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In the movie Into the Wild, the main character (Christopher McCandless) 'moves' to Alaska without most modern comforts. He wants to provide for himself by hunting and collecting eatable plants, but ultimately eats a bad plant (because there is no game and he can't get back) and dies.

For high school I have to write something about his choice for running away from multiple ethical perspectives, among which utilitarianism. This brought me to the following question:

From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, would Chris' death make his choice of living in Alaska less ethical?

Utilitarianism ethics aim for the most possible positive consequences, but do consequences like your own death count? Rationally thinking, this is a 'bad' consequence, thus making it less ethical, but somehow this feels illogical.

By the way, this isn't a question directly from an assignment (in fact, I just submitted it). I had to write something about the movie from Bentham's viewpoint (who was an utilitarian). From there, I came to the above question myself, which isn't directly needed for the assignment.

  • I would argue that utilitarians are only interested in the idea of collective happiness. John Stuart Mill notes that self-sacrifice for the good of others might be justified from a utilitarian point of view. – Yet Another Geek Apr 27 '14 at 15:59
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    So one could say, because it doesn't hurt the community, Chris' death is (from a utilitarian viewpoint) ethically irrelevant? @YetAnotherGeek – 11684 Apr 27 '14 at 16:01
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    It is not necessarily irrelevant, I believe; I am only arguing that it depends on what effect it had on the collective happiness of people. That utilitarianism itself does not focus on consequences to individuals, but rather what actions individuals could make to achieve collective happiness (or minimise collective pain). – Yet Another Geek Apr 27 '14 at 16:06
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Utilitarianism ethics aim for the most possible positive consequences, but do consequences like your own death count? Rationally thinking, this is a 'bad' consequence, thus making it less ethical, but somehow this feels illogical.

Some things that come to mind:

  • Chris' death did, at the very least, cause grief to his family and produced no utility for anyone, which makes it clearly bad from a utilitarian point of view
  • Happiness/utility of yourself and others in the future counts as part of the utilitarian consideration. If you will be happy in the future (or cause happiness in others), then your death decreases total utility and is unethical. If you will be unhappy in the future (or cause unhappiness to others), then the opposite is true. Predictions about the future should always be suspect, but sometimes it is clear, such as in the case of an incurable painful illness. Utilitarianism supports a right to die.
  • However, an important factor in judging the actions of Chris is that he absolutely did not intend to die. He did something risky which he believed would increased his happiness (good utility) but instead he died (bad utility). Dealing with risk from a utilitarian point of view is pretty straightforward: sum up the net utility of each outcome multiplied it by its probability. Of course, that's very hard to do objectively in this case.
  • A final factor is that Chris probably misjudged the risk he took. I don't think you can argue that making mistakes is in itself unethical, but a Utilitarian should consider it his responsibility to make a reasonable effort to inform himself about and reduce the risks he takes. One could certainly argue that Chris acted unethical in letting his desire to be atonomous overrule this responsibility.
  • Wow, thank you! One funny typo though: you typed Christ in the last sentence. – 11684 Apr 28 '14 at 9:21

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