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A Real-Life Utilitarian Hypothetical

Ville Kokko

Posted on January 16, 2019 07:26

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If someone says we should maximize overall happiness, does that mean we could torture a few people if it entertained a lot of people? I found a context where this question is not an absurd thought experiment: fireworks.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory according to which what's right is what maximizes the overall good, with good usually being interpreted as something like happiness and the absence of suffering. In practice, this is one principle people's ethical intuitions follow. However, since it's not the only one, it's possible to come up with counterexamples that make it sound like utilitarianism is wrong. For example, is it right to maximize overall happiness in a way that is unjust?

One more concrete example is this: Would it be right to torture a few innocent people if it gave a lot of people a lot of amusement to watch them being tortured, if the utilitarian calculus (which doesn't actually exist but is spoken of hypothetically by philosophers discussing utilitarianism) indicated that the pleasure of the large amount of people would add up to more than the pain of the few?

But really, that's not exactly a real life example, is it? It's just a thought experiment moving at the borders of what would be hypothetically possible, right? That doesn't make it wrong, by the way. It could show that the principle of utilitarianism isn't really right because it's possible to get absurd results from it in principle.

There's a law being proposed in Finland right now that would restrict ordinary people from using fireworks on New Year's night. Reasons given for the proposal are that a minority of people, as well as many pets, experience distress from the constant banging on that one night; and that many people get injured using fireworks every year, even if it's a small percentage compared to how many people use them.

A major side of this issue is clearly a form of the hypothetical thought experiment on utilitarianism. Is it right to subject a few people (and other animals) to harm on one night of the year if a lot of people get enjoyment out of it?

Of course, there are some differences. Actively and purposely torturing innocent people would be more wrong than doing it as a side effect of something that's not meant to harm anyone. Also, another aspect of the fireworks question is the question of how much it's right for the state to limit what people do.

Nevertheless, what I see as the central ethical question is the question of whether it's all right to allow the majority to amuse themselves in a way that hurts a minority. That makes it a surprising real-life example of what seemed like an entirely hypothetical thought experiment. I'm sure there are other such examples as well.

In practice, the main sticking point with this proposal is likely to be tradition. People will likely want to go on doing something they're used to doing. The usual reaction for anyone wanting to forbid anything that people are used to doing already is to treat the whole suggestion as all but absurd, and accepting any weak excuse as a defense of the tradition.

Ville Kokko

Posted on January 16, 2019 07:26

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