Suppose you are a Consequentialist faced with a variation of the trolley car problem. Your options are to save five people with a 20% likelihood or one person with a 100% likelihood. Which option, if either, is better from a Consequentialist's perspective?

Now, what if you are uncertain about the 20% likelihood to save five people--the actual probability could be more or less. You are still confident you can save the single person 100% of the time. Should the reasoning change?

  • 2
    Consequentialism is a very wide umbrella for a variety of approaches that would give different answers or judge these situations as underdefined for any answer (we are told nothing about the "worth" of these people, their relation to the chooser, the nature of certainty/uncertainty, etc.). In rule utilitarianism these individual percentages are entirely moot, as decisions are made based on rules designed to work "on average". In act utilitarianism one would compute the expected utility of each action given the odds and pick one with the highest value, randomly if several have the same value.
    – Conifold
    Sep 12 '20 at 7:54
  • ‘One may call these uncertainties objective, in that they are simply a consequence of the fact that we describe the experiment in terms of classical physics; they do not depend in detail on the observer. One may call them subjective, in that they reflect our incomplete knowledge of the world.’ (Heisenberg, 1958, pp. 53–54.)google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://…
    – user47436
    Sep 12 '20 at 7:59

Iirc the typical immediate solution is to divide good and duty, so that utilitarians can say that a choice can be descriptively best without being what we choose based on imperfect/incomplete application of the utility principle. Whether this defeats the point of this utilitarianism is another question, concerning for instance the strength of the relationship between imperative and deontic syntax. (Hare has a model of a quite strict imperative relation, in service to his attempt to reconcile utilitarianism and Kant, fwiw.)

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