Should we judge actions by their outcomes?

Every societytries to find ways of judging whether an action is right or wrong. Some suggest that we can make rules that tell us what is good and what is bad. But others say that it is not so simple. To decide if something is morally right, it might be too simple to look just at what will happen if we do it, and whether that outcome is good or bad. Sometimes, for instance, the outcomes are all bad and you have to chose the least best of them all. 

Rules or outcomes?

There are certain rules about what is right and wrong, and usually we shouldn’t break them. But perhaps what makes something good or bad is the effect it has, not the action itself. Is it what you do, or the result of what you do that really matters? Whenever we make a decision about what is the right thing to do, perhaps we should consider how the outcome will affect other people, instead of just following the rules without questioning them.

Do the ends justify the means?

Does it matter what we do or what means we use, as long as the outcome is good in the end? We have to look at all the consequences. For example, it might be right to let one person die to save 100 lives, but wrong to kill 100 to save just one. Perhaps we need to look at people’s intentions, too. Did they do something bad because they knew
it would have good consequences, or was it just a bad thing that turned out fine in the end?

The greatest happiness

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) believed that we can decide the morality of an action by looking at its outcome. He said that what matters is how much happiness or harm the action causes. To judge whether it is right or wrong, we have to weigh all the good and bad consequences. He argued that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”—a system that became known as utilitarianism.

Pursuing happiness

Bentham based his system on “happiness,” meaning all the things that give us pleasure, such as food, shelter, and doing the things we enjoy. Other philosophers said we should be free to live our lives in the pursuit of happiness, but remember that we all have different ideas of what gives us pleasure.

The harm principle

We must think about the impact of our actions on other people. English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73) said that something is good if it gives pleasure to other people, but that it is not wrong to do things that make us happy, too. He argued that something is only wrong if it harms someone else, or stops them from doing what brings them happiness. In addition to the happiness caused by our actions, we must consider the “harm principle”— how much our actions hurt other people or interfere with their happiness.

Good or bad? The Trolley dilemma

The idea that a good action is one that brings the most happiness, inspired many others. But the measure of right versus wrong might also not be the greatest happiness, but the least pain. Is it a bad decission and are you a murderer if you have someone killed in order to save a group of friends?

An empty trolley has broken loose and is speeding out of control down a railroad track. Farther down the line, five people are tied to the tracks. The trolley will run them over. There is no way of stopping it, but there is a lever nearby. By pulling the lever you can send the trolley down a different track. However, there is one other person tied to the tracks on the other line. What do you do? If you pull the lever, you save five lives, but the other person gets run over. If you do nothing, you will let five people die. But they would be run over anyway if you hadn’t been there. On the other hand, if you pull the lever, you have deliberately made the decision to kill one person. Is killing someone any different from allowing someone to die? Does your thinking change when you are standing on a bridge and can save 5 people by throwing someone from the bridge in front of the trolley? You can save the 5 people who are on the track, but the man you push will die. Should you push him? Would pushing him off the bridge be different from pulling the lever? What if he is the person who put the people on the tracks in the first place—would that affect your decision?

The hot air balloon trip

Suppose you are in a group of people riding in a hot-air balloon. It beomes clear that the balloon is too heavy, and you begin slowly falling toward the sea. The sea is full of hungry sharks. To make the balloon lighter, you need to get rid of one of the passengers. One person must be thrown to the sharks to save everyone else. But how do you choose who to throw out? It might be a good idea to choose the heaviest. Or do you choose the oldest? Perhaps one of the passengers is a doctor, and another a criminal. Would that affect your decision? Is one person more valuable than another? Would you jump yourself to let the other passengers live?