In earlier blog posts and comments I spoke rather highly of utilitarianism. My good feelings about the theory were challenged recently when, in preparing for my paper, I ran across a moral dilemma challenging utilitarianism. It goes something like this:
Imagine that an extremely wealthy person has willed that his fortune go to charity after he dies. The money would be very beneficial for the well-being of humanity. Therefore, for the utilitarian it is morally correct to murder the wealthy benefactor so that his money will go to charity immediately. In applying the utilitarian calculus, the entire world is better off if his money goes to charity than if he continues to live.
Now, I can think of utilitarian arguments for not killing the wealthy person, but they are not entirely satisfying. The first objection is that there would be social repercussions for a society that tolerates killing of this sort. True, but that is just not satisfying as the only reason to refrain from killing him. Isn't there something wrong with the idea, in itself, of murdering an innocent person? Furthermore the scenario could be modified to bypass this objection—say, if the wealthy person lived in isolation in the wilderness.
Next, one might object that killing the wealthy person adds unnecessary pain, since the benefactor's money will still go to charity eventually if you do not kill him. Therefore, in applying the utilitarian calculus, total happiness would actually be slightly lower. But again, the scenario can be tweaked to get around this objection. For example, we could say that the wealthy person is in only his 30s. Still, the good consequences of his money going to charity would create more general well-being than if he were to live on several decades before giving away his money.
Without a doubt, this seems to me like a major failing of utilitarianism. However, this brings me to my next point. My revulsion at utilitarianism's prescribed action in this scenario is an intuitive response rather than a reasoned response. Based on the consequences alone, killing seems to be ethically correct in this scenario. But, of course, I think pretty much everyone (including myself) would agree that killing is not ethically correct in this scenario. Why is this? I don't see how anything besides consequences can be taken into account in evaluating moral behavior. Kant says that humans should behave according to duty to moral laws, but those laws are determined using the categorical imperative. How can a person decide what to will or not to will as a universal law without considering consequences? And what else, besides consequences, factors in to those decisions? I can't think of anything.