I consider myself a utilitarian, which means that I believe an action is just to the extent it increases happiness in the world. I came across a utilitarian “Frequently Asked Questions” page earlier today that was very good, except for one paragraph. The problem is that the one paragraph contains a significant error, at least to my understanding of utilitarianism.
The FAQ was written by a man named Nigel Phillips, and it can be seen in full here. Phillips tackles the issue of forced organ donation. In short, the ethical dilemma is whether it is justifiable to kill a healthy human being for the purpose of harvesting his organs to save the lives of five people who need his organs to live. Does utilitarianism require us to kill the one healthy person to save the five sick ones?
A common fear about utilitarianism is that the theory would require us to kill the healthy person. Phillips says “not so fast”, explaining that there are all kinds of negative consequences that would result from the murder, in addition to the death we would have caused.
Phillips: How could we pick a victim for our supplies, without generating fear and alarm in the community? If someone who goes to hospital with a minor complaint gets killed for his body parts by the doctors, would this not generate a fear of hospitals in the general populace… who would then refuse to enter one lest a similar situation occur again? And how, if we give doctors the power to decide who should die and who should live, do we stop doctors abusing their powers and becoming, for instance, extortionists?
So good, so far. But the next sentence Phillips writes should leave all utilitarians scratching their head.
There is also the assumption that different people’s lives necessarily have roughly equal worth… which is simply ridiculous from a utilitarian perspective. What if the two recipients are Hitler and Göring, and the forced donor is Martin Luther King?
The idea that people have equal worth is ridiculous? This is certainly not my belief. I believe that a person’s moral worth is a function of their ability to experience happiness in the future. It has nothing to do with their past actions. I feel comfortable with the idea that Hitler, Göring and King all have equal moral worth.
Now, before you leave any nasty comments, I do not believe that we should treat a mass murderer the same as a civil rights leader. How we assess a person’s moral worth and how we treat that person are separate issues. If punishing Hitler and Göring would have eased the pain of the holocaust survivors, or would have discouraged future wars or genocides, then those are good arguments for punishing them. I don’t think punishing King would ease anyone’s pain and it wouldn’t make war less likely, so he should be treated differently. But notice that the difference in treatment is due to a difference in expected consequences and not in the moral worth of the subjects.
As a matter of fact, Phillips embraces this very philosophy later on in the FAQ when discussing the issue of punishment.
Phillips: Utilitarianism does not accept that the “guilty” deserve “punishment” – it views punishment as a prima facie evil since it involves the infliction of harm. This harm can be justified if it has greater benefits in terms of maintaining order in the community, but the utilitarian position is that if punishment is not justified by utility then it is not justified at all.
I couldn’t agree more.