In this chapter of the essay, I apply consensual utilitarianism to some examples.

It is a hobby of moral philosophers to invent highly unusual scenarios with which to test their (or their colleagues’) moral theories. Often the intent is to provoke a response of disgust at the prescribed moral action, suggesting that the moral theory is flawed. While moral intuition is not, I feel, an infallible guide to moral behavior, there seems little point in promoting a moral system that makes us miserable by virtue of the disgust it provokes. I therefore submit consensual utilitarianism to some commonly discussed hypothetical situations in order to gauge its effect on our moral intuition.

Each example is presented in a format intended to emphasize my adherence to the moral calculus developed in this book. In each case, I start with a description of the moral problem, and therefore the actions that are available. I identify relevant people and time periods, then estimate action utilities. I do not generally try to assign specific numbers to action utilities – it is usually possible to rank them without doing so. I also consider issues of consent. In all cases, consent is assumed to be given in the self-interested fashion stipulated in the chapter on consent, unless otherwise noted.

Example 1. Killing One Healthy Person to Save Five Sick

This example comes from Alonzo Fyfe’s book A Better Place. A doctor has the opportunity to save the lives of five terminally ill people. Each person requires a different type of organ transplant, so all five patients could technically be saved if one healthy person were killed and his organs harvested. The two actions available here are to do nothing or to kill the healthy person and harvest his organs. The doctor wishes to know which action she should perform.

Who are the relevant people? The action utilities of the sick patients and the healthy person are all contingent on at least one available action, so these are the relevant people. We will assume that the doctor’s happiness is not significantly dependent on which action is chosen. She is therefore not a relevant being.

Before launching into the calculus, we must consider consent. We do not need to consider the consent of the doctor, because she is not a relevant being (this does not, however, mean that we may coerce her into performing a particular action). The healthy person, we can safely assume, would not consent to being murdered for his organs. The view of most terminally ill people would, I think, be similar. Even those who are at death’s door would probably not agree to treatments that involve the murder of innocent people. This highlights the extreme nature of this problem.

If the five terminally ill people object to receiving organs from a person murdered for that purpose, then our problem is solved through the first rule of consent. All relevant people object to the murder, so the only remaining action is to do nothing. (No consent-incapable beings are relevant to this problem, so the first rule caveat does not apply.)

But what if one of the five ill people wanted the doctor to kill the healthy person? Then we would also have an objection to the second action (doing nothing). In this case, the second rule of consent says we should attempt to persuade the relevant people that the action preferred by consensual utilitarianism is the right one to take. So, which action is preferred by consensual utilitarianism?

To forge ahead with the calculus, we need to establish the relevant time periods. For the healthy person, the relevant time period is the remainder of his life under the second action (not being murdered). It is this period which is contingent on the action chosen. If he is not murdered, he will continue to live for a certain number of years at some variable CI value, but if he is murdered, then his CI value over this period will be exactly zero. Even if he is not murdered, he will still eventually die, and from that moment on his CI will be zero, and therefore the same as under the alternative action. This latter time period, then, is irrelevant.

The relevant time period for each terminally ill person is the duration of his or her life under the first action (receiving a transplanted organ). The reasoning here is the same as for the healthy person. Under one action, the person lives a full life (assuming a successful transplant), and under the other she dies within a very short time period. We can therefore conclude that the relevant time periods for all relevant people in this problem are approximately the same – about equal to the expected remainder of a healthy life beginning at the present moment (I will assume that all the relevant people are of approximately the same age, but it is worth noting that the calculations below may change if different ages are assumed).

What about action utilities? If the healthy person is murdered, his CI (contentment index) will drop to zero and remain that way. His action utility (CI integrated over the relevant time period) will therefore be 0. If he is not murdered, his CI will follow whatever course can be expected for a person of average happiness, so it would have some positive average value. Integrated over the relevant time period, this will produce some positive action utility A.

For simplicity I will assume that the action utility for each sick person will be about the same. Specifically, if an ill person does not receive a transplant, she will die, and her CI will drop to zero. Her action utility will therefore be 0 also. If she receives a transplant, and makes a full recovery, then she will have a similar CI to the healthy person when he is allowed to live. She will also live for a similar period of time, so her action utility will be about the same as that of the healthy person, i.e. a value of approximately A.

To summarize: If the healthy person is murdered, we will have the following list of action utilities: {0, A, A, A, A, A}. These symbols correspond to the healthy person and the five ill people, respectively. If the healthy person is not murdered, we will have the following list: {A, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0}.

Both actions have the same minimum action utility (0) and so, according to our calculus, we must rank the actions according to their total action utilities. If the healthy person is murdered, then the total action utility will be 0 + A + A + A + A + A = 5A. If the healthy person is not murdered, the total action utility will be A + 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 = A. The preferred action, then, appears to be the murder of the healthy person.

This result seems counterintuitive, if not plainly immoral. How can we recommend that an innocent person be murdered? This is not, in fact, the recommendation that consensual utilitarianism makes. To see this, we need to look at what the second rule of consent requires us to do when all actions raise objections among the relevant people.

First, we are required to seek additional actions that all relevant people will consent to. For instance, at least one of the sick people might be saved by receiving an organ that the healthy person can donate without sacrificing his life (a kidney, perhaps). If no such action can be found, the second rule requires us to make a case to the relevant people for the preferred action. But this action can only be carried out if all relevant people agree to it. Therefore, the death of the healthy person is permitted only if both he and the five patients consent to it. And, importantly, if the healthy person agrees to be put to death, he is not volunteering to be murdered. Murder is an act performed against the will of the victim. Instead, he is giving up his life voluntarily. I think most people would agree that if a person voluntarily gives his life to save five terminally ill people, he is making a very generous (if tragic) sacrifice, and no foul play is involved.

The second rule of consent, therefore, simply requires us to make the case to the healthy person that sacrificing his life would produce a great deal of good, more so than if he did not sacrifice his life. Of course, even if the healthy person agreed with this argument, it is unlikely he would change his mind and give up his life. So be it. Consensual utilitarianism would have nothing more to say on the matter, and the life of the healthy person would be safe.

Example 2. The Sheriff and the Mob

My next example also comes from Fyfe’s A Better Place. A sheriff has a criminal in his custody. A large angry crowd is outside the jail house, and the sheriff fears that if he does not hand the criminal over to them, they will go on a violent rampage, resulting in the injury and possibly death of multiple people. The only actions in this situation are the release of the criminal and no action at all. However, the release of the criminal into the hands of an angry mob would go against the wishes of the criminal, while the continued incarceration of the criminal would go against the wishes of the angry crowd. We therefore cannot take advantage of the first rule of consent, and must consider the second. If no alternative actions are available (such as the sheriff trying to convince the crowd to calm down and let justice take its course), we must engage the consensual utilitarian calculus.

Before doing that, though, we might we ask what would happen if there was no angry mob outside the jail house, but the sheriff was nonetheless still considering releasing the criminal? In this case, the release of the criminal would be a relevant action, because it is one that both relevant people (the sheriff and the criminal) would be willing to perform (or see performed). However, this is a special case in which a society that has adopted a moral system is attempting to punish an act that puts that system at risk. Releasing the criminal would therefore compromise the reinforcement system which, I have suggested, must trump the recommendation of the moral system when conflict arises. Release of the criminal must therefore be prohibited in the interests of reinforcement. This conclusion applies whether an angry crowd is shouting at the gates or not.

Let us return to the moral calculus, then. If the prisoner is handed over to the crowd, he is sure to suffer, and possibly die. He may even be tortured. If the prisoner is not handed over, people in the crowd may be injured and possibly killed in the ensuing stampede. Given the uncertainty of injury in the latter case, and the anger of the criminal’s pursuers in the former, it seems to me that the lowest minimum action utility in this problem is likely to correspond to the suffering of the prisoner following his release. The anger of the crowd will be focused on one person, and their intent to do great harm is clear. Consensual utilitarianism would therefore recommend that the prisoner remain in the sheriff’s custody, both for this reason, and for the reinforcement reason already discussed.

Example 3. The Trolley Problem

The trolley problem and its variants are so well known to philosophers that their study is playfully referred to as “trolleyology”. In the simplest iteration of the problem, a group of five people is tied to a railway track with a trolley bearing down on them. Failure to act will mean certain death for these people. An observer on a bridge is given the following choice: Switch the points on the track so that the trolley is diverted before it reaches the five people, or allow the trolley to proceed unhindered. If the trolley is diverted, however, it will follow a track on which one person is tied, resulting in that person’s death. Should the observer divert the train or do nothing? Is it better to let five people die or one?

Consensual utilitarianism is quite clear on this problem. Although the minimum action utility is the same in each case (a value of zero corresponding to death, or perhaps some negative value associated with the brief suffering experienced by the victims), the total action utility is much higher if the trolley is diverted.  Diverting the trolley is therefore the recommended action. (Neither action enjoys the consent of all relevant people. The five people tied to the main line object to no action being taken, while the person tied to the second line objects to the trolley being diverted.)

A variation on the trolley problem has, once again, a group of five people tied to the railway tracks. This time, though, the observer on the bridge stands behind a large man who, if pushed over the bridge at the right moment will fall in front of the trolley and stop it from harming the five prisoners. I mention this version of the problem because many people who are confronted with it balk at pushing the man over the bridge, even though they agree, in the first formulation of the problem, to divert the train. There is something repugnant about causing the death of a person with one’s own hands, rather than indirectly through a machine. As far as consensual utilitarianism is concerned, however, the two versions of the problem are identical. The five should be saved in both cases.

Example 4. Disciplining Children

A toddler at the dinner table throws his silverware to the floor. Should the child be allowed to partake in this behavior again? He clearly enjoys it. Or should he be discouraged from such behavior by being subjected to some sort of humane punishment (like “time-out”)? A utilitarian system that considers only the immediate utility of the available actions might be inclined to recommend no action from the parents. On throwing his silverware, the child’s immediate happiness increases, and because this act is only mildly annoying to the parents, their own happiness decreases only slightly.

Consensual utilitarianism, however, considers the time-dependent influence of actions on happiness. Action utility is an integration of happiness over time. So, while allowing the child to throw his silverware might produce an immediate increase in his contentment index, this will last only briefly, perhaps a few seconds, resulting in a very small positive action utility. On the other hand, punishing the child might cause a brief decrease in his contentment index, but it is also likely to cause a small but sustained increase in contentment over many years. This is because he will move a little closer to learning the rules of acceptable social behavior, allowing him to become a well integrated, likeable person. Consensual utilitarianism, then, would therefore recommend punishment in this case.

What about consent? A child of three or four years old will not usually consent to being put into time-out. However, it is widely accepted that a child of this age is not equipped with the cognitive skills that would allow him to properly assess his own interests, especially those extending months and years into the future.

This is where the assumed consent statement for consent-incapable beings is important. We must assume that the child would object to any action that was not in his best interest, as defined by action utility. And since the highest action utility for the child is obtained by punishing him now so that he may reap the long-term benefits of discipline, we have to assume that the child, if he had the mindset of a consent-capable adult, would object to his parents allowing him to throw his silverware to the floor. If this strikes you as a little odd, look back at your own childhood and ask yourself if you would rather have been disciplined or allowed to have your way. Personally, I am grateful to my parents for not bending to my every childish demand. In using assumed consent, then, we still arrive at the same conclusion. The parents should not allow their child to throw his silverware.

Having said all of this, I think it makes sense for parents to be as transparent as possible when making decisions that go against the (developing) consent of the child. If a parent vetoes the decisions of her child, the least she can do is explain why she does it. For example, the parents of the fork-flinging toddler should, if possible, explain to him that his behavior is socially unacceptable, hence the time-out.

Parenting is a deeply complex topic, and although I am a parent myself, I do not pretend to have well-researched views on autonomy and consent among children. I therefore leave this particular example where it is, and move on.

Example 5. The Jew in the Attic

A German citizen sympathetic to the plight of Jews in the Second World War hides a Jewish man in her attic.  He is being pursued by a Nazi soldier who, suspecting that the man has taken refuge in a local house, knocks on the sympathizer’s door and asks her if she is hiding anyone.

The sympathizer is faced with two possible actions. She can tell the truth and reveal the fugitive, or she can deny his presence in her house, ensuring that he remains unharmed for a little longer. Many of us would probably lie gladly in this situation, but if we were strongly averse to any form of deceit, or if we were afraid that our lie would be detected and our safety threatened, this decision might be less easy.

It is not clear to me that the happiness of the Nazi soldier is contingent on which action is chosen in this problem. He is simply doing his job. However, it is possible that his happiness would decrease if he knew the Jewish man was being hidden (recall that the definition of relevant beings requires the assumption of full disclosure). The problem is easily solved if the Nazi soldier is considered irrelevant, since no objection will exist to hiding the Jewish man.

But let us assume instead that the Nazi soldier would, indeed, be upset if he knew the Jewish man was being hidden. This means there would be three relevant people in this problem: The Jew, the sympathizer, and the Nazi soldier. Let us consider consent. The Jew, if he were fully informed, would object to the second action (the sympathizer telling the truth). The Nazi soldier, on the other hand would, if fully informed, object to the first action (being lied to). It therefore appears, at first blush, that we cannot take advantage of the first rule of consent and must instead look to the second.

However, we should remember that consent is only binding when it is made on the basis of self-interest. It is certainly true that the Jewish man’s objection to having his presence revealed is very much in his self-interest. He stands to experience considerable suffering if he is turned over to the Nazi soldier. The sympathizer is also acting in her self-interest. As a person concerned for the welfare of Jews, she will suffer emotionally knowing that Jew in her house was on his way to a concentration camp. The Nazi soldier, however, is not acting in his own interests. He has nothing significant to gain by discovering and arresting one more Jew. Rather, his objection to leaving the Jew in hiding is based on a deliberate intent to do harm. The Nazi soldier is therefore using his consent to work against the best interests of another person, rather than as a defense of his own best interests. His consent therefore cannot be considered binding.

Rejecting the objection of the Nazi soldier allows us to use the first rule of consent, for there is an action that both the Jew and the sympathizer consent to, namely keeping the location of the Jew secret. This is the action consensual utilitarianism would recommend.

Example 6. An Investment Banker Plays Robin Hood

An investment banker borrows a large sum of money from a client. The banker feels pity for the poor, and considers donating a small proportion of the money to a homeless shelter without letting his client know. If he does so, the profits resulting from the investment will be only marginally smaller than those he would have made by investing the entire sum, and his client will be none the wiser.

There are two actions here. Either the investor gives some of the money to the homeless shelter and invests the rest, or he invests the entire amount. There are three relevant people (or groups of people): The investor, the client, and the homeless people who stand to benefit from the donation.

Let us start by considering consent. It is likely that the client would object to having his money donated to the poor without being consulted first. However, it is also likely that the homeless people would object to missing out on much needed help. In both cases, the relevant people appear to be acting in a self-interested fashion, as required by our modified definition of consent. The client does not want to lose money. And because he has nothing particular against homeless people, his objection is not based on harmful intentions. The objections of the homeless people, meanwhile, are based on their need for food and shelter.

Both actions therefore meet with objections from the relevant people. The second rule of consent therefore requires us to consider alternative actions that everyone might agree on. For instance, the investment banker might ask his client directly about donating some of the money to the poor.

If no additional actions are available, we must determine which of the original actions is preferred by consensual utilitarianism. If the investor makes his clandestine donation to the poor, the resulting action utilities will be quite high. While the client would be upset if he knew his money was not being handled as ordered, the homeless people would benefit from the donation and suffer less as a result. The investor might be happy knowing that he had helped the homeless, but he might also feel guilty about the unauthorized use of his client’s funds. If, on the other hand, the donation were not made, the client would be about as happy as he usually is, while the homeless people would continue to suffer.  The investor might feel bad about not donating money to the homeless, but he would not experience the guilt of abusing his client’s trust.

It seems clear that the greatest minimum suffering is controlled, in this problem, by the homeless people. Helping them will produce a far greater minimum action utility than not helping them. The preferred action of consensual utilitarianism would therefore be for the investor to make the donation. However, the second rule of consent requires that the matter be discussed honestly and openly among those relevant people who have objected in a self-interested fashion to one or more actions. In this example, all relevant people qualify. The investor must therefore broach the topic with his client (and the homeless people too, if possible), and try to convince him to donate some of his money.

Example 7. Same-sex Marriage

Same-sex marriage is currently a controversial topic in many parts of the world. Let us start right away by identifying the actions that define the problem. Most simply put, same-sex marriage can either be legalized or banned.

Those whose happiness will be most strongly influenced by this decision are gays and lesbians who wish to marry their same-sex partners. Many other people are emotionally invested in the issue, too. Gays and lesbians not currently wishing to marry may nonetheless support marriage equality, as may many heterosexual people. On the other hand, many people are also strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. We therefore have three categories of relevant people in this problem: Those who wish to marry their same-sex partners (I’ll call them “marriage seekers”), those who support marriage equality (“marriage supporters”), and those who oppose it (“marriage opponents”).

The objections are fairly straightforward. Marriage seekers and marriage supporters object to the banning of same-sex marriage, while marriage opponents object to the legalization of same-sex marriage. For many marriage supporters and opponents, however, consent is not withheld on the basis of self-interest. Let us look at marriage opponents first. Most marriage opponents have nothing to lose by allowing marriage seekers to marry. Nothing is personally at stake for them. Neither their own marriages nor their everyday lives stand to experience any significant negative effects. Their objection to same-sex marriage therefore has the express purpose of acting against the best interests of marriage seekers.

Many marriage supporters, meanwhile, have nothing significant to gain by same-sex marriage. Their objection to a ban on same-sex marriage is therefore based not on their own interests, but on the interests of marriage seekers. Yet marriage seekers themselves are already acting in their own best interests. As argued in the chapter on consent, the interests of each person in a given moral problem should have equal representation.

In assessing consent, then, we cannot regard as binding the objections of many marriage supporters and opponents. However, I must make one thing very clear. I am not recommending that marriage supporters withdraw their support for same-sex marriage, nor am I recommending that marriage opponents cease opposing it. Everyone has a right to express their views, and there is considerable power in the joining of many voices for a cause. Disregarding the objections of some marriage supporters and opponents is simply a step toward solving the moral problem, it is not a commentary on the importance of public opinion or protest.

There are, nonetheless, other marriage supporters and opponents who are, in fact, acting in their own best interests. I am thinking in particular of the close friends and family members of marriage seekers whose personal happiness is, indeed, contingent on whether same-sex marriage is legalized or banned. It is this reduced group of supporters and opponents whose consent remains binding.

Given that we have three groups of relevant people and no action upon which they can agree, we must resort to the second rule of consent, which requires us first to seek alternative actions and then to make a persuasive argument in favor of the action preferred by the moral calculus. In the case of same-sex marriage, an alternative action readily springs to mind. Because marriage opponents generally base their objections on religious beliefs, it stands to reason that a separation of church and state in the affairs of marriage might solve the problem. The state could reform its stance on marriage by providing a strictly legal form of marriage that would be accessible to all people. Churches, meanwhile, would be responsible for providing religious endorsements of marriage. Each church would reserve the right to marry only those couples satisfying its particular religious requirements.

In the absence of such an alternative, we need to determine which action is preferred by the consensual utilitarian calculus. The action utilities for the marriage supporters and opponents are likely to be of similar magnitude. Supporters will suffer somewhat if same-sex marriage is banned, while opponents will suffer somewhat if same-sex marriage is legalized. But neither of these groups is likely to experience as extreme or long lasting a decrease in happiness that marriage seekers themselves would experience. Same-sex couples seeking marriage are likely to be the least happy of all the relevant people if denied access to marriage.

The action associated with the lowest minimum action utility is therefore the banning of same-sex marriage. It easily produces the most suffering. Consensual utilitarianism therefore prefers same-sex marriage to be legalized. In general, any time a group of people is denied access to some service or institution that others enjoy, consensual utilitarianism will favor the expansion of that service or institution to all, provided this action does not cause worse suffering than already exists.

I devote the next chapter to the topic of abortion.

Return to the previous chapter.

Return to the table of contents.


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