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Utilitarianism: the Classic Debate Framework

You may have heard of utilitarianism before. You may not have. You may not be able to pronounce the word.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy which states that we should do things that maximize happiness, good and well-being. The founder of this philosophy, Jeremy Bentham, called this "the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

This philosophy emphasizes results over method: it doesn’t matter how we get there, as long as we arrive at maximal happiness.

This takes us away from thinking about problems selfishly— from our own point of view, that of our families and friends, or those of a particular country. Under utilitarianism, all people affected should be considered equally: "every man to count for one, nobody for more than one.”

The classic example of utilitarianism is the ’trolly problem’— and its' many variations. In essence: should you kill someone, if 10 other people are saved from death? Or even if 2 others are saved? Although our intuition says no, utilitarianism says yes.

We may take this moral framework for granted now, but it was an important development in thinking of many problems.

Take factory farming. It’s given huge swaths of the world’s population wide access to cheap meat. Most of us can therefore make the decision to eat meat at will. Yet, given the suffering it causes to the animals, it’s hard to imagine that any pleasure or health benefits or eating meat could justify the practice.

Or industrial development. It’s resulted in an enormous rise out of poverty and corresponding extension of lifetimes and reduction in disease and squalor. Yet the same development results in incredible environmental degradation like deforestation and climate change which will drive many species to extinction. We might reasonably question whether the huge increase in human happiness is worth the corresponding decrease in animal happiness, or worth the future happiness of future humans.

Utilitarianism is often used as a framework in debate to emphasize to the judge that ultimate impacts and results matter more than the process. In fact, this could be considered ’standard weighing’ in many cases.

Utilitarianism has a number of criticisms though. The strongest is that it leads us to some conclusions that are probably wrong.

For example, instead of buying gifts for friends and family, you should almost always donate that money to charity. After all, that’s much more likely to increase happiness for more people.

As another example, if a judge could convict an innocent man to prevent some deadly riots, they should do it. We intuitively know this is wrong.

Likewise, if a doctor can kill someone and use their organs to save five other peoples’ lives, the greater good has been done. Yet yew of us would advocate this variety of organ harvesting.

Consider adding a utilitarian framework to the top of your next case. Winning impacts under this framework can be helpful if your opponents might question your methods to get to ’the ultimate good’.

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