The Uncharted Territory of Utilitarianism

Categories: JusticeRights


Consider a dire scenario: four men, adrift in a boat in the boundless ocean, facing the looming threat of starvation. In a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitability of death, the men decide on a chilling course of action — drawing lots to determine who among them will be sacrificed for the collective survival. Despite one man's principled refusal to partake, fate selects the youngest boy, leading to a disturbing series of events. The ethical complexity of this dilemma unfolds through the lens of utilitarianism, examining the principles governing this moral theory, its application in justifying the sacrificial act, and the subsequent ethical challenges that surface.

Utilitarianism and Principle of Utility

Utilitarianism, articulated by the likes of John Stuart Mill, establishes that the moral righteousness of an action hinges on its capacity to maximize happiness and utility. Mill's "greatest happiness principle" contends that actions are morally right if they tend to produce happiness and morally wrong if they lead to the reverse.

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The crux lies in measuring the consequences of actions based on net utility, prioritizing those that contribute to the greater good.

Utilitarianism seeks to navigate moral complexities by endorsing actions that, on balance, yield the greatest happiness. This consequentialist approach posits that the morality of an act is contingent on its outcome — if it results in more happiness than pain, it is deemed morally right.

Utilitarian Perspective on the Killing of the Young Boy

The utilitarian perspective becomes starkly evident in the decision to sacrifice the young boy.

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The argument contends that the "good" derived from the survival of the three men supersedes the value of a single life. This perspective gains weight when contemplating the potential repercussions of allowing all four men to succumb to starvation. The connection between justice and utility is underscored, acknowledging that society protects individual rights while suggesting that these rights can be set aside in pursuit of a greater good.

At its core, utilitarianism strives to make ethical decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis of the outcomes. In the case of the young boy's sacrifice, the calculus involves weighing the survival of three against the death of one, with the presumption that the aggregate happiness generated by the former outweighs the tragedy of the latter.

Challenges to Utilitarian Justification

However, challenges to the utilitarian justification surface when the uncertainty surrounding the young boy's fate becomes evident. The assumption that he would inevitably perish without the sacrifice is questioned, introducing an element of doubt. The ethical dilemma intensifies as the young boy is denied agency; his life is taken without prior permission or consent, raising profound concerns about the violation of individual rights.

This situation prompts a critical examination of utilitarianism's compatibility with widely accepted moral standards, the relations between the utilitarian calculus of sacrificing one for the greater good and the inherent value placed on individual rights and autonomy within societal norms. The unsettling reality of the young boy's death prompts a consideration of whether the ends can truly justify the means, especially when individual agency is disregarded.

Complexities of Utilitarianism

Delving into the intricacies of utilitarianism illuminates the challenges inherent in applying this moral theory. The delicate balance between sacrificing individual rights for collective benefit and potential clashes with societal moral standards comes to the forefront. This scenario not only tests the fundamental tenets of utilitarianism but also raises essential questions about its practicality in extreme situations. In essence, grappling with the complexities of utilitarianism sheds light on the nuanced considerations required when navigating the moral landscape.


Ultimately, the moral abyss illuminated by this utilitarian exploration serves as a stark reminder of the nuanced considerations required when traversing the complex terrain of ethical decision-making. As we confront the unsettling reality of sacrificing one for the survival of many, we are left not only with questions about the moral fabric that binds our society but also with a profound awareness of the intricate dance between principle and practicality in the realm of utilitarianism.

Updated: Jan 17, 2024
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The Uncharted Territory of Utilitarianism. (2016, Dec 11). Retrieved from

The Uncharted Territory of Utilitarianism essay
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