I (and others) have advocated many unusual beliefs in the name of utilitarianism. Consider the case of the doctor and the unwilling organ donor:

You are a transplant surgeon with five patients who each need a different organ: one needs a heart, one needs a lung, one a pancreas, one a kidney, and one a liver. You have no organ donors, and each of these men is on the verge of death. You are in your office, trying to figure out what to do, when a healthy man walks in for a checkup. You could kill him while he’s sleeping and harvest his organs, saving your five dying patients. Should you do it?

I said yes. More specifically I said that in the interest of the greater good, it’s worth it to kill one man in order to save five. This may seem a bit counter-intuitive. It took me a while to wrap my mind around it. What I didn’t mention before, though, is that I was wrong.

What do I mean? Why would I intentionally say something that I know is incorrect? Allow me to explain. The problem of the unwilling organ donor is multifaceted. In this hypothetical scenario, one is warranted in making certain assumptions and ignoring certain realities. When taken to the hypothetical world and freed of the many complications of reality, I can assume that my action has no side effects. I kill the napping patient, saving the five dying patients, and that’s that.

The real world is not nearly so simple. I would almost certainly be charged with murder and be thrown in jail for the rest of my life. I would be unable to continue my role as a doctor, unable to help those who most need it. Even if I weren’t convicted of murder, no one would trust me anymore and they’d refuse treatment out of fear that I’d kill them. Knowledge of this event would spread, causing many to become fearful of doctors even when they most need medical treatment. And that’s all without even mentioning the guilt and sorrow inflicted on the patients who received an organ from a murdered man–perhaps enough to drive some of them into permanent depression and even suicide. In the long run, killing the one man to save the five would have greater negative consequences than positive.

It’s not inconsistent to advocate one course of action in a hypothetical scenario and another in real life. In the hypothetical situation, we can simply forget about all the indirect effects of our actions. If it’s simply a question of killing the single patient or letting the five others die, my answer is an enthusiastic yes to the former. But that’s not what the question really is. In real life, there are always complications.

The purely hypothetical scenario may seem entirely disconnected with reality. But there is one case in which my hypothetical decision makes sense: where we assume that everyone on the planet is a complete Utilitarian. In such a case, people would understand that I did it to maximize utility. Laws would be built around maximizing utility, so I wouldn’t get arrested. People would continue to see me for treatment because they would know that I would only harm them if it was necessary to save others. The five original patients would not feel guilty because they would know that the one man died for the greater good. In fact, if everyone was a complete Utilitarian, the hypothetical scenario would not even be a dilemma. I wouldn’t need to kill anyone. I would simply explain the situation to the healthy man, and he would gladly sacrifice himself for the greater good.

We have now discussed two applications of the same hypothetical situation: one where we are in the real world and subject to all the constraints that the real world imposes on us, and one in which we live in an ideal society where everyone is fully interested in the good of everyone else. If we are following Utilitarian morality, the actions we take in each of these situations will be very different. It is worth examining these two moralities separately.

Strict Utilitarianism is the set of morality in which we assume that every rational being acts according to Utilitarianism; Practical Utilitarianism is that in which we remember all the constraints and imperfections of the real world.

Many of my previous writings addressed the set of morality that is Strict Utilitarianism. I often took the liberty of assuming that everyone holds maximum happiness of all beings as their highest goal. In real life, we cannot make this assumption.

Real life is not always as fun to speculate about. When we assume that everyone is a perfectly rational Utilitarian, our imaginations can soar. That’s not to say that the real world is by any means boring; but the Strict world is a very different one, and that makes it interesting. The simplicity of it makes it far easier to work out a system of morality, which is important when you’re dealing with a complicated philosophical argument – it’s hard enough without throwing in all the problems that the real world brings. When we ignore practical problems, it becomes that much easier to focus on the core issues of morality.

This idea of strict versus practical morality doesn’t just apply to Utilitarianism; it applies to many different schools of ethics to varying degrees. It seems to be more important for schools such as Utilitarianism that postulate that the moral worth of an action comes from its consequences; other moral systems, such as Libertarianism or Kantian Deontology, rely on the motives behind a behavior or dictate that certain actions are categorically right or wrong. In those cases, there’s not as much difference between an ideal world and the real world; but there’s usually still a noticeable distinction.

Although other schools of morality may have interesting results when applied to an ideal world versus reality, that’s not the primary subject of today’s discussion. Today we are focusing on Utilitarianism.

It is worth noting that Practical Utilitarianism doesn’t change anything about happiness itself; rather, the difference between Strict and Practical Utilitarianism is in how we go about achieving that happiness.

Strict Utilitarianism is that set of rules that apply in an ideal world. This is an interesting and very pure system, but it’s never going to be completely applicable (at least not at any time in foreseeable history). Why? Although by Utilitarianism each person has a higher probability of happiness than by any other school of morality, it’s possible that an individual person will have far lower happiness than she would like. For example, in the case of the organ donor there are five people made more happy and only one person made less happy. If you were placed in that scenario and randomly assigned to be one of those people, you have a five out of six chance of increased happiness. However, one of those six people is going to be much less happy, so this person will not be satisfied with the system. A complete Utilitarian would be willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and such people do exist: mothers who save their children over their selves, soldiers who throw themselves on a grenade to save their compatriots. But such behavior is not very common.

Truly altruistic behavior is rare because of how humans came to exist. We were not simply created for the purpose of maximizing happiness. We evolved over millions of years, and our instinctual sense of ethics is based on this evolution. Most of the time, our genetics won’t let us be too altruistic unless have have something to gain from it. As rational beings, we humans have a certain capacity to override this behavior. But along with the rational we also have the emotional, the instinctual. We are just as much restricted by our genetics as we are liberated by our rationality. Although it’s theoretically possible, I don’t think it’s likely that we as a species will ever fully free ourselves from the callings of genetics and self-interest in order to become truly selfless. It would be great if we did, but I just don’t see it happening.

Because our morality is restricted by our genetics, our hedonistic calculus must be modified to take this into account. Instead of using Strict Utilitarianism, which demands that every action work towards the greater good, we instead must develop a system of Practical Utilitarianism. This system requires that we remember the fact that people aren’t perfect utility-maximizing machines. Human beings are imperfect. Even the world’s strongest advocate of rational Utilitarianism still feels his genetics urging him to act selfishly. Sometimes humans just don’t have the willpower to help others at their own expense.

This does not mean we should give up trying to be altruistic. If anything, it’s all the more reason to try harder, because we have that much more to gain by trying. As we move from the ideal realm to the practical, we must ask ourselves a question: how do we work towards the greater good, knowing that people will often want to be selfish and emotionally driven – even ourselves?

In many cases, acting towards the greater good is not difficult because our instincts sometimes push us in that direction. Although we are not usually inclined to help others unless there is some benefit for ourselves, we very often find in ourselves the willingness to do no harm to other people, even when doing so would be of great benefit to us. To use an extreme example, we could benefit from murdering people who get in our way, as long as we do so carefully so no one finds out who the murderer was. And yet we don’t. Murder is exceedingly rare. We don’t not murder because we are afraid of punishment; the real reason we hold ourselves back is because we know that murder is wrong. Our instincts tell us that murder is wrong, and so does rational morality.

Negative cases – i.e., cases where an individual can benefit by decreasing the greater utility – are easy to reconcile with our instincts, and we have no trouble resisting our selfish desires. But with positive cases, where an individual must sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of greater happiness overall, we humans tend to have more difficulty. It is these cases that I wish to examine.

Consider a more formal definition of a moral dilemma: There is a scenario involving multiple agents. You must make a choice which will affect the happiness of everyone involved. Your choice will increase the happiness of some and decrease the happiness of others. Whatever you do, some people will benefit and others will not. Furthermore, one or more choices may conflict with your instinctive sense of morality.

To analyze a real-world moral dilemma, it’s useful to start by thinking of it in terms of Strict Utilitarianism. The situation becomes simply a question of maximizing happiness. Such a situation is much more clear-cut, and paints a picture of what the scenario should look like ideally. Then, in order to move from Strict to Practical Utilitarianism, we must begin to consider the real-world side effects of the possible choices. The main questions to ask yourself are these:

  1. How would your choice affect you personally?
  2. Which choices (if any) would you lack the willpower to make?
  3. How would the people involved react to your choice?
  4. How would people who are not involved react to your choice?

Now let us apply Practical Utilitarianism by posing moral dilemmas, asking these four questions, and attempting to resolve the quandary. These questions are not intended to give definitive answers, but rather they act as a guide to lead you to the best choice.

These dilemmas were discussed in previous posts from a Strict perspective. Now let’s look at the Practical side.

In the novel Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (Vintage Books, 1976 – the 1982 movie starred Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline), a Polish woman, Sophie Zawistowska, is arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Auschwitz death camp. On arrival, she is “honored” for not being a Jew by being allowed a choice: One of her children will be spared the gas chamber if she chooses which one. In an agony of indecision, as both children are being taken away, she suddenly does choose. They can take her daughter, who is younger and smaller. Sophie hopes that her older and stronger son will be better able to survive, but she loses track of him and never does learn of his fate. Did she do the right thing? Years later, haunted by the guilt of having chosen between her children, Sophie commits suicide. Should she have felt guilty?

Here, Question 1 is the most important. Sophie made a decision which in a Strict world was the right one, but it ended up haunting her for the rest of her life. In the practical world, it’s unfair to ask people to choose which of their children gets to live. The whole situation is rather horrible. Sophie probably made the right choice, but a lot of the problem with this situation is that it’s too nuanced to be at all easy to judge.

Also, let us consider Question 3: how would the other people involved react to the choice? Maybe the older son is alive somewhere, but he completely despises himself because his mother picked him over his sister. But maybe a self-hateful existence is better than no existence at all. Wherever the son is, Sophie’s choice drastically affected him.

You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

Here, Question 2 is the most important. The “right thing” is to kill your son, but do you have the necessary willpower? Is it fair for morality to ask you to do something like that? I think not. You should not be considered a bad person for failing to kill your son, and you should not be morally obligated to kill him.

A friend confides to you that he has committed a particular crime and you promise never to tell. Discovering that an innocent person has been accused of the crime, you plead with your friend to give himself up. He refuses and reminds you of your promise. What should you do? In general, under what conditions should promises be broken?

Strict Utilitarianism says you should turn in your friend. (1) If you did that, you may feel guilty about it. But you might feel guilty if you didn’t turn him in; and, more importantly, the freedom or imprisonment of an innocent person is more important than your feelings of guilt. (3) Your friend would no longer trust you, and you may even lose a friend. But again, justice is more important. (4) Other people may see that you turned in your friend, and they may also cease to trust you. This is a much broader effect, and must be weighed against the freedom of the innocent person. I would say that the freedom of the innocent person is worth more, but it’s arguable.

For a much larger-scope example, consider economic systems. In a Strict world, communism is the ideal economic system – in fact, any other system will quickly become communism. Purely altruistic people in a capitalist society will give away their goods and property to the people who need them most. Under Strict Utilitarianism, economics is almost absurdly simple.

In the Practical world, this is not so. People are self-interested most of the time. This is why capitalism has its advantages in real life. And it’s why economics is such a difficult problem. The conflict between Strict vs. Practical Utilitarianism does not only arise in fascinating-but-contrived moral dilemmas: it shows up quite clearly in something as commonplace and essential as economics. Designing an economic system for the real world is an extremely difficult problem because it does not just deal with a single dilemma, but with millions of dilemmas every day that must be coordinated in order to maximize overall utility. Because economics is not one dilemma but a constant stream of dilemmas, it is impossible to ask the four questions. But we can ask a different question: if we implement economic policy X, what choices will this lead to? Will people make choices that maximize utility? Proponents of capitalism claim that capitalism leads to choices that maximize utility. These proponents claim that people are nearly always self-interested and under a capitalist system this self-interest leads to economic growth (i.e. utility).

The issue of Strict vs. Practical Utilitarianism can also be applied to government. In a Strict world, no government is necessary because everyone does what’s best for everyone. But in the real world, we need a government in order to maximize utility. Like the problem of economic systems, the problem of how to create such a government is an immensely complex one which cannot be answered here. But we can start by asking: if we put government X over ourselves, what choices will this lead to? The question has no simple answer, but at least it’s a start.

Strict Utilitarianism provides a playing field where we can think about Utilitarianism and morality at the most abstract level. Unfortunately, such a playing field is not analogous to the real world. In order to answer real-world questions about morality, we have to consider the system of Practical Utilitarianism. I have explained some of the ideas behind this framework, and a way to use it to begin thinking about the problems of the real world: first consider the solution according to Strict Utilitarianism, and then ask the questions that allow your thinking to migrate from the Strict world to the real world.