Ok, so a bit of forewarning: this is going to delve into current events a little bit (not too much though).

I was having a discussion with someone about the response to the recent pandemic and I said something along the lines of: "It is important that everyone stays home so that the virus doesn't spread and we can minimize the number of deaths (and therefore the amount of suffering) that this virus brings. Not staying home (if you can) is wrong because it has the potential to spread the virus and kill people. We should prioritize human life even if it costs a bit of economic growth."

They countered by saying: "By that logic, the speed limit everywhere should be 5mph. Thousands of people die in traffic accidents every year, many from speeding. This creates a lot of suffering both for the people who die and for their family members. Now, of course ambulances and medical supply trucks could have an exemption to this rule (decreases suffering), but doing this could potentially save many lives. Is it morally wrong to have 60 mph speed limits?"

I was unsure as to how to respond to this. Yes, traffic deaths kill a whole lot of people every year. And if you think about it, many things that we see as convenient and useful either cause or are built on suffering. How does utilitarianism balance convenience and suffering? I would say that death counts pretty heavily in the suffering category, but nobody I know of thinks of driving as a morally incorrect. I have a feeling I am missing an easy rebuttal, but I just don't see it and I would greatly appreciate some help.

  • Okay, so not strictly a utilitarian, but maybe there's an argument to be made around creating limits that people can be reasonably expected to stick to? While it probably would make sense from a safety perspective if people didn't drive so fast as to have the potential to cause harm, the point is that people drive in order to get places at a reasonable speed, and the question is what are reasonable restraints to place on drivers in order to reduce that harm without passively pushing people to neglect this duty in times of personal inconvenience.
    – Paul Ross
    Apr 6, 2020 at 20:35
  • @PaulRoss, so from the perspective of law, yeah that makes sense. People aren't perfect and they probably wouldn't stick to that speed limit, I mean people already drive like 5mph above it. But just because people wouldn't stick to a 5mph speed limit doesn't make it any more or less moral no? I mean if I said that driving over 5mph is immoral, people would look at me funny. So while a reasonable limit would be the best kind of law, would it be immoral for people to meet it? You can drive under the speed limit no? Thanks for the feedback! Apr 6, 2020 at 20:50
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    There is no easy rebuttal because the original argument is too vague and abstract to be valid. It proves too much, as they say, and the retort exposes it. The balancing is far more complex and delicate than "prioritize human life over convenience", abortion opponents use the same kind of sentimental generalism too. My guess is that people are more receptive to quarantines than to low speed limits because they feel that the risk is more controlled by their own driving than it is by own behavior with a virus, especially as contagious as this one.
    – Conifold
    Apr 6, 2020 at 23:51
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    One huge difference between traffic danger and Covid is that viruses tend to go... well, viral. The number of infected people, and therefore dead people, grows exponentially, as each infected infects 2 or more people each day if left unchecked. It is not the case with car accidents. One also has to consider that the more copies of the virus spread, the more likely it is that one mutates into a more dangerous form. All of this autocorrect more drastic measures against the virus spread, all the more if they are temporary.
    – armand
    Apr 7, 2020 at 3:23
  • Thing is that deploying the naive notion of utility, that is one with so many undefined variables and unexplored levels/orders of analysis, makes it hard to pin the issue down practically. For instance, one needs to consider, the unintended and potentially adverse consequences of universally lowering the speed limit to 5 mph, and compare them to the adverse consequences of whatever measures we deem appropriate in dealing with the virus. In doing so, we may, i.e. need to reconsider the ends which would be adversely affected by lowering the speed limit. eg.see Dewey's means/end discussion.
    – gonzo
    Apr 9, 2020 at 3:00

1 Answer 1


The standard Utilitarian reply here is "if there is more utility in a world with a 5 mph speed limit, then yes, there should be a 5 mph speed limit".

In its simplest form, Utilitarianism just demands that we compare our current world with all other possible worlds, including worlds with 5 mph speed limits, and act so as to bring about worlds with more utility.

Utilitarianism balances convenience and suffering by arguing that the goodness of convenience and the badness of suffering can both be translated into "utility" and then compared, just as we compare two numbers.

Then, according to Utilitarianism, whether it's morally wrong to have a 60 mph speed limit essentially depends on empirical facts about how the world would look in that case.

Last, I will add that humans are mostly pretty irrational and we do many things that we don't think of as morally incorrect. That doesn't mean these things aren't wrong. Many people who've thought a lot about Utilitarianism believe Utilitarianism demands a world that looks radically different from ours. Most people are nowhere close to being Utilitarians, in both their acts and beliefs.

It's quite possible that, according to Utilitarianism, it really is morally wrong to have a 60 mph speed limit, but we'll probably never know for sure, since that's a very expensive experiment to run, and it's hard to predict what the 5 mph speed limit world would really look like.

  • We had a 5 mph speed limit, before people rode horses. The world would look like that, except for subways, trains, airplanes, busses and other safe ways of getting around. Self-driving cars are predicted to cut accident rates by 19 out of 20, so the most utility would be to get that to happen as fast as possible. Getting people to avoid alcohol around cars would cut the accident rate in half. Not too complicated.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 1 at 0:33

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