You are a Utilitarian

More of one than you think, at least

The decision is yours.

Allie Wang

The decision is yours.

The central thought experiment of ethical philosophy is known as the trolley problem. It goes as follows. You are a trolley operator, and somehow the brakes have failed on you. In front of you, five people are lying on the tracks, and if you don’t do something soon, the trolley will hit and kill them all. 

All you can do to prevent this fate is press a button, diverting the trolley onto a different track. The only problem with this is that one person is lying on this track, and changing the course of the trolley will hit and kill that person. So what do you do? Do you leave the trolley as is, killing five? Or do you actively divert its path, killing only one but placing the responsibility directly on your actions?

These two choices neatly fit into the two emergent theories of moral conduct: Deontological Ethics and Consequentialist Ethics. Deontological Ethics, also known as Virtue Ethics, suggests that we should judge the ethical nature of actions based on whether they are inherently right or wrong. Devotees believe that there are sets of divine virtues like honesty, humility and charity. By cultivating them and ensuring the virtuous nature of our actions, we can hope to become virtuous people. To a deontological ethicist like Immanuel Kant, behavior is unethical if it violates common societal understandings of ethical conduct. 

On the other hand, Consequentialist Ethics, also known as Utilitarian Ethics or Utilitarianism, suggests that we should judge on their outcomes rather than their inherent virtuosity or lack thereof. Utilitarianism dictates that proper moral conduct is conduct that achieves “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.” To a Utilitarian thinker like Peter Singer, behavior is unethical if it produces more substantial harm than good. By assigning a moral value to things in our lives, Consequentialism asserts that moral decisions only work as a series of trade-offs.

As it is popularly understood, Utilitarianism tends to be cold and unfeeling. For many, it harkens to images of panopticon authoritarianism and unspeakable suffering. Utilitarianism has a terrible reputation; there isn’t a better way to say it. It’s easy to see why Utilitarianism has garnered such a negative reputation. The ever-underwhelming Jeremy Bentham is a uniquely ineffective spokesperson. But under a more critical examination, this reputation is thoroughly undeserved.

As it turns out, when asked about the trolley problem, most people would switch the track. To them, the five saved lives outweigh the one lost. Therefore, the act of killing is justifiable. Most people select what they perceive to be the lesser of the two evils, an unmistakably Utilitarian decision.

I implore readers to reconsider their stance toward the two competing philosophies. Virtue Ethics, while admirable in theory, is hopelessly incompatible with human subjectivity, ridiculously arbitrary and unable to adjust to the natural messiness of many decisions. Utilitarianism’s negative reputation does give it the justice it deserves.

According to Virtue Ethics, bad things are bad only because they fail to qualify as good. This explanation feels both painfully incomplete and off-puttingly circular, the portrait of a hollow philosophy. To call it illogical would be to give it too much credit, as that would imply a justification for it; one which doesn’t exist.

In addition, Deontological Ethics is meaningless without a divine, incorruptible good to set an objective standard. However, by definition, this divine good is both intangible and incomprehensible. So, we must base our conception of virtue on a flawed human estimation. 

If our guidelines for moral conduct are not entirely sound, our system is defective from the inside out. The people and institutions we place trust in to set ethical standards often let their biases slip through. Standards of virtue set by flawed individuals and passed off to the people as objective and without flaw are open to human hypocrisy and hardheartedness in a way that an ethical system based on projected outcomes is not.

We make outcome-based decisions every day. To do otherwise is commonly seen as foolish and shortsighted. Consequences are ever-present phantoms, silently informing our choices and regulating our behavior.

I am not aiming to prompt a change in your conduct, only to provoke a critical reexamination of what constitutes a soundly constructed system of ethics. As I see it, the Virtue Ethics that we commonly fall back on are anything but sound. Utilitarianism offers a cleaner, more compassionate solution to ethical dilemmas, and we need to stop treating it as psychotic and impractical.