by Jeremy Bentham, an English Philosopher. He tried to balance between pleasure and pain, and stated that the society will be happier if it embraces pleasure and avoids pain. To come to this conclusion, he treated happiness as a measurable quantity. If the maximum number of people are happy, the happiness quotient of the entire society goes up. Thus, it looked into maximum satisfaction for as many people as possible. Any act which brought this about, was considered a good act – this in turn became the basis for consequentialist reasoning. This is a very useful concept, when it comes to present day governance and policy matters.

Do we use it today?

After the 9/11 attacks, the security at the airport was strengthened and the security personnel were given the right to stop passengers for impromptu checks. Taking aside the racial connotations it has come to be associated with now, the security check was trying to balance the benefits of protecting the life of the majority of people in the US with that of the temporary displeasure of one suspect. This logic is a derivation of the Utilitarian concept.

Utilitarianism is widely spread out in our day-to-day lives. Let’s take a small example of a person taking his colleagues out for lunch for his birthday. Out of the 10 people team he works with, 1 person is home-sick. Yet this individual takes the remaining 9 people out, because he feels that taking 9 people out for lunch far outweighs waiting for 1 person to come back. (This is only a tiny indication of what utilitarianism looks like).

On a grand scale, utilitarianism is used in most decisions and governmental actions. Policies based on public demand are a good example of utilitarianism. If an act brings about the maximum benefit to most number of people, then there is a good chance that the Government will take up that act. For instance, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 can be deemed to be a utilitarian act, where the advanced protection from sexual harassment/assault was deemed to be extremely beneficial to the population in India and as such enacted.

Thus, more often than not for a happier society, appropriate public policies are put into effect.

Drawbacks of Utilitarianism through Pop-Culture:

While in theory, and in most practices, Utilitarianism seems like a good concept, it must be remembered that the minority of the percentage who might suffer can be you. In the example of taking people out for lunch, while it seems to be logical to take the 9 people out for lunch, and the 10th one sits out because of his illness, it is also equally possible that you are the 10th person who is missing out on the good lunch and conversation. So, Utilitarianism seems like a great philosophy while talking about the society, but it does not seem necessarily fair when you as an individual have to suffer for the greater good.

Going out for lunch might seem like a small sacrifice right now, but this logical argument extends beyond just lunch and goes into scary territory the more we think about it.

The Trolley Car scenario is a classic example of putting to test the limits of Bentham’s idea. If a runaway trolley is moving on a track where 5 people are working, and there is another connected track where one person is working, would you change the direction of the trolley towards one person, thereby saving the remaining 5? Many might be in favour of killing one person to save the others. But what if you had to actively push a person down on the tracks to stop the trolley from killing the 5 people. The result would be the same, killing one person instead of 5. Would you still do this? What if the person to be pushed down is you? Would you be fine with giving your life for saving the others? This is the basic problem with the Utilitarian Principle, in that while it takes into account the happiness of the group, the individual happiness or suffering might seem immaterial.

The case of R v. Dudley and Stephens also was an extension of this situation. Sadly, it was a true story where the sick cabin boy Parker was murdered by Dudley and Stephens to combat over a week’s starvation and thirst. They justified the act as necessity since it was either all of them dying or killing a sick person who was about to die.

Let us look at another example. Recently, I read a short story called “The Ones who walk away from Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin (in case you are interested in reading the story, skip this paragraph, because spoilers ahead). This story describes the shimmering city of unbelievable happiness  Omelas. But the dark secret which is the reason for this happiness is that one child must be perpetually kept in dark, in filth without any company, not even a kind word spoken to it. While some understand and accept the state of the child, others who cannot bear the ill-treatment meted for the greater good walk away from Omelas. In fact, Dr. Who fans may recognize a this story being similar to the episode The Beast Below. Many of the protagonists in Harry Potter also seemed to act on the basis of Utilitarianism, including Dumbledore, Voldemort and even Grindelwald. Grindelwald thought of bettering the status of Wizards and other magical creatures through a movement based on this concept, literally named “For the Greater Good”.

What is the alternative?

So one of the theories that rivals Bentham’s concept are the Kantian Ethics. While Utilitarianism was consequentialist in nature (only looking at the consequences of actions, and not its moral stance); Kantian Philosophy emphasises on following duty and rules which have a moral backing. This is known as Categorical Reasoning. According to this, no matter what the outcome, your actions should always be right. This was propounded by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher.

So taking the Harry Potter example again, Grindelwald was stopped by Dumbledore because he realised that everyone has rights and duties which must be respected even if they were magic-fearing/attacking Muggles (non-magic folk). So the famous battle between Grindelwald and Dumbledore can be termed to be a battle of philosophical outlook – i.e. Consequentialist Moral Reasoning v. Categorical Moral Reasoning.

Image result for ethical dilemmaBut this philosophy again is not impenetrable. Take for instance the case of Batman and Joker. Joker has always been a threat not only to Batman, but also to the citizens of Gotham. Yet Batman never kills him because that is something he feels is wrong. So he keeps capturing Joker and putting him in prison. So does Batman’s act of saving Joker, who can eventually escape and endanger the citizens of Gotham, count as a morally correct act or a morally wrong act?

Either way, our morality seems to oscillate between Bentham’s Utilitarian Principles and Kantian Philosophy. Many situations seem to illuminate the consistently grey areas between the two.

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