It seems that it improves the overall utility assuming we are all equal.

Edit: Seems that calculating the utility improvement is not that simple. How many organs you might be able to donate is influenced by your age (according to this article). Also depending on the type of organ you are able to donate the survival time/rate of the receivers varies (according to this page).

  • By symmetry, should they do the same for you? Or should we all kill ourselves to "save the planet?"
    – user4894
    Jun 7 '16 at 1:26
  • Well they do not need to save me because currently I do not need an organ. Also I assume we want to save the planet so that we can have a better life in it. So there is no point in killing ourselves to save the planet.
    – Didami
    Jun 7 '16 at 1:32
  • Allthough I'm not sure if this was what @user4894 was getting at, the way I understand Utilitarianism requires questions like these to be dealt with as general and universal questions. You have to ask "should any person in the case that his organs might save two or more other people kill themselves for the greater good?" Asking about it on a personal level doesn't make much sense here. Jun 13 '16 at 10:17
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    I was thinking that it would be utilitarian to go back in time and kill John Stuart Mill.
    – dgo
    Jun 14 '16 at 15:10

A lot is hidden in the claim that it improves the overall utility assuming we are all equal.

There's several variants of Utilitarianism and these all fall within a larger family of consequentalist views (views that see the evaluation of actions in terms of some quantitative object and that see morality as about the maximization or minimization of this object). Many of these problems are inherited from Bentham and Mill's formulations of Utilitarianism.

The simplest type of these theories are called act utilitarianism. In such views, we evaluate individual actions to see whether they would maximize (hereafter I'll skip minimize) a desirable outcome. On such an analysis, it's conceivable that someone killing their own self could maximize utility, whether utility is understood as (a) pleasure, (b) people who are able to live freely, etc.

There are, however, severe problems with act utilitarianism that make it highly unattractive as a moral theory. First, there's a problem with outcomes -- namely, whether we can predict outcomes with such clarity and then whether we are responsible for maximizing actual outcomes or picking what appears maximal based on what we know. (E.g., presumably some doctor at some point vaccinated Pol Pot and this saved his life -- seemingly a good thing, but then consequences go screwy and he ruins a country murdering its best and brightest).

Second, there's the "drifter problem." A pure act utilitarian view with only an eye to optimization cannot consider anything else. Thus, if it the loss of your life or happiness would be less than the gains realizable by your death, it also follows that the same can be applied to a protesting subject who does not have the will to die to save others. (In other words, there's no room for a consent condition).

Within consequentialism, it's far more common to support a type of rule utilitarianism where we make calculations about what is beneficial away from the actions themselves. Thus, we can have laws against acts that are of doubtful consent even if we acknowledge that consent might be possible, because we calculate that the policing costs of distinguishing cases outweigh any good of allowing consent cases. To restate that more clearly, we can decide that it is not licit to take lives to save lives based on generalized calculations, acknowledge their might be exceptions, but include in our calculation that these too will be illicit due to the odds of consent being low).

So if you're a pure act utilitarian optimizing "survival" or "life" and you have no epistemic concerns about whether you can know outcomes, then it might be possible on your view to see donating your life to save others by dying as licit.

Bentham, for instance, draws no distinction between types of pleasure and doesn't have much talk about consent (from what I gather). Mill, on the other hand, incorporates a "harm principle" wherein in our maximization we cannot cause harm or violate the autonomy of others. Moreover, Mill distinguishes types of pleasures and doesn't see things as a pure optimization. In this way, he avoids the second objection. (His view is ambiguous about whether we are optimizing actual or expected consequences).


unless you are expecting to save at least two persons from certain death (if you hadn't donated these healthy organs), i don't even seeing this as increasing utility.

  • Why not? It's two lives instead of one life. That is definitely utility increase in my opinion.
    – Didami
    Jun 7 '16 at 3:31
  • 1
    gotta read what i wrote. if you're not expecting to save at least two persons from certain death, it doesn't increase utility. you can even calculate where you might save three persons, but the probability of saving each from death (compared to the alternative, that they might get the necessary organ from somewhere else) is 33% or less, it doesn't add up to more utility. Jun 7 '16 at 4:13
  • Sorry for my misreading. I think that you are just speculating here. According to this "on average 3.6 organs are recovered from each deceased donor". And here is an example of survival rates. Assuming an average survival rate of 60% a deceased person can save at least 2 lives.
    – Didami
    Jun 7 '16 at 20:16
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    i was speculating. so if you're healthy and want to be totally self-sacrificing altruistic and save at least 2 other lives from premature death, then probably you need to inform police and first responders by telephone of what you're about to do. wait for them to show up and then dispatch yourself, probably with a bullet to the brain (that organ won't be recovered). make sure your organ donor status is clear in your will, on your drivers license, and with your family. perhaps you wanna consider what benefit to humanity your continued life would be (and in comparison to those you save). Jun 7 '16 at 22:28
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    On huge problem with this "how many lives" argument is that it is a complete abstraction. Suppose we kill John, a healthy 20 year old individual, who can be expected to live some more 60 years, at least 40 of which with quality, to save 80 year old Stephen and 75 year old Eberhard, who will then live 5 or 10 years each of doubtful quality life. Where is the gain? (and, as no utilitarian can see the future, or explain what is a "quality life", much less quantify it, how can we even assess the gains or losses of such conundrums?) Aug 15 '16 at 15:04

If you're a utilitarianist, you don't sacrifice your life merely to save the lives of two or more other people with your organs (people who will, in most cases, be ordinary people rather than utilitarianists), except in the extremely unlikely situation that the people who need your organs for their survival are utilitarianists and there are no non-utilitarianist or less healthy and/or older utilitarianists than you who could save those utilitarianists' lives in your place!

The utilitarian thing to do is not "to improve the world more than an ordinary person would" or "to do the best you can at an arbitrary isolated point in time", but to improve the world as much as possible, in total, in the long run.

You can do so much utilitarian good during a long life as a utilitarian, that it outweighs by orders of magnitude the good your organs could do if you killed yourself while still in good health (with the exception of the above, extremely rare situation).

A lot of people falsely assume that in order to be a utilitarianist, you have to be very willing to sacrifice your whole life for just about any two other people in just about any situations, and that you have to give away almost all of your money and belongings to the poor and starving. As if every other human being would have the same value as you, despite your being a utilitarianist!

That's not utilitarian - not as long as very few people are utilitarianists. That's underestimating the rarity and exceptional instrumental potential utilitarian value of being a utilitarianist (alive).

It's almost as if Einstein would have spent all of his life taking care of mentally retarded kids, never doing any science - despite realizing his genius!

Or as if Mozart would have spent all of his life singing in bad choirs, never composing anything at all in his whole life.

It's utterly stupid! Those utilitarians. who think suicide merely for the sake of saving a few non-utilitarian lives is utilitarian, are so stupid, they should be ki- (just kidding).

The only things you have to "sacrifice" as a utilitarianist are things that aren't good for you anyway, like time-wasting activities and unhealthy habits, like watching sitcoms, eating junk-food, smoking, going on a lot of roadtrips all the time just for fun, pointless things like that.

To be a utilitarianist, you should probably eat well, exercise, maybe practice mindfulness, spend a lot of time learning stuff and being creative in your striving for having as utilitarian an effect as you can upon the world in the long run. Sound and rewarding activities like that. Certainly not suicide. You shouldn't even necessarily lead a very modest lifestyle, since that could prevent you from making a lot of money, for example. Making sure you always have a lot of money might be very utilitarian. Just think of how Elon Musk probably has a very utilitarian effect on the world by running his world-improving business, and how that would have been impossible had he given away all of his money all the time - or had he taken his life as a teenager merely to save a few other human beings with his organs, falsely believing that to be the "utilitarian" thing to do! What he now did was so much more utilitarian! (And maybe there was something even more utilitarian that he could have done!)

Also, I think Elon Musk seems pretty happy. You can have a very happy and long life as a utilitarian, since efficient world improvement can be fun and requires a lot of time (that is, a long life) - and you should have fun being a utilitarian, or else you won't last long as a utilitarian. Not lasting long isn't utilitarian!

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    Welcome to Phil.SE - this is a comprehensive answer, but I don't see how your arguments follow from the utilitarian position. You cite a particular value to be a utilitarian, but that notion is vague; it's not clear to me that a utilitarian is substantially more valuable, within utilitarian frameworks, than the average person. Compare this with the number of people who could be saved by sacrificing a single utilitarian's organs, and you derive a huge net benefit to the world via the one person's sacrifice.
    – commando
    Aug 15 '16 at 4:09
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    I've read a decent amount of utilitarian philosophers and I've never seen any of them subject how we should act to whether or not the people we act for are also utilitarians. As such, I think the answer is misguided. "card-carrying utilitarianism" might prove to be an interesting version but I doubt it would be popular.
    – virmaior
    Aug 15 '16 at 5:23

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