Imagine a situation after a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean, where there is no clear mode of salvation in sight, except for a small plank that a man is holding onto; nevertheless, there are three children that will clearly drown if not helped and that would benefit from the piece of wood. The man refuses to let go to this ad hoc flotation device, as he knows this will condemn him to a certain death. The question arises: should one let the three children down and allow the man to be saved, or assassinate the lone adult to preserve the life of the three children?
For Utilitarians, this would be so easy a problem that it would almost be trivial: one would have to kill the adult on the plank, as this would cause he greatest amount of good and pleasure for the greatest number of people. This action would result in the life of three people, instead of that of only one. While this would obviously be an emotionally difficult decision to make, Utilitarianism believes that the moral action is that which results in the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. Thus, the salvation of three lives instead of one is evidently the correct choice. This economical philosophy usually gives easy solutions to radical problems, especially those that include choices between life and death, as this serves as an ultimate finish line for good and pleasure, concepts that are so intertwined in this philosophy that they are inseparable.
Nevertheless, there are two points in which the theory is so complicated that it becomes almost inapplicable. First, how does one really know what happiness, good and pleasure are? For Utilitarianism, these three concepts seem to be almost equivalent, yet their definitions are so subjective and controversial that it becomes difficult to calculate how much happiness a given action actually represents for a person, as this experience greatly varies individually and among cultures. Furthermore, while this theory takes into account the consequences of the supposed moral action, it includes so many people and consequences that the information needed to be able to make the correct choice is immense. For example, what would happen if the adult was a medical doctor on the brink of discovering the cure to a horrible disease, or if the children grew up to be serial murderers? This addition of information to the original dilemma would dramatically change the course of the moral action; however, this implies the consideration and knowledge of variables that are almost unknowable.
However, Immanuel Kant would have serious problems with the solution that Utilitarians would arrive to, as it would treat humans and human life as a mean, instead of an end in itself. The problem for Kantian theory would not be the salvation of three lives instead of one, as many interpretations of his works support this; what Immanuel Kant would not approve of would be the murder of the adult on the plank in order to achieve this. While some could argue that Kant would not support this because he does not take into account the consequences of the action, as will be discusses later, the salvation of the three children could be taken as the imperative, with disregard of what happens to the adult on the plank, who would be sent to a certain doom. Nevertheless, for this philosopher, it is unacceptable for humans to be considered as instruments under any circumstances; they may only be thought of in relation to the objective or consequence that is pursued by moral actions. Therefore, it is this component of the dilemma that is determinant in the conceptualization that a Kantian could make of it; if the assassination of a man would not be included in the solution, this philosopher would argue that it would be moral to save the three children instead of the one man. Thus, while Kant would also hold that it is better to save three lives instead of one, the usage of the adult as a means instead of an end annuls the utilitarian solution as a possibility.
Therefore, due to Kant’s reliance on the categorical imperative, the correct moral action would be to leave the situation as it is, allowing the adult to live and condemning the three children to their death. For this philosopher, morality relies on the establishment and enforcement of the categorical imperative. In his theory, this is a command that must universally be acted upon, without taking into account the context of the action. As one would actively have to kill the adult, this would mean that killing would be the correct course of action in all situations. Not only is this nonsensical, but it would result in the killing of all humans and be completely contrary to how Kant believes people should be treated, in other words, as an end, not as a means.
I believe that the Utilitarian point of view handles the dilemma better than the Kantian theory, as the latter passively assassinates the three children. While this theory seems very noble in this regard, as it takes into account the unspeakable horror that assassination implies, it only sees it in an active way. This theory forbids the killing of the adult on the plank, actively sanctioning the children to their death. In this sense, Utilitarianism is more coherent, as it takes into account the consequences that not doing this heinous action would entail. While this would not be an easy choice, it seems more reasonable and profitable than the inaction and assassination that Kantian theory implies.
In conclusion, different philosophers have conceptualized possible ways to lead one’s life that share common aspects, but may result in radically different courses of action. Given the choice between assassinating a person and actively saving three other people, and leaving the situation as it is, thus passively killing them, the actions that Utilitarians and Kantians would take would vary. While Utilitarians would argue that killing the person would cause the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people and that this is the correct decision, Immanuel Kant would hold that this would imply taking a person as a means and not an end, which is completely unacceptable. While I believe that killing is wrong per se, I believe that the inaction that Kant would propose would kill the three people in a passive manner, this also being completely unacceptable. Therefore, while the reasoning that Kantian theory would produce is sound, the consequences of the action do not justify the passivity of the decision-maker.