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Utilitarianism: An Ethical Framework for Moral Dilemmas


Utilitarianism, a consequentialist ethical theory, holds that an activity is moral if it makes the most people happy (Matti). The theory says we should always increase utility and minimize pain. Therefore, this paper applies utilitarianism to Jim, a botanist travelling in South America who witnesses a public execution, and I’ll compare a utilitarian’s approach to mine and explain why.

Case Study

When he witnesses a public execution in a small town in South America, botanist Jim must decide. A military captain has selected twenty Native Americans at random from the local populace, which has been resisting the government. Jim receives visitor privileges. Jim can choose a Native American and shoot him, freeing the other nineteen. Otherwise, Pedro, the captain’s henchman, will execute.

Utilitarian View

According to utilitarianism, Jim’s decision is moral if it makes the most happy. Jim’s choice should minimize pain and maximize pleasure and happiness. Jim can shoot one guy and save nineteen or let the captain’s henchman execute. If Jim shoots a Native American, he must pick one from twenty. The decision will kill one person and hurt their family and friends. The judgment will also spare nineteen executions. This decision will save nineteen lives, maximizing happiness for the nineteen people, their families, and their friends. If Jim doesn’t shoot, the captain’s henchmen will execute all twenty Native Americans. Twenty people will die from this action, causing pain to their families and friends. The decision will cost twenty lives, causing much suffering. Thus, a utilitarian would advise Jim to shoot one person and save the other nineteen to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This choice would make most people happy.

Utilitarians base morality on results. Utilitarians think harming others is terrible and bringing the most happiness to the most people is right (Matti). Jim must select between two options with different effects. He may kill one and rescue nineteen by shooting one. He could even let the captain’s henchman execute all twenty people by not shooting anyone. Jim would save nineteen lives by shooting one. Its solution would likely satisfy the nineteen people, their families, friends, and anyone who loves human life. It would also hurt the deceased and their family. It raises the morality of sacrificing one life to rescue many. Jim would let the captain’s henchman kill all twenty people if he didn’t shoot. All those killed and their families and friends would suffer greatly from this event. It would also make life lovers sad, angry, and depressed. It raises whether it is moral to do nothing in a life-threatening scenario. According to utilitarianism, Jim should choose the alternative that maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering. The solution that saves the most lives is moral. Utilitarianism has been attacked for ignoring individual rights and autonomy and focusing on outcomes rather than intentions. Thus, complex moral decisions may benefit from considering other ethical perspectives.

My View

This case study is difficult to decide on. If I were Jim, I’d be torn between killing one or all twenty. The practical approach is the most ethical. I agree with utilitarianism that Jim should shoot one and rescue nineteen. This decision would save nineteen lives and bring the most happiness to the most people, but it would hurt one. This decision maximizes benefit, making it the most ethical.

However, this decision is ethically complicated. Sacrificing one life to rescue others questions the value of individual life and the morality of killing another’s life, even under tremendous stress. Jim may shoot an innocent individual or execute all twenty people for prejudice or bias. Thus, while the practical perspective provides a compelling ethical framework for this situation, I recognize that it is not perfect or infallible. Deontological and virtue ethics may give different approaches to this situation. Consider Jim’s decision’s legal, political, and long-term effects on individuals and society. Thus, while the practical perspective suggests that Jim should shoot one person and save nineteen, he should approach this decision with humility, sensitivity, and a willingness to consider multiple ethical perspectives and potential consequences. Jim’s decisions will affect everyone, so he must act in a way that reflects his ideals and respects human life.


Utilitarianism has been criticized for violating individual rights and liberties. Critics say utilitarianism prioritizes the collective good and can justify individual rights violations. Shooting one person to save nineteen may violate that person’s right to life and liberty. Utilitarians believe individual rights and liberties are only valuable if they enhance happiness and utility (Matti). Utilitarianism aims to maximize happiness; hence shooting one person to rescue nineteen would maximize happiness (Matti). Utilitarianism also faces the challenge of quantifying and comparing happiness and suffering across people and contexts (Matti). Critics say it’s impossible to compare one person’s happiness to another’s, making it hard to identify the most happiness for most individuals. Utilitarians claim that we can still maximize happiness and decrease suffering even though happiness and suffering are hard to define (Matti). In this example, saving nineteen lives by shooting one would increase happiness and utility.

Utilitarianism can prioritize short-term profits above long-term costs, another criticism. Critics say utilitarianism can lead to short-term actions with long-term implications. Shooting one person to rescue nineteen may give immediate relief but may also lead to increasing distrust and animosity between groups or the erosion of communal norms and values. Utilitarians say it’s essential to examine short-term and long-term repercussions when making decisions and that their goal is long-term enjoyment and utility (Matti). Utilitarianism may also disregard individual circumstances, according to detractors. Utilitarianism prioritizes the happiness of the most significant number, which can lead to one-size-fits-all decision-making. However, ethical decisions must take into account each person and situation. Utilitarians argue that while happiness and utility are paramount, individual circumstances and contexts should be considered when making decisions (Matti). The cultural and historical backdrop and each person’s identity and history may be crucial in this circumstance. Thus, utilitarianism offers a convincing ethical paradigm for decision-making but has drawbacks. Critics worry about individual rights and liberties, the difficulty quantifying and comparing happiness and misery, the priority of short-term rewards over long-term repercussions, and the need for more respect for individual circumstances and contexts. These objections demonstrate the significance of approaching ethical decision-making with humility, sensitivity, and an openness to diverse perspectives and implications.


In conclusion, utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that bases morality on an actor’s ability to maximize happiness for most individuals. According to utilitarianism, Jim, a botanist travelling in South America, should shoot one person and save the other nineteen to maximize pleasure and happiness and minimize pain and suffering. Utilitarianism can help make ethical decisions that benefit society, despite its detractors. Utilitarianism has drawbacks. Utilitarianism may be criticized for favouring the majority. In this situation, shooting one person to save nineteen others would maximize happiness, but it would be unfair to the sacrificed person. Utilitarians say that decisions affecting the larger good should also consider the minority’s interests. If it made the majority and minority happier, sacrificing one person would be justifiable. Utilitarianism’s inability to foretell outcomes is another drawback. Jim shooting one person may have unanticipated consequences. It could anger Native Americans or boost government oppression. Utilitarians say we can still make decisions using the best available knowledge and should be open to altering our decisions depending on new information. In this instance, Jim could shoot one person based on his knowledge and be willing to reconsider if new evidence comes to light. Thus, utilitarianism helps make ethical decisions that benefit society but has drawbacks. According to the practical theory of maximizing happiness, Jim should be shot to save the other nineteen. However, utilitarianism must be applied carefully to both the majority and the minority, and decisions should be revisited and revised as new information becomes available.

Work Cited

Häyry, Matti. “Just better utilitarianism.” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 30.2 (2021): 343-367.


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