In deciding whether or not to torture a terrorist who has planted a bomb in New York City, a utilitarian must evaluate both the overall welfare of the people involved or effected by the action taken, and the consequences of the action taken. To calculate the welfare of the people involved in or effected by an action, utilitarianism requires that all individuals be considered equally. Quantitative utilitarians would weigh the pleasure and pain which would be caused by the bomb exploding against the pleasure and pain that would be caused by torturing the terrorist. Then, the amounts would be summed and compared.
The problem with this method is that it is impossible to know beforehand how much pain would be caused by the bomb exploding or how much pain would be caused by the torture. Utilitarianism offers no practical way to make the interpersonal comparison of utility necessary to compare the pains. In the case of the bomb exploding, it at least seems highly probable that a greater amount of pain would be caused, at least in the present, by the bomb exploding. This probability suffices for a quantitative utilitarian, but it does not account for the consequences, which create an entirely different problem, which will be discussed below.
The probability also does not hold for Mill’s utilitarianism. Mill’s Utilitarianism insists on qualitative utilitarianism, which requires that one consider not only the amount of pain or pleasure, but also the quality of such pain and pleasure. Mill suggests that to distinguish between different pains and pleasures we should ask people who have experienced both types which is more pleasurable or more painful. This solution does not work for the question of torture compared to death in an explosion.
There is no one who has experienced both, therefore, there is no one who can be consulted. Even if we agree that the pain caused by the number of deaths in the explosion is greater than the pain of the terrorist being tortured, this assessment only accounts for the welfare half of the utilitarian’s considerations. Furthermore, one has no way to measure how much more pain is caused by allowing the bomb to explode than by torturing the terrorist. After settling the issues surrounding the welfare, a utilitarian must also consider the consequences of an action.
In weighing the consequences, there are two important considerations. The first, which is especially important to objectivist Utilitarianism, is which people will be killed. The second is the precedent which will be set by the action. Unfortunately for the decision maker, the information necessary to make either of these calculations is unavailable.
There is no way to determine which people will be killed and weigh whether their deaths would be good for society. Utilitarianism requires that one compare the good that the people would do for society with the harm they would do society if they were not killed. For example, if a young Adolf Hitler were in the building, it might do more good for society to allow the building to explode. Unfortunately for an individual attempting to use utilitarianism to make for decisions, there is no way to know beforehand what a person will do.
Furthermore, without even knowing which building the bomb is in, there is no way to predict which people will surely be in the building. A subjectivist utilitarian would dismiss this consideration and would examine only what a rational person would consider to be the consequence; however, even the subjectivist utilitarian must face the question of precedent setting. Utilitarianism considers justice and humane treatment to be good for society as a whole and therefore instrumentally good as a means to promoting happiness. Utilitarianism considers precedent to be important, but does not offer any method of determining exceptions.
It is impossible to determine how much effect on precedent any given isolated action will have. In the case of determining whether or not to torture the terrorist, one must consider whether it is good for society to allow torture to be used as a method of gaining information. If it is bad, one must determine whether this action will create a precedent. If it will create or contribute to the creation of a precedent, one must compare the detrimental effects of this precedent with the other consequences and welfare caused by the action.
Utilitarianism offers no method for comparison. The problem is that a person faced with making the decision cannot get the information. Even through experience, it is hard to judge how much effect each action has on precedent. More specifically, it is hard to determine whether an action is worthy of being an exception to a rule.
Utilitarianism offers no resolution to this problem. Utilitarianism also considers the Theory of Desert to be instrumentally valuable to the promotion of happiness. It is generally good for society to reward people for doing right and to punish them for doing wrong. Using this belief in the value of justice, a utilitarian would have more trouble torturing the child of the terrorist than with torturing the terrorist.
The dilemma would be similar to that of precedent. A utilitarian would ask how much it will harm society’s faith in the punishment of evildoers and the protection of the innocent to torture the child. The sum of the consequences would then be compared to the sum of the welfare considerations to decides whether or not to torture the terrorist and whether or not to torture the child of the terrorist. In some way, these things must therefore all be comparable and assigned weights; however, Utilitarianism offers no method of comparison.
There must be some percentage of consideration given to the harmful precedent set compared to the amount of pain caused by the deaths, compared to the pain the terrorist or the child being tortured feels, compared to the harm society will be saved from by the deaths of people in the explosion, compared to the good that society will be deprived of by the deaths in the explosion. The overarching problem with utilitarianism as a method for decision making is that not enough of the necessary information is available and there is no scale on which to weigh the various considerations. Basically, the subjective utilitarian would probably consider that the deaths of many is worse than the torture of one. Depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental effects of the precedent which would be set by torturing the terrorist, the utilitarian could consider this to outweigh the greater pain caused by the explosion or not.
Different people have different moral consciences, which dictate different actions. These differences will dictate where the person puts the most weight in the utilitarian considerations, since utilitarianism does not specify. Similarly, depending on how much weight is given to the detrimental precedent of torturing innocent children, the utilitarian could consider it to outweigh the pain caused by the explosion or not. In the end, utilitarianism does not help in making the moral decision.
The information necessary to calculate all of the considerations identified by utilitarianism is not available. Furthermore, what is required is a method of comparing and weighing the considerations, and this method is not defined by utilitarianism. In the end, the decision maker is still left to make the decision based on internal moral feelings of what is right and what is wrong which do not come from utilitarianism.