Why is the Rioting Mob case described by Smart supposed to present a problem for the utilitarian?

Firstly in order to answer this question we must have a clear view as to what constitutes utilitarianism conceptually:

‘The term ‘utilitarianism’ stems from the idea of utility, meaning social utility or welfare, or ‘good of society.’ The ‘social utility’ that utilitarianism is referring to is the optimisation of pleasure over pain for everyone.’[1]

Utilitarianism is a branch of consequentialist normative ethics whereby the ‘rightness’ of an action is determined by its outcomes. Consequentialist theories are often hedonistic and usually identify the highest good with the amount of pleasure it brings about in relation to minimising pain. The more pleasure the more morally right the act.  However it is possible to identify the good with other goals such as equality or justice etc.[2]

The Rioting Mob case causes quite a big problem for utilitarianism (more specifically act utilitarianism) as a theory for general moral principle as it reduces acts that are clearly morally wrong to be permissible based simply on the amount of good or evil produced. For instance in this specific case the execution of an innocent man is made permissible by the fact that it avoids more death and damage than the alternate outcome which is that of the rioting mob. The point here is that an act can be made right or wrong by facts other than the quantifiable utility that can be demonstrated from any given situation.

To add a further contention it is often rejected that utilitarianism sees all people as capable of experiencing pleasure and pain as equally important to the individual when it comes to making our moral choices:

‘Surely, a mother whose child is about to be run over has a special duty to save it and would be justified in ignoring the plight of others also at risk, whereas (act utilitarianism) says that she should be solely concerned with the happiness of humanity as a whole, and not the happiness of her loved ones.’[3]

This example shows how there is a strong inclination in our ordinary moral understanding to regard our obligations to others as differing depending on who the person in question is. Family obviously would be a priority. Utilitarianism seems to neglect the very intuitions that underpin our conception of morality and reduces complex personal moral decisions to the ideal of utility regardless of whether important moral principles are included or not.

However Smart offers an interesting counter to this point based off of negating individual agency and circumstance in favour of individual social obligation within which utilitarianism sits at the top of a kind of moral hierarchy of which the ‘tenets of traditional morality’ are below utilitarianism and subject to ‘weakness of the will.’ This therefore makes such moral points inferior to utilitarian thought processes.[4]

Smart sees this as sort of individual squeamishness, whereby you avoid your moral responsibility to society as feeling guilty can be seen as selfish because you’re indulging your own emotions rather than considering the general good.

However this does not sit well with most people including Bernard Williams who offered two thought experiments to show how utilitarianism is fundamentally flawed and fails to encapsulate multiple elements of our moral life:

‘The first case involved George… George is a qualified chemist but finding it difficult to get work, and has a wife and small children to support. He is told by a colleague about a decently paid post in a laboratory that’s researching chemical and biological warfare. George opposes such research and so says he couldn’t accept a job in such a place. His colleague points out that if George doesn’t take the job, it will go to a contemporary of George’s who would pursue the research with far greater zeal.’[5]

Williams here demonstrates that utilitarianism doesn’t account for integrity:

‘From a utilitarian perspective, everything points towards George taking the job. It’ll bring in a much-needed income and actually hold back, rather than accelerate, research into biological and chemical warfare. But it would be “absurd,” says Williams, to expect of George that simply because of the utilitarian calculus he should put aside his most deeply held convictions.’[6]

The second case illustrates Jim’s predicament and is just as important:

‘Jim arrives in a central square in a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians in front of several armed men. The captain of the armed men arrives and begins to chat with Jim. He explains he’s selected these twenty people at random after some acts of protest against the government: he’s going to kill them as a deterrent to future protest. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor, he will offer him the privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts the other Indians will be freed. If he doesn’t, all twenty will be killed.’[7]

The problem here is how utilitarianism assesses the situation:

‘For the utilitarian it is obvious what Jim should do: it’s one life against twenty. But that misses the fact, said Williams, that if Jim picks up the gun it will be Jim who does the killing. The utilitarian takes no account of “agency.” All the utilitarian cares about is what produces the best result, not who produces this result or how this result is brought about.’[8]

Thus utilitarian’s make the error of judging from the ‘point of view of the universe.’ This conclusion to most philosophers is a reduction to absurdity of the utilitarian approach therefore rendering it inadequate with regards to justifying the rioting mob case.[9]

Bibliography

  1. David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014.
  2. Jones, G. Cardinal, D. Hayward, J. Moral Philosophy: a guide to ethical theory. Hodder Education, 2006.
  3. Smart, J. J. C. (1978) Integrity and Squeamishness from Utilitarianism and Justice, Journal of Chinese Philosophy.

[1] Jones, G. Cardinal, D. Hayward, J. Moral Philosophy: a guide to ethical theory. Hodder Education, 2006, pp-58.

[2] Jones, G. Cardinal, D. Hayward, J. Moral Philosophy: a guide to ethical theory. Hodder Education, 2006, pp-58.          

[3] Jones, G. Cardinal, D. Hayward, J. Moral Philosophy: a guide to ethical theory. Hodder Education, 2006, pp-63.

[4] Smart, J. J. C. (1978) Integrity and Squeamishness from Utilitarianism and Justice, Journal of Chinese Philosophy.

[5] David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014, pp.81.

[6] David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014, pp.82.

[7] David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014, pp.81.

[8] David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014, pp.82.

[9] David Edmonds, Would you kill the fat man: the trolley problem and what your answer tells us about right and wrong, Princeton, 2014, pp.82.

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