01
Aug
09

Constraints

In this post, I talked about one situation — personal sacrifice — that might allow one not to optimize utility. Deviating from utility maximization in these situations is optional.

Most deontologists believe however that there are situations where utility maximization is forbidden. Here is one example: I’m a doctor and could secretly kill one of my patients and then give his organs to five of my other needy patients. I would save five lives at the cost of one. One proposal for constraints then is that doing is worse than allowing. The idea is that I can’t kill my patient to save five others because I would be killing one, whereas if I did nothing, I would only be allowing the other five to die. It seems that this tracks many of our commonsense moral judgments. The fact that I don’t give some of money to Africa means some people will die of disease or malnutrition, but however bad my callousness is toward their plight, it’s not as bad as actually killing these same people. Notice also that if we imagine a situation in which I can either allow one to die or allow five to die, it’s obvious that I would allow the one die. If the type of act in question is the same, good old fashioned maximization takes over again.

One argument against the doing/allowing (or killing/letting die) distinction, is that our moral intuitions are led astray by the fact that in killing cases, I intend death, but when I allow deaths, I do not intend death. Thus, one can imagine two cases, one in which I drown my aunt in order to get her fortune, and another in which I walk out to the pool, find her drowning, and then maliciously wait to see if she surfaces so that I can hold her back under. Imagine that she drowns of her own accord so that I don’t have to hold her down. Aren’t these two acts equally bad even though one involves killing and the other one only allowing? Maybe.

Rather than decide that question, I only want to point out that a utilitarian who does not believe in any constraints on utility maximization, cannot appeal to the drowning or letting drown case as an argument against the significant of the doing / allowing distinction because this would introduce a new ground for constraints, that of intending harm versus not intending harm. A constraint would still be present.

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