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I wonder if there is a name for the idea that some actions are good because they solve problems, even if they hurt people. For example, if a country has an overpopulation problem and it decides to kill 90% of its population, this would radically solve the original problem once and forever. Another example is Thanos from the Marvel movies, who wanted to eliminate half of the life in the universe to balance the resources. These are extreme and unrealistic scenarios (only similar scenario that come to my mind is when company fired most of its employees to reduce cost), but they illustrate the idea that some actions can have positive outcomes, but also negative side effects.

What is the name of this idea? Is it a kind of thinking that some philosophers use? What are some of the reasons for and against this idea? How does it compare to other ways of thinking that are not based on results, but on other things, like rights or values? And what do philosophers think about this ?

I think it will be very hard (for me at least) to convince someone who likes this idea or believes in it to change their mind as they might say that the original problem is solved! It seems to me that maybe because I don’t know much about philosophy, all convincing arguments that I can think of are weak or wrong and I had a hard time to prove that this idea is wrong.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatism !? (Hi & Welcome!;)
    – xerx593
    Jan 15 at 6:35
  • While not an answer, you may want to look at cost benefit analysis. Most choices will have both costs and benefits. Generally, those are looked at in economic terms rather than lives, but in military and medical settings and occasionally others, it is applied to lives. Jan 15 at 17:27
  • "a good compromise"?
    – Stef
    Jan 16 at 22:51
  • idk, caspitalism? we may forgive some ppl, but they do have the same responsibilities
    – user71083
    Jan 17 at 3:52
  • Non zero-sum game. Jan 17 at 14:14

6 Answers 6

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What you describe is called Utilitarianism. It relies on 3 fundamental ideas:

  1. The benefit or demerit someone experiences from the result of an action (called "utility") can be measured (for example: full tummy +5, hurt my toe -3).
  2. The utilities of each member of a group can be meaningfully agglomerated to measure the utility of the group (for example, if 5 people get a utility of respectively 3, 4, -2, -1 and 0, their utility as a group is 4).
  3. Actions with a positive global utility are good, actions with a negative global utility are bad. The best course of action maximize global utility.

In the case of Thanos, his argument is that in the current situation everybody will suffer a negative utility because of overpopulation, but if he erases 50% of the population the gain of the survivors will outweigh the loss of the sacrificed, so it will be a net positive.

A common example of extreme utilitarianism is the thought experiment of a hospital where 5 injured people are brought by ambulances: they need respectively a new kidney, a new liver, a new heart, new lungs and a new pancreas in order to survive. It just happens there is one person with healthy organs compatible with them all in the waiting room. Is it ethical to kill this donor in order to save the 5 injured people? Utilitarianism would tend to say it is (5 lives minus one death yields a net positive).

Ethical systems which are based on rules or values can be found in Deontology and Virtue ethics.

You can attack utilitarian thinking by undermining any of the 3 pillars above:

  1. Can utility really be evaluated as a number? How much do the people who survive Thanos' sacrifice gain, and how much do the victims lose? Don't the survivors also suffer from the loss of loved ones? Is it really possible to assign an objective value to the net effect on each involved person of killing 50% of the population?

  2. Is it really meaningful to aggregate the utility of each member to yield the utility of the group? What is the proper formula? If each member of a group has to be punched in the gut so that one of them becomes a millionaire, is the group really better off as a whole?

  3. Is it really always justified to maximize utility? Take the example of the organ donor above: it feels pretty unjust for that poor person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who has the authority to decide on who should be sacrificed? Would any of us consent to live in a society where we could at any moment be seized and killed to be used as spare parts?

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    There should be an island where people who believe that strict Utilitarianism is correct can go to try it out. All the streetcars would have trolley problems and your dinner could be taken at the restaurant to feed 3 children at the next table. (Note: the US is not an island)
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 15 at 13:21
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    Regarding point 1: it can be mathematically proven that any reasonable set of preferences can be evaluated as a number (under some very mild assumptions). On the other hand, many proponents of utilitarianism over-simplify the result of this mathematical proof and conclude more from it than is proper, which is the real objection to be made. For example, it's possible to have "full tummy +5" and "hurt toe -3" without having them "add up" to -2, even for a single person, and that's before we get to the issue of aggregation. Plus, it's perfectly reasonable for me to have "my friend's hurt toe -1". Jan 15 at 17:41
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    Given the history of communism and Nazism, there is really no need to go into hypotheticals or works of fiction. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc. cracked a lot of eggs to make their omelets.
    – EvilSnack
    Jan 15 at 20:56
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    Good start, but there are more than three plans of critique. Consider adding the repugnant conclusion (utility isn't linear or conserved), the utility monster (utility isn't uniform), and the freedom monster (utility changes over time); and also describing omelan reasoning as a limit is taken over (3).
    – Corbin
    Jan 15 at 21:06
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    @EvilSnack except none of those people where utilitarian. None of them would have accepted an argument like "the world would be better off if I resigned, so shall I do", otherwise Hitler would have surrendered before Berlin was in shambles. Not to say they never used a utilitarian argument now and then, but authoritarian figures historically have a more "whatever fits my current purpose" approach to ethics.
    – armand
    Jan 15 at 23:46
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The principle is named:

The end justifies the means.

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    I would consider that to be a slogan that encapsulates the principle.
    – EvilSnack
    Jan 15 at 20:49
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    @EvilSnack You are right. The OP's question asks at least 5 different questions. I answered only no. 1, the title question.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 15 at 21:20
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This would come to mind: Doctrine/Principle of double effect

Also it's questionable whether killing 50% of the universe would even be positive. Like the remaining 50% will suffer from the loss of loved ones, depending on the necessity of the 50% for the survival of a population it might doom much more than that. And after all there has been no learning effect of that so chances are a year from then you'd be at the same point... again.

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In topics of greater and lesser evils, this could be described as a "necessary evil" for the greater good.

In contemporary discussion, I would describe a necessary evil as an action with unavoidable negative consequences, chosen to prevent or combat something equally bad or worse - or to allow for something better. It could be risky or morally wrong, but there may be no better choice with the same odds of success. So not entirely "good", but more or less justified within context.

For Example:

A country mandating vaccines with possible negative side effects in order to end or prevent a pandemic.

or

Enacting a military strategy with a high risk of civilian casualties in order to sooner win and end the war.

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I wonder if there is a name for the idea that some actions are good because they solve problems, even if they hurt people.

Well, "solve problems" is a somewhat vague term. If you mean "an action can be justified based on the results, even if harm was done getting those results, as long as the good of the results is greater than the bad of the methods", the term for that is consquentialism:

In ethical philosophy, consequentialism is a class of normative, teleological ethical theories that holds that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for judgement about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.

Armand gave the answer of "utilitarianism", which is not quite right. Consequentialism is the idea that we should measure actions based on their results. To apply consequentialism, we need some metric for judging how "good" results are, but we don't need any separate metric to judge how "good" actions are; that is determined by their results. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that says that the metric we should use to judge how "good" results are is the happiness and well-being of people (although that still leaves a lot of room for disagreement on how to measure "happiness" and "well-being", and things like utility monsters can achieve a lot of consequentialism from utilitarianism). Someone could torture millions of people to make one paper clip and still be a consequentialist if they measure "good" by how many paper clips exist.

For example, if a country has an overpopulation problem and it decides to kill 90% of its population, this would radically solve the original problem once and forever.

"Once and forever"? If the birthrate is above replacement, the population will return to the previous level eventually.

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  • +1 Utilitarianism is a helpful concept to comprehend in this context, but it is not the answer to this question. Consequentialism cannot be divorced from psychology as revealed in my answer. Example. On men's retreat I am hunting for saplings to build a sweat lodge. On the one hand I revere all life, and value trees as children of the living God (I cannot create them by an act of will, but I can plant seeds or kill them). On the other hand I discount the value of the life of the tree and value its use as a pole in the sweat lodge. This is what the consequentialist does - value and disvalue. Jan 17 at 16:43
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EDIT - Machiavellian - Political Realist Doctrine

https://nationalinterest.org/commentary/machiavelli-still-shocking-after-five-centuries-9126

Of all the writers in the “realist” canon—from Thucydides and Hobbes to Morgenthau and Mearsheimer—it is Niccolo Machiavelli who retains the greatest capacity to shock.

What is most scandalous about The Prince—no less so now than when it was written—is Machiavelli’s apparent endorsement of the principle that “the ends justify the means”, however cruel and harsh these means be. As the author himself explains, “In all men’s acts, and in those of princes especially, it is the result that renders the verdict when there is no court of appeal”.

Wicked stuff. And yet Machiavelli is no sadist. Unscrupulous means are justified only if they serve one specific end, in the words of Kenneth Waltz, preserving “your power in the state and your state among others.” He does not advocate mindless violence or gratuitous cruelty—not because he is squeamish, but because they are counterproductive. Machiavelli thus counsels prudence as a core element of princely leadership.

Rationalized Sadism

Rationalization is the effort to justify behavior that others in the community or affected by one's actions might not regard as justified or justifiable.

Sadism is the idea in psychology that the person derives pleasure from the act of harming another person, persons, or animals. The means to derive pleasure, for the sadist, is to deliberately inflict pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. If the sadist is in a position of power or authority the justification for their actions may be provided under the guise of paternalism - the sadistic harm must be done because it is for your own good.

The Drama Triangle - Victim, Rescuer, Perpetrator

Most human adults, philosophers included, are unable to close what I call the generation gap. This is the gap between the heart or imagination (psyche) of the child in earliest life and the comparatively insensitive, hard-hearted, moralistic adults.

The Prince who justifies harm to an innocent as the means to an end causes the innocent or collateral victims to experience the authority figure as sadistic. The sadistic authority cares more about the pleasure of accomplishing their goal(s) than about who is harmed by their actions. This triggers a pattern of drama called The Drama Triangle (Victim, Rescuer, Perpetrator). Superhero drama (Heroes vs Thanos) evokes The Drama Triangle because it is active in the collective imagination.

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  • Are you arguing that people who purport to believe in the OP's idea do not really believe in it at all, but are only using that idea as a more-socially-acceptable pretext to hide other, darker motivations? Because I'm sure such people exist, but if so, those are not the people the OP is asking about. Jan 16 at 15:30
  • @Jeremy Friesner - The post is about Thanos character in Avengers movies. In that context a pattern of drama is expressed by the characters. Thanos thinks it is good to kill half the population of the known universe and the Heroes who oppose Thanos value living beings (life) and disvalue the forces of Thanos (death). The question is unquestionably about comparative psychology - that is - how human or human-like subjects experience and express values in the context of drama. Philosophers abstract away from the dramatic context because it is too fuzzy or vague to reduce to pure logical terms. Jan 17 at 16:50

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