Is happiness all that counts?
What is utilitarianism about? In a nutshell:
Imagine that you are faced with a decision and have a range of options available to you. Which one should you choose? Let’s say, you are a doctor in a hospital and two patients are lying in front of you, both in need of the one ventilator that’s available: one is young and strong, just began his university studies before he suddenly fell ill. His prognosis is good: If he gets the ventilator, he will probably make it and have a long life afterwards. The other is an older man, now the president of a big computer company, a philanthropist supporting many charities, but his health is not so good. Even if he survives on this ventilator, he’ll eventually die from one of his other ailments, perhaps this year, perhaps next. There’s no way to know for sure. – What will you do? Who of the two should get the chance to live?
Utilitarianism tries to answer this question in a way that doesn’t require us to believe anything: we don’t need God, we don’t need to follow the Bible, we don’t even need to believe Kant or Aristotle.
We only need to agree on one single premise: that all human beings ultimately want to be happy.
If we can agree to this, then it follows naturally that the best action would be the one that maximises the happiness of all who are concerned: those whom my decision will affect. This is what Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) called “utilitarianism”: the principle that we should aim to maximise “utility,” which is nothing else but “happiness over unhappiness and pleasure over pain” (Bentham).
But here the trouble with utilitarianism begins. Obviously, my two patients are not going to agree on whose survival makes them happier. The one who survives will be happy, the other unhappy (and dead). So we’ll have to consider a few more factors. Their families, for example. Let’s say, the young one has a big family, who all love him, and they will be devastated if he dies. The older company president is an orphan, has never had any attachments, lives alone and cares only for his work. Now it seems easier to see where most happiness will be generated. But what if we also take the charities into account? What if we also count the users of the software that the president’s company is making? But then, what about their children? The older man, who has never married, doesn’t have any children. The young man doesn’t either, but he might. So all this quickly gets pretty complex.
But the problems don’t stop there.
For example, can we be sure that maximising happiness is always going to be the right choice?
Let’s say you have an old relative whom you visit in the elderly care home once a week, every Tuesday. This visit means a lot to them, and you always try to be punctual and not to miss any visits. And Tuesday is the only day you can get off work in time to visit them, so everything is fine. But then, one day, it so happens that some of your best friends surprise you with an invitation. It’s your birthday, they say, and they’re right. You had completely forgotten that your birthday fell on a Tuesday this year. Not only that, but they’ve also already organised a birthday party for you, ordered a cake, and invited everyone you know. They’ll all be coming to a fabulous party in your flat on that Tuesday, and they’ll be devastated if you don’t show up.
What now? If you count the number of people who’d be happy or unhappy, the party clearly trumps your old relative. If you go to the party, you make one person unhappy. If you go to your relative, you make twenty or thirty unhappy. Utilitarianism would say you should go to the party. But is this really the most moral course of action?
And it gets more extreme. Think of organ transplants. Organs are scarce, and many patients in need of transplants have to wait for months to get one. Many die waiting because the right organ cannot be found in time. Now, one person has two kidneys, one liver, two lungs, one heart, and a number of other bits that might come in handy. Why not kill the first healthy guy who comes along the street, take out his organs and distribute them to six or more patients whose lives would be saved? In a utilitarian calculation, this would compute as morally right.
So it seems that maximising happiness is not all that matters. We feel that there are other values that we have to take into account: our promise to that old relative who waits for us to visit. The life and the rights of the unsuspecting man whose organs we would like to have. And thousands of similar concerns that we try to juggle in our everyday decision making. But if this is true, then utilitarianism must be wrong.
But maybe there are more than two masters, after all.
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