Often when discussing utilitarian ethics, the following sort of hypothetical scenario will be posed as an interesting thought experiment: Say you are at a dinner party with twenty friends and family and suddenly a group of goons bursts in, guns drawn, and informs the group that they will all be killed. However, if you agree to take one of their guns and kill your closest family member in the room–say, your spouse–the other nineteen people will be spared. What should you do?
More interesting for my own purposes is the question, what could a pacifist possibly do in this situation to emerge with her pacifist principles intact and unscathed?
I hope that I can safely begin with the assumption that in order for an action to have moral weight, it must be freely chosen. After all, how can I be accused of acting immorally when I could not freely choose to do otherwise? And it is precisely upon this assumption that my response–as a pacifist–to this problem depends.
Put simply, I’m not sure how we can meaningfully speak of either one of the possible choices in the above situation as moral or immoral. As a pacifist, I take human life to be inviolable–never to be destroyed except in the most extreme of cases. And this, I think, is precisely one such case.
What, after all, is the real choice in this scenario? It seems that it is a choice between death and death. And if, furthermore, human life is inviolable, we could say that the choice is more specifically between two evils of equal measure. In other words, it is not a choice! And if there is no choice, I would submit that neither decision can meaningfully be seen as moral or immoral.
Now, presumably, the utilitarian would say that you should kill your spouse and spare the others, as according to utilitarian logic we must not give preference to our loved ones in choosing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However, I would take issue with utilitarianism on two points.
First, it’s unclear to me how utilitarians can maintain the inviolability of human life. And perhaps this is simply not a problem from a utilitarian perspective, but, quite simply, I vehemently disagree with any moral theory that puts the greatest value in anything other than human life–whether that be happiness, money, or anything else. Without human life, none of these things can possibly hold any value.
Secondly, it seems that utilitarianism–and consequentialist theories more generally–has another fatal flaw in regard to knowledge. If whether or not my action is moral or immoral depends on the consequences of that action, unless I can look into the future and know with certainty what said actions will be, I will never actually know beyond a guess whether or not my action will be moral or not! In the above scenario, for example, I could as a faithful utilitarian kill my spouse in order to save the others only to discover that the goons–being goons–were lying and are going to kill everyone else anyway!
Utilitarianism may be practical in certain every day situations, but as a moral theory I think it fails. At a certain point, we must put aside speculations and hedonic calculii regarding the possible consequences of our actions and do what is right regardless.