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Philosophy or Ethics

The Greatest Happiness Principle

There is something known as “The Trolley Problem” that is utilized as a hypothetical situation in the study of ethics and morality. There are multiple scenarios of the trolley problem, but here is just one: you are driving a trolley and on the track ahead of you, there are five men working who will be killed unless you pull a lever to divert the train to the other track. However, on the other track there is one man working who will be killed if you choose to divert the train. What would you do? Most people say that they would divert the train in order to save more lives.

This response aligns with the theory of Utilitarianism, which is a principle influenced heavily by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Essentially, Utilitarianism, which has been dubbed “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” is a consequentialist belief that actions should be based on maximizing the amount of happiness for the whole of society. John Stuart Mill wrote in Utilitarianism, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.” Therefore, the action of diverting the train follows utilitarian beliefs, as diverting the train will kill one person instead of five, which by simple reasoning, minimizes the amount of pain suffered by society as a whole.

Now let’s complicate the situation. Let’s say that the five men on the track are workers and the single person on the track is a pregnant woman or the President of the United States. Does this change anything? For many people, it probably does. I think a problem with Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism is that it frames the world and the decisions that people have to make in too simple of a nature. In a purely quantitative sense, killing the pregnant women or the President would still be killing less people than the five workers. However, Mill asserts in his argument that there are different levels of happiness and pleasure. Does saving the President fall into a higher order of happiness for the whole than the happiness that would result from saving the five workers? Questions such as these suggest that the principle of Utilitarianism is flawed in guiding our actions.

Let’s consider another situation that is presented in the 2007 film, Gone Baby Gone. Private investigator Patrick Kenzie is hired to solve the case of a young girl, Amanda, who has been abducted. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Amanda’s drug addict mother has not cared for her daughter very well. At the end of the movie, Patrick discovers that the police chief was responsible for the abduction and that Amanda is living happily with the police chief and his wife. Patrick decides to turn the chief in and return Amanda to her troubled home. The movie ends somberly, with Patrick checking up on Amanda and her mother. When he visits, the mother is about to leave for a date and plans on leaving Amanda home alone while she is out. After hearing this, Patrick volunteers himself to watch Amanda.

Applying a utilitarian perspective to this scenario is mind boggling. Did Patrick’s ultimate decision to return Amanda to her mother result in the greatest happiness for the whole? Some might argue yes. A lot of pain and suffering went into the investigation of Amanda’s abduction and it is an inherent human principle that children should be raised by their mothers. However, this is just one view. The other argument is that leaving Amanda in the caring home of the police chief causes the greatest happiness for the whole in the long run, as it will most likely result in a better upbringing for the child than had she been returned to her dysfunctional home.

There are many criticisms to the theory of utilitarianism, many of which assert that the principle is completely wrong and implausible. While some of these critiques are compelling, this is not what I am concerned with in this post. Instead, I want to call into question the completeness of the theory. In Mill’s work, he attempts to refute the critique that man does not have enough time to weigh the outcomes of his or her actions in order to determine the effect on the total happiness of the whole. Mill’s response to this is a parallel to Christianity, claiming that this critique would be similar to asking a Christian  to read through the whole Bible before every decision is made. Despite Mill’s somewhat witty objection, I think debates could actually go on for all of eternity in certain situations about what action will cause the most happiness. It may be obvious in some situations, but at least in my mind, the hypothetical situations laid out above shed light on the fact that applying the “Greatest Happiness Principle” is not always so cut and dry.



9 thoughts on “The Greatest Happiness Principle

  1. Mills’ belief that man does not have enough time to weigh the outcomes of his or her actions to determine the total happiness of a situation is realistic. I think Mills’ take on utilitarianism is more practical because we do not have eternity to make decisions. For example, the conductor of the train only has seconds to make his decision about which track to take. There are definitely situations like in Gone Baby Gone where neither alternative is ideal, however, the investigator is forced to use his own judgment in deciding how to bring about the most happiness in the situation. This is not a cut and dry situation and Mills addresses these when he advocates for Weak Rule Utilitarianism where breaking rules is okay if it is for the greater happiness of society. I think individuals grow up with different values and different societal influences that impact the individual in the act of applying the “Greatest Happiness Principle” to a problem. Yes, some situations may not be clear; but I think most need to be addressed in a reasonable time to be resolved. People are going to weigh the outcomes quickly and use their best judgment to make the right choice according to how they perceive the greatest happiness.

    Posted by Lauren Daley | January 31, 2012, 5:16 pm
    • I think that you gave a very interesting take on utilitarianism. The case of the train is one that kids start learning about in elementary school and it is interesting how it still applies to what we are learning today. Similar to the case that I always heard about where either 5 children can die or you can throw one fat man in front of the train in order to stop it–killing the fat man while you’re at it, the situation is far from cut and dry. While I tend to take more of a consequentialist stance in this situation, I do not when it comes to the Gone Baby Gone situation. I think that an officer not only has a duty to turn in a stolen child, but it is also a mother’s right to take care of her child. This is a situation where it seems that you have to let the system take its course rather than trying to intercede illegally. Because of the different values that people grow up with, there is always a different view of what would be viewed as the smarter move. I think that looking at this principle, the person whose job it is to put the man in front of the train and turn the child in must look at what is the individual’s rights who they are harming while also looking at what will make you the happiest with your given values.

      Posted by Catherine Gibbons | January 31, 2012, 8:01 pm
  2. This is a very interesting aspect of ethics that I also feel is really important and intriguing. In the beginning of your blog you said the option was between killing one person and killing five. I wonder what the argument would be if a person believed killing five was the correct answer. Let’s say that all of the people on the track are on the same level of importance, so Mill’s wouldn’t put any of them in a higher position in the theory of utilitarianism. What, then, would be the reason for taking the turn that eliminates five people? It seems striking to me that the man driving the trolly would ever choose killing more people than less, especially if it were a split second decision and he did not know anything about the men. According to simple utilitarianism, the decision to move to the track with less people would, morally speaking, be the better option. We also have to take into account that moral wrongs are inherently already a part of this situation, and that the trolley driver is forced to participate and take action.

    Posted by alyssakinell | January 31, 2012, 5:43 pm
  3. Beth you did a great job of helping me to understand Mill’s theory in a more modern light. I agree with you that the theory depends on the situation, and is too simple. You can’t possibly take Mill’s idea and have it work in every situation (I guess that’s why its a theory…). This also got me thinking about other theories and scholarly contributions that sometimes don’t seem right to me. I strongly believe that many, if not all, of the theories that we learn throughout our academic careers fail to seem complete, and/or correct in many situations. We learn that these are famous, over-arching theories but they also seem to have been created years and years ago. Are they still as applicable today as they were 40 years ago? I say probably not. People take these theories and apply them to many situations, but I feel that you first have to understand the situation itself, as a separate entity from any theory. There are far too many complications and cultural forces that change in any given situation.

    Posted by Ben K. | January 31, 2012, 8:34 pm
  4. Beth, you did a great job at explaining the “greatest happiness principle” in a simple and clear language. The examples that you used were also both helpful and creative. Overall, I got the feeling that making ethical decisions can be a very complicated and time consuming given the multiple different situations that affect the greatest level of happiness. I never really took the time to think about the different factors that can sway people’s minds on assigning more happiness to different situations over others. I always assumed that making the right choice would come naturally and without much thought. I thought the example about Amanda and her mother proved to be quite effective in making your point. If I were in the investigators position I feel as though I would be very uncomfortable on deciding what to do. Personally, I feel as though there would have been a greater happiness level if Amanda had stayed with policeman and his family rather than going back to her drug addict mother.

    Posted by Amanda Skonezney | January 31, 2012, 9:53 pm
  5. Beth, excellent use of real life situations. Gone Baby Gone happens to be one of my favorite movies as well. I’ve taken a course on ethics in my tenure here and utilitarianism always troubled me. In some cases I feel it can be very well utilized but as you have depicted quite well, when the situation is tweaked or complicated to a certain degree, one is left scratching their head. For some reason the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right” keeps popping up in my head in this situation. I think Mills’ method of weighing the benefits for making simple decisions, say business or corporate financial decisions, utilitarianism gives a clear method of action; as you point out with your quantitative point. However, I also believe that Mill did not intend for his utilitarianism to be used to a tee as the categorical imperative implies. I think utilitarianism is intended at aiding in our decision but ultimately the decision is up to the decision maker and it is this factor that makes ethics so difficult to grasp. Who knows what society will deem as a wrong or right choice 50, 100, or even 1,000 years down the road.

    Posted by Patrick | January 31, 2012, 10:32 pm
  6. Beth, I think everyone appreciates the descriptive nature in which you brought this topic up. Your first example of the oncoming train is one that really intrigues me as to how we can make an ethical choice in this dilemma. I like how you set the ethical dilemma up bringing to light the concept of the Utilitarianism approach in which we need to “maximize the happiness of society as a whole,” yet another question bothers about this predicament. If we are to maximize the happiness of society as a whole, then being the agent of change for the train’s course may take away from the positive effects the repercussions may have on society. I would argue that allowing the course to continue on its current course is a tragedy that should have been averted due to the train company. However, changing the train’s course and killing the innocent worker on the other line makes you the change agent and essentially the murderer of the one individual. Thus, is it more of a benefit to society to actively murder one innocent man working on a non-dangerous track, or to allow the tragedy outside of your agency to occur. I do not have an answer as to what I would do in such a situation, but it is interesting food for thought nonetheless.

    Posted by Derek | January 31, 2012, 11:52 pm
  7. You are such a wonderful writer! I definitely understand Utilitarianism better after reading your article. I certainly agree that Utilitarianism can be too simple for our complex lives, although in certain situations, it provides a good explanation for our actions.

    I think this also links back to our ideas of defining right vs wrong, or trying to decide what is ethical and what is unethical. Things will always look different through someone else’s eyes, and sometimes what seems right actually has more negative consequences (like returning Amanda to her mother, instead of letting her stay with the police chief) – this directly links to our discussion on virtue from class last week. What an interesting concept! Thanks for your in-depth explanations.

    Posted by Caitlin H. | February 1, 2012, 12:13 am


  1. Pingback: Happiness and A Quiet Mind, or Happiness with Positive Psychology | Karoo Publishers - March 19, 2012

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