Some Thoughts on Utilitarianism and the Good as Such

Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

A young student of mine recently expressed his inability to see the sense in the absolute precept that "one must not do evil to achieve good". Returning to the scenario of a man who is given the option to push a button, which will release carbon monoxide into the home of a family of five, killing all five in the middle of the night, or not push the button, in which case thousands would be summarily executed by a brutal tyrant in retaliation for not killing those five, he could not for the life of him understand how the decision not to push the button would constitute a morally responsible choice.

The classic utilitarian would regard the natural law precept that "one must not do evil to achieve good" as indefensible and irrational, at least in some well-defined circumstances. Sacrificing five innocent people to save a larger number makes perfect rational sense, according to the utilitarian; for the principle is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people". We should keep in mind that for Bentham and Mill (the founders of utilitarianism), happiness does not mean "eternal happiness", but a natural happiness which they identified with pleasure. Thus, "a good end justifies and evil means". A good end is "the greatest happiness for the greatest number", and the evil means, in this case, is the intentional killing of the five innocent people. The honest utilitarian acknowledges that if it were a matter of killing the five innocent people in order to save his own life, then he ought not to kill the five innocents but accept death from the hand of the brutal tyrant. However, if it is a matter of killing five innocent people in order to spare the lives of more than five, let's say thousands, then the utilitarian argues that the only reasonable course of action is the killing of the five innocents.

Of course, there is a problem with calculating overall maximum benefits, in other words, predicting outcomes. Is it possible to see the long term repercussions of killing the five innocent people in order to save the thousands from extinction? Can we know that in the long run, the net result will be a "maximization of happiness" for the greatest number? Is it possible that in the long run, the net results of our decision to kill five innocent people could amount to a state of affairs in which there is greater misery for the greater number? Is there any way to know that such a state of affairs will not come about? How far do we go in considering consequences? How much time do we spend calculating? And are we not assuming that we are not subject to profound limitations in our ability to predict outcomes? It seems to me that these questions are enough to show that utilitarianism/consequentialism is unworkable.

Nevertheless, the initial objection remains a strong one. How does one justify not intentionally killing the five innocent people in order to spare the thousands? To be fair to the utilitarian, he or she could respond to the above doubts regarding our ability to predict outcomes by insisting that we are only responsible for what is in our control and range of vision, not for what is completely outside our range of vision, and so we have to act within the limits that constrain us. A decision has to be made, and we make the decision to kill the five innocents to save thousands, thus maximizing benefits and minimizing harms. And so how does the natural law theorist defend his decision not to kill the five innocents?

He does so because he argues that morality is not about maximizing benefits for the greatest number, but about the human person's relationship to "the good" ; thus, ethics is primarily about moral character (or integrity). The utilitarian wants to know why that is significant. The following is an attempt to make this intelligible and hopefully more compelling.

I am going to argue that relationship to the moral good as such (the bonum universale , or the good without qualification) is nothing other than relationship to God, who is the supremely good, who is ipsum esse subsistens , or pure act of being. If the decision above were only about me, the five innocent people, and the remaining thousands or millions, then it would be very difficult to convince anyone of the reasonableness of not killing the five innocents, only to watch the thousands die as a result.

The moral "ought" emerges when I become aware of a conflict between what I understand to be good for me (my private good) and the alternative, which is good regardless of whether it is good for me (lying to you might spare me some trouble, but telling the truth is good regardless of how it affects me). The good as such transcends my private good. The utilitarian who refrains from pushing the button that kills five innocents and accepts his own death (since it is only him who will die) chooses a larger good over his own private good. But he is willing to kill five innocents to spare thousands. Indeed, he acknowledges that he is intentionally killing five innocent people whose lives are basically good, as are the lives of the thousands he chooses to spare. He knows he is "adopting a proposal that includes their deaths"; in short, he is intentionally killing them (murdering them). In doing so, he is establishing a relationship between himself and the good as such , not merely the collective good that is "the thousands of people" he spares. What is this "good as such"? Allow me to elaborate.

Aquinas argues that human beings have a natural knowledge of God, but it is not necessarily a conscious knowledge. Human beings naturally seek the causes of things; in fact, the principle of sufficient reason is the driving force behind man's scientific quest (we always seek the sufficient reasons for things). All human beings have a natural desire to know. That does not come to an end when the scientist retires, for example, and it will not come to an end until the knower comes to know the ultimate cause of all things. If there isn't an ultimate cause, a first cause, then his search is in vain. He is drawn to look for something that does not exist. But it is impossible for there not to be an ultimate cause and sufficient reason for all things; for one would have an indefinite series of conditioned realities, or an indefinite series of dependent causes, which is impossible (of course, we need to do the difficult work in demonstrating this more clearly and definitively). Thus, man naturally seeks God, even if he does not know it. As well, the human person naturally desires happiness, and every end he pursues is, ultimately, for the sake of a happiness that is 1) sufficient unto itself, 2) complete (thus an end, not a means), and 3) enduring (no one wants a happiness that comes to an end). But one cannot desire what one does not know . Thus, at some level each human person knows that there is a happiness that is sufficient unto itself, complete, and enduring - otherwise he would not desire it - an end is a final cause that attracts, pulls, draws one forward. Thus, it is a real cause.

Now the only thing that answers to that description is, once again, God, who is being itself . As pure act of existing, God is sufficient unto Himself (he is not contingent and dependent upon some prior being, for He is the first existential cause); He is complete (pure act of being without potentiality), and enduring (a necessary being cannot not exist). And since good is a property of being, being itself is goodness itself ; thus, human beings desire to know and possess God, without necessarily knowing it explicitly. Some think the ultimate and unqualified good ( bonum universale ) is pleasure, some think it is wealth and power, some might identify it with the collective good of all finite beings currently on the face of the earth, etc. But none of these would qualify, because each one is really a finite good; for example, pleasure is in me, and I am a finite good, so too is the object that brings me pleasure; the same reasoning applies to power and wealth; and the collective good of all human beings is also a finite good or goods.

A free moral action involves a choice between what I understand to be good for me (my private good, or the delectable good) and the alternative, which is good in itself, regardless of whether it is a delectable good (for me). It is at this very point that the moral "ought" emerges. I ought to choose the good, not merely my own good. The utilitarian would agree, but not when it comes to the collective good of five innocent people over the collective good of thousands of lives. The natural law position argued here is that the one individual person who refrains from killing the five innocent people (and who accepts the consequences, i.e., the obliteration of thousands) is establishing a relationship between himself and a real existing good (not merely an idea). The good as such - not merely my good - is a real existing good, which we are identifying with the supreme good, namely God Himself. The utilitarian, on the contrary, identifies the greatest good as the "greatest pleasure for the greatest number". Thus, for natural law, every morally good action is, at some level, a religious act. I say at some level , because this is true even for the atheist who has no conscious awareness of and belief in God, and who might think God is merely a fiction. To choose not to intend evil as a means to an end, to choose the good as such by freely choosing to refrain from intentionally destroying human goods (five innocents) for the sake of other human goods (the collective good of thousands), thus allowing these thousands to perish for the sake of one's relationship to the good, is really a choice to love God over self, even if one is unconscious of the fact. But isn't that selfish, asks the utilitarian? Isn't that unreasonable? Are you not putting your relationship to the good (God Himself) above the lives of these thousands who will now die?

It is undeniable that you are putting your relationship to the good (God Himself) above the lives of the thousands, for the decision not to do evil as a means to an end is a choice to love God over everything else, including the collective good of the thousands upon thousands. So it seems we are saying that your integrity (character) and your relationship to God (religion) is a greater good than my physical existence and the physical existence of all human lives. Thus, in principle, you would not be permitted to rape and murder an innocent girl to save an entire nation, and you would not be permitted to torture a child indefinitely in order to save the world, etc.

However, this decision to refrain from killing five innocents is also an act of hope in God, even though one might not be explicitly aware that it is. To place our hope in someone is to trust in him or her. Thus, if what is said here is true, then this hope in God is at the same time an act of natural faith in God - again, even if one is consciously an atheist.

But the utilitarian could ask: "What is it about God that is hoped for or believed in, given that it is unconscious?" This is a difficult question to answer. If God is unlimited, if He is Being Itself, then He has complete dominion over being (existence). Hence, He is all-powerful. Moreover, we are all too aware of our own powerlessness, not only in predicting outcomes, but in bringing about a decent state of affairs in this world (there is unspeakable poverty and injustice in this world, despite our good intentions and our attempts to overcome this). The natural law position really amounts to following our obligation to do the good that we are capable of doing and choosing not to do the evil that we are capable of doing, even for the sake of what we judge will be a better overall state of affairs in the world. Perhaps in doing so, we commend ourselves, at some level and in a spirit of unconscious hope and trust, to the providence of God. Perhaps if we begin to do so (commend ourselves, in an unconscious hope and trust, to God), this world will be the better place that we intend for it to be but have not yet been able to bring about on our own efforts. Perhaps the problem is that in doing evil to achieve good, believing that it will maximize overall benefits for the world, we are only making matters worse in the long run, because we simply cannot foresee the long term repercussions of those choices. Perhaps the decision not to destroy hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Japan, for example, would have led to a much better world today than what we are actually seeing. If there is no way of knowing either way, then isn't our only reasonable option the decision not to do evil that good may come of it?