The Greater Good

You might have heard of the set of imaginary scenarios which have been developed to explore people’s moral choices. One version, on the PBS website, gives you the chance to make interactive life or death decisions about tiny people. []

For example, we are presented with a runaway train, about to crash into four unfortunates trapped on the track. We would like to save them by diverting the train onto a spur, but what if there was one person trapped on that track? Divert or not?

lego railway pointsThere’s a general consensus in how people respond to the various scenarios. Most people’s instinctive approach is that doing harm in order to do good can be justified if in some sense the harm is not “intentional”. For example, the majority say that they would divert the train in the first scenario, killing one to save four; but most refuse a modified sequence in which you have to deliberately toss someone onto the track to stop the train. (Second one in the PBS quiz.)

If I have a moral philosophy of life, it would be “Utilitarianism”, described by Jeremy Bentham, one of its earliest proponents, as “the greatest happiness principle”. Actually, terms like “happiness” and “pleasure” have tended to obscure the true concept of utilitarianism, leading many people, even distinguished philosophers, to condemn it for being something that it isn’t.

For example, you might think that a utilitarian idea of the greatest good for the greatest number would make the decision to chuck the fat guy in front of the train a no-brainer. One dead, four saved. But that’s too narrow a view. It ignores the fact that “you” in the scenario would have to do a dreadful, evil thing: deliberately killing a person. You might still decide that it was the least worst option, but that’s how I look at utilitarianism: a framework for thinking about moral choices, not a system of absolutes.

(At around the same period as Bentham, Immanuel Kant was arguing for the “categorical imperative”, in which you must always “do the right thing”, regardless of the consequences. It’s a concept of moral absolutism which I dislike very much. Consequences are important.)

These thoughts and theories came to mind when I heard on the news that the attempt to rescue the two terrorist captives (one British, one Italian) in Nigeria had resulted in their deaths. Perhaps untypically for a bleeding-heart liberal, I think that such military operations are morally justified. I’m not sure I believe the official line that the captives’ lives were in imminent danger, forcing the attack. That sounds a lot like retrospective justification for an operation that went wrong.

But, for the greater good, mounting the operation was the correct decision, even with a known risk that it might go wrong. It has been said that there was a difference in approach between the Italian authorities and the British, in that the Italians would have preferred to pay a ransom. The consequence of that attitude is that Italian civilians become valuable to terrorists, putting further innocent lives at risk. Like the man controlling the railway points, I think it’s consequences which count, not principles.


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