Archives for posts with tag: Utilitarianism

Suicide isn’t all that difficult to condemn. It’s like murder. Nobody likes murder. Except it’s sad feels rather than angry feels because the person is killing themselves rather than the countless other people who deserve it far more. I mean some might say that all life is sacred, and all killing, the self or otherwise, is reprehensible. We’re going to ignore this because black and white morality is mind-numbingly dull. Suicide is at best seen as a crushing tragedy, and at worst as a selfish act ignoring the impact on those who care about the suicidee. But let’s look at some suicides that people look upon favourably, just to spice things up a bit.

Jesus Christ killed himself. I mean, not like Kurt Cobain-style which would have made for some much more interesting Christian iconography, but as an omniscient God, He is commonly believed to have been aware of His pending fate and lovingly allowed it to happen as a means of forgiving humanity our sins. He allowed His death when He could have easily prevented it. Sure, it was on some boring ol’ cross, but God sacrificed His son (which is to say, Himself). That’s suicide, baby.


Can you imagine this decorating beautiful stained glass windows? Tell me it’s not the better imagery.

Next, in his penultimate life before he became the prince Gautama, the Buddha came across a family of starving tigers. Judging by my theme so far, you can probably guess that the Buddha gave himself to this family of tigers to sustain them… as their food. The tigers ate the Buddha. That’s literally how the story goes. Though much more personal than Christ’s sacrifice, the idea of allowing death for the sake of others is a common theme in divinity.

Bringing things back down to earth, in the Jain tradition where non-harm is considered the paramount duty, it is not uncommon for the fundamentalists who have reached the final stage of their life to go out into the wilderness, and simply meditate until their death. There is life within even the vegetation, (and the water supply, as microscopic organisms have the same life within them as everything else), and Jains don’t harm life. This devotion to non-harm at the appropriate time comes to its obvious culmination: the least harm one can do is to allow oneself to die.

In Japan, Seppuku is the honourable way to die for samurai who supremely fucked up in life. For those who don’t know, Seppuku is ritualistically stabbing yourself in the belly, and disemboweling yourself. This form of suicide was considered the opposite of selfish, as it restored honour rather than removed it. Also in Japan, the Kamikaze pilots would kill themselves for the glory of Japan. Again, a great honour.


Japan stopped with Seppuku, and now we have anime. Go figure.

Soldiers throw themselves upon grenades to save their comrades-in-arms. Secret service get shot in the belly to protect the president. People shield others with their bodies during mass shootings. Suicide can be heroic. It can be divine. So why, when we say the word suicide, do we automatically assume negativity? Readers might want to suggest a difference between suicide and self-sacrifice, so let’s look at that distinction.

Self-sacrifice is a utilitarian measure. Utilitarianism is the moral system of creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people: maximize happiness, well-being, utility, whatever word you want to use, make the most of that thing. Though one life is snuffed out, the overall well-being of the rest of the world is increased. Jesus may have died, but now humanity is redeemed forever. That’s a pretty good trade. People dying for a good cause, self-sacrifice, creates better worlds. The good outweighs the bad. That is classic utilitarianism. That is trolley problem utilitarianism.

However, utilitarianism works both ways. If someone sacrifices themselves, and they possess great suffering, eliminating that suffering means that the world now has more well-being within it. The average goes up. If the suffering of the sacrificee outweighs the suffering of those who would be impacted by that sacrifice, utilitarianism would say that it is moral. There is no ethical difference between the two. Suicide and self-sacrifice are indistinguishable if the measurements come through. Boom. Ethics.


See kids? Suicide is great because everyone will finally respect you, they’ll all realize how poorly they treated you, and the world will be a better place without you because everyone will learn a valuable lesson.

Now, you might be saying, that’s dumb; if that’s ethics, ethics is dumb. And you’re right. Utilitarianism is a terrible ethical system, but what makes it so terrible? I’ll give you another example. If a rapist enjoys rape more than the person being raped doesn’t enjoy it, then it’s moral. That’s how rapists think, and that’s how rape happens. The person who decides how happiness, well-being, whatever, ought to be maximized is going to be biased. I kinda think that any potential victim of rape would never reach that same conclusion, and yet they don’t get consulted. If they did, it wouldn’t be rape, because that’s how consent works.

What this means is that if you get feedback from your friends and family about how they’d feel if you killed yourself, and they came back to you either ambivalent or in favour, then sure, go for it. In Canada, we see this most commonly in what is termed medically-assisted death. People with terminal illnesses are able to commit suicide because the suffering that they endure is greater than the suffering of the loss felt by their friends and family. Loved ones should be consulted, obviously, but the utilitarian premise with the caveat of consent holds firm.

See? There can be a moral suicide. Just gotta make sure you talk it out with your loved ones first.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, a name literally no one will recognize, wrote an article that whined about how nobody in ethical circles takes egoism seriously. Why can’t we just look after number one and claim to be acting morally? Ayn Rand had some valid points, right? Now, most people would say, “Of course not! Ayn Rand was a psychopath and should be relegated to the Young Adult Fiction section of the library next to the Twilight Saga.” Unfortunately, the ethical beliefs of Ayn Rand, much like the Twilight series, has gained mind-boggling popularity, so I will grant Burgess-Jackson his request, and take the time to explain why egoism fails as an ethical system.

Burgess-Jackson’s main thesis is dependent on the comparison between egoism and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, even when rejected, is shown academic respect, but egoism is laughed out of the cafeteria. Both are consequentialist, but one measures the consequences as they relate to the group, the other as they relate to the self. Egoism takes the utilitarian maxim of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and turns it into, “the greatest good for the greatest guy: this guy!” The egoist would then point at himself with his two thumbs.


Jack Black: A stand-in for the abstract concept of ethical egoism

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. There are plenty of problems with utilitarianism (to the point where I consider it an invalid system), but the difference between maximizing the benefit for all and the benefit for the self is just arbitrary preference. If a reason were demanded, all a utilitarian could say is that it’s “nicer” than only looking out for the self, but that would certainly not be enough for the egoist, who is only nice insofar as it would work for their personal benefit.

Let’s look at the same ethical dilemma as Burgess-Jackson: should one steal the pensions from a bunch of old people, and then retire to some sandy beach island with your ethically-gotten gains?


You know your ethical system is a winner when something like this is considered a dilemma

Luckily, Burgess-Jackson says no, and I’m sure we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. His reasoning is a little different than most people’s, though. We shouldn’t steal the pensions from retirees because we might get caught and go to jail. Consequentialism, remember? The egoist ought to weigh the possible outcomes and act according to maximum utility. Not for the pensioners, mind you, just for himself. He posits rule-egoism, comparable to rule-utilitarianism, which suggests that the egoist ought to follow rules that would in general maximize his personal utility, like the law and common social norms.

Much like rule-utilitarianism, however, rule-egoism has the same flaw: if it maintains its original consequentialist principles, it cannot truly exist. If an act would, on its own, create greater utility than following the rule, one ought to act on it. For example, if our egoist had an opportunity to rob senior citizens with a guarantee of escape, he certainly would. Alternatively, if he could obtain their pensions legally (such as by lobbying for tax cuts that are paid for by cutbacks to social security), then he’s going to do that. Hobbes’s sovereign (Burgess-Jackson’s exemplar of rule-egoism) is only obeyed insofar as those underneath don’t see a way to thwart their sovereignty. If the rules are deemed absolute, then the system abandons consequentialism and becomes deontological.

Albert Camus, a philosopher with a lot more name recognition, said, “Every ethic based on solitude implies the exercise of power.” If you’re seeking to make things right only for yourself, you’re going to need power to do it. This is where egoism fails as an ethical system.

Donald Trump

You might think it’s odd that robbing seniors of their pensions didn’t disqualify egoism as an ethical system, but just remember, who’s got two thumbs and became president after bragging about sexually assaulting women?

When everyone is looking out for themselves, those with more power will always succeed over those with less. If I’m looking out for me, and you’re looking out for you, and we come into some kind of conflict, and you possess more power than me, I lose. It’s pretty simple. That’s not great if I’m an egoist who wants to maximize my personal benefit, now is it? Within the egoist system, egoism itself does not provide the maximum utility. It cancels itself out. Perhaps you might argue that it can still survive if only I am an egoist, and I successfully convince others to be, say, utilitarians, then my personal utility is again maximized. However, a system of ethics is a social system. If it cannot function on a macro level, it is no longer a system. If it only works when one person does it, it’s no longer a morality, it’s just selfishness.

So throw Ayn Rand back on to the garbage fire that is her metaphorical equivalent, and think about how your dumb actions impact other people for once in your God damn lives.

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy course, or at least had the misfortune to talk to someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard of the trolley problem. It poses us this moral dilemma:

A trolley carrying five people is barreling towards a barrier erected by the dastardly Snidely Whiplash. You, our intrepid hero, can save these five people from certain doom by pushing a button that reroutes the train onto a different track, but alas! Snidely Whiplash has tied someone else to that track, and in rerouting the train, you will be killing that one person. What do you doooooooo?


That mustache is so prominent, it really distracts from the fact that Snidely Whiplash wears a dress.

Most people’s first thoughts are going to be utilitarian. Morality can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: five people is more people than one; you should press the button. Here’s the problem: first impressions are wrong; utilitarianism is wrong; you are wrong. Consider this second example:

You are a brilliant surgeon. Snidely Whiplash has been at it again, and has, through some dastardly plot, caused organ failure in five separate individuals who are now in your operating room. Their situation is dire: their deaths are imminent. Just at this moment, a box arrives with a note that says, “Each patient has a separate failing organ, and your assistant is compatible with every single one of them.” In the box is a gun. As a brilliant surgeon, you can save those five people by killing your assistant and using his organs to save their lives, or you can do nothing and allow them to die. What do you doooooooo?


Come now, Utilitarians! T’is simple maths, m’yessss?

Despite the framing, both problems are identical in content. In both cases, you can either passively allow five people to die, or actively kill one person in order to save them. I expect that most people’s first impression of the second example is to not murder their assistant, even if they would push the button in the first one, but what causes that discrepancy?

Lt. David Grossman analyzes the nature of killing in his book On Killing, and part of what allows regular human beings to kill, who otherwise wouldn’t, is a distance from the target. It’s easier to kill someone at range than it is up close. It’s easier to kill someone through a scope than it is through your bare eyes. It’s easier to kill someone with the press of a button than it is with a gun. The consequences of our actions become diluted the further we get from our deeds. If we consider life in the abstract, life becomes worth measurably less.

Part of the reason that a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was that nobody wanted to send in ground troops. It’s easier to kill from far away, and the horrors of a nuclear blast became justified. We care more about being ghosted by somebody off Tinder than we do about the collective deaths of the entire Syrian civil war because what happens to us up close will always matter more, no matter how ridiculous the comparison might be. We don’t want to kill our assistant because we assume that we have a relationship with that person, but we’re fine with killing a stranger tied to some train tracks, never stopping to wonder if that person might be someone else’s medical assistant.

Ethics is obviously an ongoing conversation, but the importance of the trolley and surgeon questions are what we as human beings are capable of. Are we killers? I mean killers in the sense of killing people, regardless of how far away (literally and figuratively) from the victim we are, or how little we value their lives. We are in control of our actions; that’s what we must decide.

When considering the trolley problem, think to yourself. What would Batman do? He would obviously swoop over to the train and work some kind of bat-strategy to save everyone, but he would never push that button. Know why? Because Batman is a God damn hero.