Philippa Foot in his publication “Killing and Letting Die,” formulated a thought experiment that incorporated two situations. Despite the two different scenarios yielding the exact same consequences in the end, the different methods employed in arriving at those similar outcomes raise questions revolving morally permissibility. In the first scenario which we shall call Rescue I, a person is in a situation where he must drive swiftly in order to rescue five individuals from an imminent ocean tide. Along the way the driver learns of a single person also requires immediate assistance from another tragedy. However, if the driver chooses to rescue this one individual first he will not be able to rescue the other five. Therefore, the driver decides to drive on to save the five and lets the single individual die. In the second scenario, Rescue II, a person is in a situation where he must also drive swiftly in order to rescue five individuals from an imminent ocean tide. However, this time round the road is narrow and blocked with an injured man and the driver is incapable of using another road. However, if the driver chooses to rescue this one individual first he will not be able to rescue the other five. Therefore, the driver decides to drive over the injured man and proceeds to save the five people. If one stops, they can save him, but they will not reach the other five in time and they will die. The two situations in this thought experiment eventually produce the exact same outcomes where five people are rescued and one person ends dying. In this essay, I will analyze the works of two great philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant under Utilitarianism and Categorical Imperatives respectively in order to assess the moral acceptability of the two scenarios, Rescue I and Rescue II.
Mill was an advocate for utilitarianism which held the position that, it is the significance of the outcomes of a certain action that matters most when judging whether that action is right. According to act utilitarianism, an action is deemed as being morally right when it generates the greatest good (i.e. generates maximum pleasure and happiness) than other feasible actions for the maximum number of people (Mill 98). Utilitarianism argues that the objective of morality is to make life better by maximizing the quantity of well-being, for instance, pleasure and happiness, in the world and minimizing the quantity of bad things, for instance, pain and unhappiness. Therefore, a deed is only morally acceptable if and because it generates the greatest good to a maximum number of people. In Rescue I, it involves a person choosing to drive past a single individual who needs immediate help in order to go save five other people from an imminent danger which results to the single person dying while the five get rescued. Mill would have definitely agreed with the actions of the driver in choosing to let one person die in order to rescue the lives of five other people in Rescue I. Therefore, the driver’s action can be viewed as being morally acceptable since utilitarianism, it results in the generation of the greatest good or happiness to the maximum number of people while minimizing suffering. In Rescue II, it involves a person choosing to drive over a single individual who needs immediate help in order to go save five other people from an imminent danger which results to the single person dying while the five get rescued. Mill would have definitely agreed with the actions of the driver in choosing to kill one person in order to rescue the lives of five other people in Rescue II. Therefore, the driver’s action can be viewed as being morally acceptable since according to utilitarianism, it results in the generation of the greatest good or happiness to the maximum number of people while minimizing suffering.
On the other hand, Kant argued that there exist imperatives that should be responsible for dictating our moral actions and judging the moral acceptability of those actions. So as to be able to accurately predict Kant’s standpoint on both situations, I have to implement the imperatives to the scenarios of both Rescue I and Rescue II. Kant’s first Categorical Imperative asserts that “Act only in conformity with that principle by which you can in any event decree that it should become a universal law without contradiction” (Paton 17). Kant goes further to claim that an accurate moral postulation needs not be constrained to any specific circumstances, as well as the identity of the person making the choice. An ethical maxim needs to be separated from the specific physical particulars encompassing its proposition and needs to be relevant to any rational person. Drawing from Kant’s assertions, above everything else we have a moral obligation not to behave by maxims that end in logical inconsistencies (Paton 18). Simply put, Kant’s first categorical imperative directs an individual to treat others as he would like to be treated. In Rescue I, it involves a person choosing to drive past a single individual who needs immediate help in order to go save five other people from an imminent danger which results to the single person dying while the five get rescued. In this scenario, the maxim as the driver would have been to not let people perish and the duty would have been to rescue all the people that need saving. Therefore, Kant would have strongly argued for the rescuing of the single person since neglecting people that need help when you are in a position to render that help is immoral and no one wants to be left out to die if they can be rescued. Ignoring people in life threatening situations cannot be a general rule. In the case of Rescue II, the maxim will be not to commit murder and the duty will be to save life at all cost. Therefore, drawing from Kant’s first categorical imperative, the driver’s action can be viewed as being morally inacceptable. Based on these, the recommendation will be to stop and save the life of the person trapped on the road.
Kant’s second Categorical Imperative states that “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end” (Paton 20). According to him, rational beings should never be treated simply as tools for achieving certain ends. Instead, they are regarded as an end in themselves and their rational motives must be respected. Kant argued that there are some kinds of actions, such as murder, stealing, and dishonesty, which are totally forbidden, even if they would result into more joy. In Rescue II, it involves a person choosing to drive over a single individual who needs immediate help in order to go save five other people from an imminent danger which results to the single person dying while the five get rescued. In applying Kant’s ethics to the Rescue I and II, there are two queries that must be taken into consideration. These acts would mean using human beings to make an end, preventing the death of five people. As such, these actions would not be accepted by Kant. A reasoning being cannot sensibly accept being treated simply as an object to make an end; they are regarded as an end in themselves. Therefore, drawing from Kant’s second categorical imperative, the driver’s action can be viewed as being morally inacceptable. In addition, Kant would refute such acts if adopted by everybody.
Utilitarianism’s primary criticism has to do with justice. A standard objection to utilitarianism is that it could require us to violate the standards of justice (Lawhead 105). For example, imagine that you are a judge in a small town. Someone has committed a crime, and there has been some social unrest resulting in injuries, violent conflict, and some rioting. As the judge, you know that if you sentence an innocent man to death, the town will be calmed and peace restored. If you set him free, even more unrest will erupt, with more harm coming to the town and its people. Utilitarianism seems to require punishing the innocent in certain circumstances, such as these. It is wrong to punish an innocent person, because it violates his rights and is unjust. But for the utilitarian, all that matters is the net gain of happiness.
But even though Kant’s claim is convincing, yet his formulation of it faces major criticism. This is because, rather than the formula, “So act that the maxim from which you act can be made a universal law,” (Paton 17) which is only a negative rule, the moral imperative is properly this: “do good and avoid evil” (Lawhead 107). Thus evil ways of acting can never become universal laws since they are in themselves self-destructive. For instance, if we hold that we shouldalways so act that the maxim from which we act can be made a universal law, how about sadists who may wish to make the maxim of their action – inflicting pains on others, universal since they themselves would like the inflicting of pains done to them? Besides, there are also good ways of acting that can never become universal laws, such as working to alleviate poverty. Hence the reason for the moral goodness of an act is not the fact that it can be made a universal law, otherwise, anyone can will to universalize the maxims of his or her actions not taken into consideration that every individual is different from his fellows – including his actions, wants, desires and will.
Having analyzed the two philosophies of Kant and Mill, I am of the opinion that the ethical approach employed by utilitarianism is superior in this thought process as it offers a relatively straightforward method for deciding the morally right course of action for any particular situation we may find ourselves in. To discover what we ought to do in any situation, we first identify the various courses of action that we could perform. Second, we determine all of the foreseeable benefits and harms that would result from each course of action for everyone affected by the action. And third, we choose the course of action that provides the greatest benefits after all the variables have been taken into account.
- Lawhead, William F. The Phillosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
- Mill, John Stuart. On liberty; and, Utilitarianism. Bantam Classics, 1993.
- Paton, Herbert James. The categorical imperative: A study in Kant’s moral philosophy. Vol. 1023. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.