Modern Morality: Utilitarianism


Photo by Kristine Cho

Kristine Cho

More often than not, an introduction to basic ethical theory includes a mention of the trolley problem, an ethical dilemma so iconic that it has even become a meme. It basically goes like this: imagine that there is a trolley barreling down a set of tracks. At the end lies a fork in the tracks. On the set of tracks the trolley is on, a group of innocent people are tied to the tracks.
However, the reader is presented with a lever that could potentially guide the trolley onto another set of tracks with only one person of the other set of tracks of meme-worthy status. The image then presents a dilemma: would the viewer pull the lever and spare the innocent people (and inevitably kill the meme-worthy person), or would the viewer leave the lever alone and spare the meme? This situation is a classic example of contemporary utilitarianism.
The ethical theory of utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral philosophy conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the 1700s that focuses on the tangible outcomes in our world. As such, utilitarianism rejects the idea of taboos and social customs in favor of actions that maximize pleasure or happiness. Every action or policy weighed by utilitarianism calls for the “maximization of utility,” or the production of the most good as a result of its consequences.
In the trolley problem, this means pulling the lever, directing the trolley towards one person, and subsequently saving the group of people that laid in harm’s way. Much of utilitarianism is quite intuitive, and that’s because of its pervasiveness in normative thought and argumentation. Policymakers in Congress use a utilitarian set of ethics to make decisions, looking for what would please their constituents the most. However, that isn’t to say that utilitarianism is simple. Many ethical dilemmas are still posed in the face of utilitarianism, from the consideration of minorities to different interpretations of utilitarianism; one can even call the validity of consequences into question.
In our own lives, we often find ourselves confused by difficult choices we make. College decisions to investments leave us stumped and confounded. Utilitarianism is a straightforward and sound method of consideration that is often heralded in the public eye as the gold standard of logical consideration, and it’s important to realize its pervasiveness and nuances as well as the things it overlooks and the things that make it so great.