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I've been reading about utilitarianism and am trying to understand the following thought experiment.

A group of hostages are captured by a group of terrorist. One of terrorists, wanting to "have fun" with one hostage, tells a hostage to kill any of the fellow hostages, or be kill himself. In this situation the hostage should choose to kill person with the least utilitarian value.

My thought would be to take the chance to kill that terrorist who instructed me to kill another hostage. Though, it would be likely I would be killed by one of the other terrorist. Still, I would be happy in multiple ways.

1) I did not kill an innocent hostage.

2) I killed a terrorist.

3) I'll have demonstrated that the terrorists cannot rule me.

4) I would have avoided the guilt and shame I would have had to live with, if I had chosen to save my own life at the expense of another.

What is the Utilitarians perspective on the value of these points?

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I think you are referring to a moral dilemma like the one proposed by Bernard Williams:

Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?

However, it sounds like your example differs from Williams in that this part is not true:

Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself.

If that's the case then there is no moral dilemma; clearly killing the captain is the optimal solution. The reason that Williams thinks his version is a true dilemma (and one which utilitarianism gets wrong) is because, in his version, you don't have this easy out.

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  • thanks for the relevant story what i was wondering that if we have choice to refuse to do the action that we know is wrong than why to think Utilitarian way? Actually I did read one article in Magazine and in that author did justify to choose any person which life is not important than other to kill for freedom is right deal not wrong in the name of Utilitarianism. – Nisarg Desai May 25 '17 at 5:56
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I think what is key to this question is "how to apply utilitarianism?". While it is implemented as a normative philosophy that can be used to guide an individual's actions, it has a much wider focus in its evaluation of the outcomes of the action. The Utilitarian would not be limited to only the specific points you include in your assessment, but would consider all other people effected by your decision. The other terrorists, the other hostages, their families, and the community in general. Therefore, they would criticize your analysis for being too myopic. You will need to ask those same questions and interrogate the entire system, which may outweigh the happiness maximized for you by your actions. I would wonder what a Utilitarian would say about public executions and the purpose they served for the greater society

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  • where you are not in charge of the situation than how can you be responsible for other hostages and their families here person who is in charge are terrorist and its leader. than question is just lies about how much you are stick to principal of moralities or may i say justice and your action should be justified for that. and if surrounding is terrorized than happiness and other stuff are damn far for context.first answer wrote that in case of situation utilitarian goes wrong and its not able to apply-able so i did accept hes answer. – Nisarg Desai May 30 '17 at 9:06

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