In A Cave Down By The River: Kantian vs. Utilitarian Ethics

There is a story about ten individuals who decide to go cave exploring at a local island.  This cave happened to also be by a water source, and at low tide the cave would be exposed and people could venture into the cave to explore; as long as they are out by high tide they will not get trapped.  On exiting, the first person gets stuck, and the other nine have to make a choice to either use the C-4 explosive they have handy, or die by the inundating water source. Meanwhile, the first persons head is just high enough that they would survive high tide.

The people will base their decisions on either Utilitarian or Kantian ethics.

My first approach to this dilemma is that of the Utilitarian.  Ones needs to understand the thought process before a decision can be made.  Utilitarianism was first brought forth by Jeremy Bentham and is a theory of right conduct that combines three elements:

First, Utilitarianism has a consequentialist structure in that the rightness of an action depends upon the net value of the consequences associated with the action.  Second, What has intrinsic positive value is happiness and what has negative intrinsic value is unhappiness.  Finally, the view is imperialist in that it is the resulting level of happiness and unhappiness for everyone affected that determines the rightness or wrongness of an action.

In other words, Utilitarianism equals by definition an idea that the rightness or wrongness is determined by some feature of consequences of that action, and an action is right if and only if the utility associated with that action is at least as high as the utility associated with any other alternative action open to the agent in the situation. With the situation at hand we must now take into account the interest of the community, but “it is vain to talk of the interest of community, without understanding what the interest of the individual is” (Timmons, p.89).  Timmons also states, “A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of their pleasures; or, what comes to the same thing , to diminish the sum total of their pains” (p89).  The interest of community, then, “is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members” (Timmons, p89).

After understanding the Utilitarian approach, next is the decision, and to do this in a Utilitarian method you need to calculate the Hedonistic Calculus.  This consists of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity/remoteness, fecundity, purity, extent, and type.  To do this one needs to add up all the herons of pleasure of the consequences of actions, then add up all the dolors of pain of the consequences of the action, and then subtract the dolors from the herons to equal the total utility.  The highest utility would be the correct choice.

Hedonistic Calculus

If a party was stranded in a cave they would need to add up their pleasures, then the pains, and subtract the pains from the pleasures.  This will be the correct utilitarian choice. In this cave situation, the more people that would survive the endeavor would be the correct Utilitarian response, whether stuck in the passage or in the cave.  Meaning, the correct Utilitarian decision would be to shove the C-4 into the proper place to cause the person the  least amount of pain upon detonation so as to save the greater number of people (causing the most happiness) while inflicting the least amount of pain.

The next approach is hat of the Kantian way of thinking which was developed by Immanuel Kant.  Kant has reasons for the failure of Utilitarianism, stating that Utilitarianism has no rules and is too broad a way of thinking.  In other words, an act is right if and only if the maxim of the act can be consistently willed to be a universal law of nature.  Through a maxim, it shows that the moral worth of an action is judged.  Kant’s ethics revolve around duty rather than emotional or end goals; however quantifiable.  Kant states, “That while I can will the lie, I can by no means will that lying should be a universal law,” explaining that his “maxim, as soon as it should be made a universal law, would necessarily destroy itself” (Timmons, p117).

In Kantianism, “The conception of an objective principle, in so far as it is obligatory for a will, is called a command of reason, and the formula of the command is called an Imperative.  Imperatives are only formula used to express the relationship of objective laws of all volition to the subjective imperfection of the will of this or that rational being, the human will” (Timmons, p118).

Imperatives are either categorical or hypothetical.  A hypothetical imperative represents the practical necessity of a possible action as means to something else that is willed.  Kant states, “The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action as necessary of itself without reference to another end, as objectively necessary” (Timmons, p118).  In other words, hypothetical imperatives have “if” clauses, i.e., if I do not want to burn my house down, don’t smoke in bed.  The categorical imperative would be that which represented an action necessary of itself without reference to another end, as objectively necessary, i.e., do not murder.  Categorical imperatives do not have an “if” clause.

With Kantianism understood, one can now make a judgment of the correct cave situation.  With this understanding to duty rather than emotional or end goal, again it is apparent that the lives of nine hold sway over the life of the one.  So it would be the duty of everyone in the cave to survive while it would be the duty of the one stuck to die so others could live, again sticking the C-4 were the person would feel the least amount of pain.

The next question you would have to ask yourself is what would I do, and why?  Would you look at the situation according to the categorical numbers, or duty, or emotion, or a plethora of other ways when you find yourself in a situation like that?

By getting an appreciation of Utilitarianism and Kantianism, one can have a better understanding  of how people make choices and determines accuracy in a right or wrong situation.  Eleanor Roosevelt may have said one of the greatest sayings to deal with ethics, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right–for you will be criticized anyway.  You’ll be damned if you do and you’ll be damned if you don’t.”


11 thoughts on “In A Cave Down By The River: Kantian vs. Utilitarian Ethics

    1. Good question, something on the mind of every great thinker. Some claim it is given by some societal/organizational method, others claim patterns of recognition determine right. If history has any claim on an answer, then, what is right is both individually and societally subjective, and a choice is decided on the situational balance between those two extremes.


      1. The meaning, as close to I understand it, for the “object of itself” has to do with the utility of the object, how the perceiver views the uses of the object. If the perceiver could perceive the “object for itself”, beyond just the utility the perceiver places upon the object, then, theoretically, we could achieve a level of understanding on par with Christ/Buddha consciousness.


      1. Of course the term ‘star’ would not be there without humans and neither would human perception of star be there without humans, that was not my question.

        My question is that the ‘thing’ star would still exist without humans or not? Please give a clear and unambiguous answer.


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