Sunday, December 4, 2011

Revisting Utilitarianism

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.


  1. I think the scenario you raise is an interesting one. I've been thinking about it for some time now.

    I'm not sure that it necessarily follows that murdering the wealthy man is moral under utilitarianism. Here's what i mean

    Regardless of how or when he dies, his estate will be donated to "benefit humanity". (You acknowledged this fact in your blog post). The ultimate consequence does not change. All that changes with his murder is the time in which that money is donated. Murder simply expedites that process.

    That expediency, in my opinion, doesn't increase the overall happiness (especially in relation to the fact that the rich man is being murdered. The larger implications that would have seem to outweigh the "donation now" benefit. For instance, if the man is murdered other wealthy individuals wouldn't donate their estate to charity. Their act of altruism could cause them to be murdered.

    Take, for example, the billionaire pledge. Billionaires across the United States have pledged to give away half of their net worth. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, and others have promised to donate billions of dollars to charity. If this scenario plays out as you suggest, they would certainly abandon their pledge and those donations would be lost. So, as it turns out, murdering the one man for his money is not what would promote the greatest happiness. On the contrary, it would dramatically decrease it.

    Regardless of that fact, I think you definitely raise some intriguing questions about utilitarianism. This may be the most thought provoking post of the semester.

  2. I think that your thought experiment is really interesting, but it seems to me that if the money that is donated to charity when the wealthy man dies will benefit the entire world, that is well and good in its own rights. However, if the money will benefit the world at any point in time, then it does not matter when the wealthy man expires, but only that he at some point does. It seems then that the murder of the wealthy man would be, as Thomas said, merely an expedition of the process. Furthermore, if one were to assume that the wealthy man has family (which is probable, since he certainly has parents at least, perhaps siblings, or a wife and children) his murder then actually causes a greater amount of unhappiness to a greater number of people, when including his family. While one may immediately bring an argument to that stating that his hypothetical family will be upset if he dies either way - by murder or naturally - it seems to me that there would most likely be a greater amount of sadness or grief from a death that was directly caused and premeditated by another person. Therefore it seems to me that the greatest amount of pain would be created by the wealthy man's murder, in this case. However, I do concede that this would rely on a certain kind of thought experiment, and one could certainly change this to nullify certain parts of the above argument, such as stating that the world will only benefit from the money if he were to die today, for example. So basically, while I have no answer to the dilemma, it is certainly an interesting question.

  3. There should be no rush to kill the man if he has already promised to donate his money! Like Thomas said, if the man was murdered, it could possibly scare off the other millionaires; they would no longer promise to donate half of their money to charity.

    Both killing the man and waiting until his natural death will bring the same amount of happiness (in the sense of the donated money) so his death should not be expedited.

  4. Mills,

    As someone who also sympathizes with Utilitarianism, I find this post to be intriguing. I have to agree with Thomas that the murder of this one billionaire could be seen as immoral, insofar as it would discourage other billionaires from sticking their necks out.

    I'd like to approach the problem from another angle, however, because I'm not certain that any of the reasons that Thomas, Hannah, or Ivonne give definitively prove that Utilitarianism would not suggest the murder of the billionaire. As a matter of fact, I think that the most insightful point a Utilitarian might make in such a situation is that any world which is so organized that the killing of a man for his money could be the right action would certainly not be a world in which happiness was distributed to the greatest amount of people. What I mean is that A Utilitarian might suggest that the fact that we can even entertain the possibility that this murder might be right is evidence of the gross injustices of wealth and material resources in our society. Thus, a Utilitarian might approach the problem by suggesting that the best way to provide the most happiness for the most people would be to eliminate the social and economic injustices that make this dilemma a dilemma in the first place.


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