Let us say that I am driving a car, look for a short second at my phone as I've done multiple times before, and then BAM, I ram my car into a pedestrian. Blood, horror, brains, murder.

If you are an utilitarian, do you view my choices during this event [choice 1: drive a car, choice 2: look at my phone for a second] to be equally as bad as a person who killed the pedestrian with full intent?

If true, then this seems to be an open and shut case - utilitarianism, at least in the simple "only consequences matter"-version, makes no sense. If not true, please point out why not. Thanks.

  • Utilitarianism seems to imply the idea that we can easily/intuitively calculate the consequences of our actions. That, of course, is utterly false. We cannot know what our actions will entail, except ex-post facto. Dec 3, 2016 at 23:02
  • This is basically the problem with only-realized-consequences act utilitarianism. One cannot in fact predict what the consequences of one's action will be to a completely certain extent and thus a big part of an action being right or wrong would just be luck.
    – virmaior
    Jan 3, 2017 at 9:16

3 Answers 3


Probability of each outcome is what matters

In act-utilitarianism the probability of different outcomes is taken into account such that the probability of the murder is taken into account and compared for the case where:

  • You purposely drive into someone.

  • You pick up your phone (which is known to be the cause of some accidents).

The outcome is the same but the probability is not the same for each case so they are not judged as equally bad.

Though of course you can also argue that the purposeful murder brings more pleasure since you fulfilled your intended action and, as such, would bring more happiness to you especially considering the action would haunt someone who did it by accident. It also depends on why you wished that person dead....and so on. In the end it is difficult to judge any action in general terms since, to determine the utility, you must know specifics of who will be happy and who will be hurt.


From a direct (act-)utilitarian PoV, yes you are equally bad(or good - if the person you killed was a threat to the society). That's what makes utilitarianism so practically useless.

But there's a rule-based utilitarianism, which formulates certain rules based on their expected utility, and these rules are to be followed at all times. The breaking of these rules is unethical. And since these rules are weighted by utility - "Don't kill innocent people" will be more important than the "Always be attentive" rule - The act of yours would be much less unethical.


Utilitarianism, at least in the extremely consequentialist version you're referring to (there are others) requires that actions are judged as being right based on the consequences that they are going to have, not on the consequences they had. That's the element of utility in it. Utilitarians like Bentham even questioned the very notion of punishment for wrong-doing simply as an end in itself, so in your example, the only interest the Utilitarian would have in the rightness or wrongness of the action as it turned out would be the degree to which it taught us anything on the whole about the likely consequences of each behaviour leading up to it. In this case, a wider analysis would show that whilst driving a car could lead to someone's death, it is perfectly possible to do so thousands of times without causing more harm than the good brought about by the journey (measured in economic growth, perhaps), whereas looking at a mobile phone has very little benefit in the moment and is considerably more likely to cause an accident and so would be considered worse.

Another way of looking at it it to consider that you have broken the event into two stages arbitrarily. Neither part of the process was likely to cause an accident on its own. Looking at a mobile phone whilst not driving would be fine, driving whilst paying full attention to the road is probably fine. Choice 1 is not really any more relevant than choice 0 - get up, which would have been necessary before choice 1 - drive a car.

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