Harming the Innocent
According to the principle of utility, we should always do whatever will produce the greatest amount of
happiness and whatever is necessary to prevent the greatest amount of unhappiness. But what if the only
way to produce happiness, and to prevent unhappiness, is to harm or even kill innocent people?
Suppose you are driving through a narrow tunnel and a worker falls onto the road in front of you. There is
not enough time for you to stop. If you keep straight, you will hit the worker and kill him, but if you swerve
left into oncoming traffic, you will collide with a school bus and kill at least five children. What’s the right
thing to do? Does utilitarianism get the right answer?
Suppose ten thousand innocent civilians live next to a munitions factory in a country at war. If you bomb the
factory, all of them will die. If you don’t bomb the factory, it will be used to produce bombs that will be
dropped on fifty thousand innocent civilians in another country. What’s the right thing to do? Does
utilitarianism get the right answer?
Suppose a man has planted a bomb in New York City, and it will explode in twenty-four hours unless the
police are able to find it. Should it be legal for the police to use torture to extract information from the
suspected bomber? Does utilitarianism get the right answer?
Now suppose the man who has planted the bomb will not reveal the location unless an innocent member of
his family is tortured. Should it be legal for the police to torture innocent people, if that is truly the only way
to discover the location of a large bomb? Does utilitarianism have the right answer?
Telling the Truth
The principle of utility tells us to do whatever is necessary to minimize pain and unhappiness, but pain and
unhappiness have many sources. There are times when telling people the truth would make them very
unhappy. Should you lie to a person whenever lying is the only way to spare his or her feelings and prevent
Suppose your friend likes to sing in the shower, and he thinks he is an excellent singer. In fact, however, he
sounds truly awful. Should you tell him the truth, even if it will ruin his self-confidence? Does utilitarianism
have the right answer?
Suppose a man has been missing for many years, and you have just learned that he is dead. Should you
tell the man’s father, even if it will crush his hopes and send him into despair? Does utilitarianism have the
If you think it would be wrong to lie in one or both of these cases, do you think there is sometimes a moral
duty to tell the truth despite the consequences? Does this duty mean that the principle of utility is mistaken?
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