Evaluating the utilitarian ethical theory
Post on at least three separate days. This week our main discussion will focus on explaining and evaluating the utilitarian ethical theory as discussed in Chapter 3 of the textbook. Your instructor will be choosing the discussion question and posting it as the first post in the main discussion forum. The requirements for the discussion this week include the following:
- You must begin posting by Day 3 (Thursday).
- You must post a minimum of four separate posts on at least three separate days (e.g., Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, or Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, or Thursday, Saturday, and Monday, etc.).
- The total combined word count for all of your posts, counted together, should be at least 600 words, not including references.
- You must answer all the questions in the prompt and show evidence of having read the resources that are required to complete the discussion properly (such as by using quotes, referring to specific points made in the text, etc.).
- In order to satisfy the posting requirements for the week, posts must be made by Day 7 (Monday); posts made after Day 7 are welcome but will not count toward the requirements.
- Be sure to reply to your classmates and instructor. You are encouraged to read posts your instructor makes (even if they are not in response to your own post) and reply to those as a way of examining the ideas in greater depth.
- All postings (including replies to peers) are expected to be thought out, proofread for mechanical, grammatical, and spelling accuracy, and to advance the discussion in an intelligent and meaningful way (i.e., saying something like “I really enjoyed what you had to say” will not count). You are also encouraged to do outside research and quote from that as well.
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To ensure that your initial post starts its own unique thread, do not reply to this post. Instead, please click the “Reply” link above this post.
Please read the general discussion requirements above, as well as the announcements explaining the discussion requirements and answering the most frequently asked questions. If you are still unsure about how to proceed with the discussion, please reply to one of those announcements or contact your instructor.
After reading Chapter 3 of the textbook, consider the following scenario, taken from “Going Deeper: The Trolley Problem”:
What if you could save five lives in a way that results in the death of a single person? If the overall consequences were the same, would it matter if you were intentionally harming that person or not? This problem is raised by the philosopher Philippa Foot (2002c) in her famous “trolley problem.”
Imagine that you are a standing next to a railroad track, and a runaway train is careening down the track. In the path of the train are five workers (let’s suppose they cannot escape the path of the train; perhaps they are in the middle of a long, narrow bridge high above a ravine). You know that if the train continues on its path, it will certainly kill those five workers.
However, you see that there is a sidetrack, and on the sidetrack is a single worker. Let’s also suppose that you know that if the train goes onto the sidetrack, that single worker will be killed.
As it happens, you are standing next to a lever that can send the train onto the sidetrack. Therefore, you are faced with a decision: to pull the lever and send the train to the sidetrack, killing the one worker but sparing the five, or do nothing and allow the train to continue on its course, killing the five workers.
[There is an interactive illustration of this in your textbook, so be sure to take a look]
Now consider this slight variation:
Instead of standing next to a lever that can switch the train to another track, you are standing on a bridge overlooking the track, and next to you is a very large man (think someone the size of an NFL lineman – someone who is just big, not necessarily obese or otherwise unhealthy). He’s leaning precariously over the railing such that barely a push would send him over the railing and onto the tracks. Let’s suppose that he’s large enough to stop the train, thus sparing the five workers, but his own life will be lost. Let’s also suppose that you aren’t large enough to stop the train, so it would do no good to throw yourself over.
Should you throw the large man over the bridge?
In the course of the week’s discussion, you will need to do the following (not necessarily in this order):
- Engage with the text:
What would a utilitarian say is the right action in each of the cases? Give the reasoning by referring to Chapter 3 of the textbook, especially John Stuart Mill’s arguments found in this week’s reading, and be as precise as you can.
- Reflect on yourself and others:
Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
Do you find yourself agreeing with the utilitarian about the answer to one of the scenarios but not the other? If so, explain what accounts for that difference. Does this point to objections, limitations, or flaws in the utilitarian approach? Explain.
If you found yourself agreeing with the utilitarian about both scenarios, how would you defend your view against those that might have given different answers?
- Discuss with your peers:
This scenario and the corresponding questions always elicit a wide range of responses. Some people will disagree about the right choice to make, and some people will agree on the right choice but for different reasons. Discuss with your peers each other’s answers to these questions, especially when your peers’ answers differ from yours, and use that as a chance to draw out the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism.
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