My high school debate captain and I were having a discussion. For our purposes, utilitarianism is defined as striving to maximize the "greater good", that is, the best for all of society. Our scenario for the trolley problem was, on one side 5 people that had absolutely nothing to contribute to society, or even those that were detrimental to society. On the other side is a president or visionary or some person that had more to contribute to society than the other 5 combined. From my understanding of the basic premise of utilitarianism, one following this principle would choose the 5 to be run over, due to your goal of maximizing impact on society. My debate captain disagreed, saying that utilitarianism would promote killing the one over the 5. Can someone explain why her answer was utilitarianism and not egalitarianism(as she argued) and why my answer was not utilitarianism? I've found arguments supporting both sides, and I'm getting a little confused.

P.S.: There is no default choice for the trolley. Suffice it to say that if you don't choose one or the other, a billion visionaries will die and the world will be destroyed. Disregard the action of pulling the lever.

  • My feeling is that neither view is correct. We have no idea which decision would be better for all, although we might make a guess. As virmajor notes below you have to start by defining ''good' and this is where things become difficult, even before the trolley problem arises. – user20253 Sep 20 '17 at 10:51
  • and how many visionaries do you think were killed in WWII? Your problem is a sociological problem rather than philosophical. It has to do with the conflict between self interests and group interests. You should read "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society needs to Thrive" by Bruce Schneier – Swami Vishwananda Oct 4 '17 at 13:51

I'm guessing that the disagreement stems from a confusion about how to define utilitarianism.

The word has at least two common usages:

  1. Utilitarianism as defined by John Stuart Mill - "The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" (from Utilitarianism) and implied in that text but explicitly stated in On Liberty without actually causing harm to anyone.

  2. Utilitarianism as a synonym for consequentialism more generally -- which would get you something like "maximizing the good" (or "minimizing the bad").

Your usage with your debate captain seems to be a version of 2. But there's an important problem in the formulation you gave and the formulation for 2, which is that "the good" is not defined. There's a lot of different species of consequentialism that focus on different things. If we define the good as "maximizing perceived positive impact on society", then you seem to be correct. I don't know how your debate captain is defining the good -- perhaps "the maximization of life."


The problem could just be in the arithmetic. The two of you could both be utilitarians, even Utilitarians in the strongest sense of Mill's, but disagree on how important it is to an individual to be alive. To aim to maximize pleasure involves a theory of pleasure, and those can vary widely.

You seem focused on social good, so you would attribute little utility to simply existing. An extreme form of this end of the scale would not even consider death to be harm, if it involves less suffering than the average death an individual could expect to encounter, since some death is a foregone conclusion and an improvement over average is a gain. Just existing has little or no value (or, in the 'Buddhist' case, may actually have negative value.) This measure of pleasure is very Aristotelian, and is partaken of actively.

But many people look at the degree to which people are willing to sacrifice comfort or harm others for mere survival and assign a great deal of utility to simply being alive, perhaps accounting extra value for every person alive for every minute. Breathing is pleasant, and should continue. This measure of pleasure is very Epicurean, and is implicit in mere experience.

Since nobody is psychic and we don't have a magic hedometer, we are free to have different theories of what pleasure is 'really like' and the notion of utility is rife with such problems.

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