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.