Utilitarianism "Dilemma", What Would YOU do?

in life •  3 months ago 

About 11-12 years back in my undergraduate days, I took chose a philosophy class to fill a requirement for my degree. The instructor primarily spoke on utilitarianism. As you can see, I've included that definition above, courtesy of Google dictionary. The way it was taught to me was, mankind should do whatever benefits the whole even if sacrifices have to be made to achieve this state.

We were presented a scenario that my logic really dislikes to this day because of all the "what ifs."

The scenario presented went like so:

  • Man in his 40's witnesses a boy in a lake who is going to drown and die without his help.
  • In this scenario, these are the ONLY people around.
  • The man is in his 40's and closer to mortality than the 8-12 y/o boy.
  • Saving the boy would KILL the man. Don't ask why, that's part of this scenario.

Utilitarianism would say for the greater good the man must save the boy. The boy has an entire lifetime ahead of him and more time to do "good" than the man in his 40's does.

Considering I went to school for a medical degree, my first thought is, what if that kid had a massive brain tumour and died a year later after being saved. Or turned into a menace to society?

What if the man that saved him was a doctor or lawyer and very helpful to society. In THAT case utilitarianism is USELESS.

I tried debating this in class but was shut down because the scenario was the scenario & the only two answers were, does the man save the boy or not? Also, the man doesn't know saving the boy would kill him.


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Your thoughts at the end would be mine too. Sounds too much like Hitler's Third Reich. Let those with little benefit to society die.

I hear ya. In many ways i can agree with utilitarian principles, do what benefits society as a whole, etc. But this case was complete BS to me and didn't allow logic or other scenarios

Ohhh... such a poor example. Why would the man die by saving the boy? If he manages to get him out of the water, there is no reason why he should drown. In this case it would make more sense to use the example of the Inuit elder (though this had occurred throughout cultures worldwide), who voluntarily chooses to go out into the icy night if there is not enough food for the children. But even then, the elder may have certain healing skills and experience, which makes her more valuable for the community. Not lastly, even her sacrifice won't guarantee the survival of the children, if there already is a shortage of food.

But let's put the poor examples aside for a minute. What point was the professor trying to make anyway? What I understood is this: What I say goes, simply because I said it's useful (utilitarian). If that's the case, It would be nothing new. I'm quite familiar with this type of arguing. It's more typical for a kindergarten playground than for a philosophy class...

You're telling me! I tried to debate this. I asked what killed the man, why would he die, etc. etc. Among other questions of course. This professor had a very thick skull and it was black and white. If memory serves we had to write papers on this scenario - save the boy & man dies or don't save him & man doesn't die but society is struck by the tragedy of the young boy dying. I didn't play "by the rules" in the paper but still got an A on it and the class. But you're right its a very elementary way to go about "teaching" this

Now I'm curious about what you wrote in your paper... ;-)

Ha, basically brought up all the other circumstances and how unrealistic this scenario was/is. I basically argued and dissected the whole thing. Because its nonsensical. I guess the teacher respected me sticking to how i really felt about it since i got an "A" and all. :)

Well, if that's the case I can't say he was completely bad as a professor. Still, it is a poor example.

I hate most scenarios like these where our brains may bring in other factors but the one leading the discussion only ants you to discuss the specifics that they ay out

Thanks for this great post and being an active member of @steemusa !tip

Yeah this class mostly annoyed me. Because i couldn't debate PERIOD. it was too black and white for me. Thanks for chiming in:)

Ohh thats a class that I would not have done well it I am always thinking outside of the box LOL

Ha me too and it was pissing me off a lot. Even though it was still interesting in many ways.

I was always trouble in classes, sitting still and listening to someone waffle on has always been a challenge for me

These scenarios are only built to stimulate logical thinking, not to replicate dilemmas that you might find during your average day. A lot of people lack the ability to deal with real-life situations with logical thinking, but of course a real situation would have a lot more details and of course we can't predict the future, only do what gives us the best percentage of success. The "what ifs" are exactly what you're supposed to ignore in this kind of exercise, I think. Then again, in life you must take decisions based on what you know. If you see a boy who's drowning you won't stop to think that he might have a brain tumor, right?

As far as utilitarianism goes, as many ideologies like it, it only works where a consistent part, if not all, of mankind agrees that it's the best course of action and acts accordingly. Since pure utilitarianism, as the scenario demonstrates, includes the existence of total selflessness, it's just another utopia, in my opinion. All we can do is learn to maybe consider the broad consequences of our actions logically, and not just emotionally. But that's just the way I see it :)

I can see your point but since I couldn't debate other viewpoints, I found it illogical.

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