Is Doing the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number the Right Thing?

Is Doing the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number the Right Thing?

A frosty but warm-hearted group gathered and decided to discuss if utilitarianism made sense. We began with a simple formulation of that ethical view, as mentioned in the title, but recognized that it could also be stated as doing the least harm or trying to do things that maximize the happiness or best consequences for those affected by one’s acts.
One of the first questions that arose was: who is in a position to make the decision of what is good or what happiness results from one’s actions? Even if one is trying to minimize suffering, rather than maximizing happiness, how can anyone be confident that he or she understand the variety of values and attitudes that others hold. While we may believe that pain and suffering should always be minimized, some belief such tribulations have redemptive value and would not want to avoid them.
The very idea of defining what is good for anyone else seems quite paternalistic. Like the Golden Rule, it assumes that what we would want for ourselves is a valid measuring stick to judge what we should do for others. Clearly this may not always be correct. We noted that Ethical Culture’s notion of identifying that which is special and worthy of development in others and thereby fostering our own moral development seems to avoid this paternalism.
Goods come in different flavors. Unconditional goods are those which one cannot have too much of, like health and justice. Most goods are conditional (e.g. money, relaxation, and freedom). But doing everything to maximize health of a society nonetheless will compromise other needs, and this too is not a realistic or even desirable goal.
We were concerned that utilitarianism seems to place values on people and would be willing to sacrifice handicapped newborns, since they would be a drain on social resources that could be put to alternative uses. Such a calculus seems to be operating in countries with national health systems, e.g. Britain, in which there is an age limit on providing dialysis machines. While this may be a reasonable, logical and “cost-effective” policy, it seems to run counter to our belief in the basic value and dignity of all humans, regardless of their age, physical and mental condition, or their capacity for productively contributing to society. Policy makers need to make disinterested decisions, but we, as family members, usually cannot. The cold, calculating aspect of utilitarianism seems to need an assertive counter-force to express compassion and respect for individuals. On the other hand, utilitarianism seems to offer a practical guideline for not only social policy makers but also for institutions, e.g. emergency room triage during disasters. Even as individuals, if we found our house burning with children and great grandpa inside, we’d first try to get the kids out. Therefore, despite its limitations and disturbing aspects, there seems to be am implicit utilitarian formula we follow under certain situations.
Finally, what about the needs of a minority in the face of doing what is best for the majority? This ends-justifies-the-means view of utilitarianism would seem to vindicate torture of a few if it revealed important information about saving scores or hundreds of others. If torture is justified in this situation, where can the limit be drawn?
In the end, we felt meeting and discussing this topic provided a deeper appreciation of utilitarianism’s practical advantages but disturbing implications and limitations. No one felt they would be able to hear the phrase “greatest good for the greatest number” in the same way again.
Join our discussions on the first and third Mondays of each month at 7 pm to critically examine ideas that make a difference.
Richard Bernstein

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