Humanist Voices
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Humanist Voices

Rule utilitarianism

Should we ever break rules for the greater good?

The trolley problem

In the original trolley problem, there’s an out-of-control trolley coming towards five people and the only way to save them is by pulling a lever and diverting the trolley to another track where a single person is killed.

The footbridge problem

In the footbridge dilemma, however, there’s a big man standing on a footbridge that goes over the trolley track where those five people are about to be ran over, and the only way to stop the trolley is by pushing him.

The transplant problem

Perhaps an even better example is the transplant problem. In this thought experiment, a surgeon has five patients who each need a different organ and who will all die unless they find a donor. One day a healthy person who’s compatible with all patients comes in for a checkup. Is it ethical to kill him to save the five?

Scene from the movie “I Am Mother”.


As I have mentioned, utilitarianism is often contrasted with deontology, which focuses on respecting rules rather than maximizing good consequences. However, the two theories don’t have to be interpreted as being contradictory. Even Kant, the most notable deontologist, said that we should act “only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. This means that, even for deontologists, rules must be justified on some basis. Divine command theorists appeal to the will of a god, while Kantians appeal to the principle of universalizability. Rule-oriented utilitarians appeal to the principle of utility.



Official Secular-Humanist publication by Humanist Voices

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