Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the actions people take. For a consequentialist, an action is right if the consequences of that action were good, and wrong if the consequences of that action were bad.
A common form of consequentialism is called “utilitarianism”. A utilitarian thinks that the consequences of an action are good exactly when the consequences increase the amount of good in the world—the right action is the one that maximizes the amount of happiness and minimizes the amount of suffering. So, to do the right thing, you need to do the thing that increases the total amount of good in the world the most; you need to do what promotes “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Just what counts as “good” is controversial, as you might imagine, but thinking about a common thought experiment might help—it’s called The Trolley Problem. If you’ve seen “The Good Place,” this will sound familiar.
Imagine that you are at a junction in a train track, where you can switch the direction of a train. You suddenly notice that a train is approaching, and, if it continues down the track it is currently on, it will hit and kill five people. But you have the lever to change its direction! Just as you are going to pull it, you notice that there is one person trapped on the other track, so if you pull the switch, that person will be hit and killed. The utilitarian thinks that the right thing to do is always to pull the switch, no matter what. Saving five lives can be expected to create more happiness and less suffering in the world than saving one life. It doesn’t matter who that one person is, either; it could be your best friend, or your mother or child—your obligation is to choose the objectively best outcome, even if it’s a difficult or painful choice. It also doesn’t matter that you have to intervene by throwing the switch, so the fact that you’re choosing between actively deciding to kill one person versus passively letting five people die doesn’t matter either—letting five people die is just as bad as killing them, as far as the consequences are concerned. All that matters for the utilitarian is the total amount of good in the world, and five is better than one. For the utilitarian, it often comes down to the math.
This sounds harsh and cold in some cases, but there are other ways in which it may seem warm and accepting. Since utilitarianism just says that happiness is good, suffering is bad, and that therefore we should promote the greatest good for the greatest number, this means that we can’t play favorites. This does not apply just to the particular people we love, but to all kinds of people (or non-people!). Utilitarianism says no one is less important than anyone else, and everyone’s happiness and suffering counts equally: the poor as well as the rich, the infirm, the ignorant, immigrants, foreigners; strangers as much as friends. Even criminals’ suffering counts—although a society without laws and punishments would be unsafe and unfair, and would make us all miserable, so considering criminals’ suffering doesn’t mean giving up on justice! The happiness and suffering of animals counts too, in proportion to their capacities to experience pleasure and pain.
In this class, this theory will be useful when we are thinking about individual actions, but also when we are thinking about policy choices and the public good.
Short analysis assignment:
The main character, Leon, uses his newfound abilities to pursue knowledge, truth, beauty, and his own perfection as a knowing, understanding, experiencing being. Reynolds took a different path, a “lover of humanity” rather than of beauty, as Leon puts it as the story’s narrator. Think about how wretched humanity looks from Leon’s perspective; how trivial and meaningless everyone’s lives and concerns must seem. Reynolds must have something like this same view, but nevertheless he decided that nothing matters as much as they do. What would making that choice be like? On what reasoning would Reynolds have made this choice? (Don’t be tempted to bring in religious views—they are not part of the story, or part of utilitarian moral theory.) Why would a utilitarian agree with Reynolds’s reasons? Do you think Reynolds would find Leon’s perspective, instead, too small; too meaningless?
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