In a little house in the suburbs of Chicago, a young married couple were enjoying dinner with a rather robust middle-aged woman. Their three children and a visiting relative sat at table quietly listening to the conversation.
“Jane, this is the woman I told you about, the one who saved our lives from that awful accident in the train yard.”
“How can I ever thank you, Ms. Kountitall?” asked the wife, looking fondly at her husband Jim.
“No need. No Need. I simply did what was required of me, as I am sure you would have done yourself if you were there.”
“Now what was it that happened, exactly?” Jane asked.
“Well,” began the husband, “the driver of a trolley had a stroke, and he was locked up in the steering room. The trolley was careening down a hill, headed for a stretch of track that five us were working on, and just at that moment we had somehow accidentally welded ourselves to the track. Quite a scenario really!”
“I saw it all from a bridge overlooking the yard,” said Ms. Kountitall. “There they were, five men about to die, about to be chalked up as losses in the general ledger of life, red marks in the big black book. It seemed nothing could be done, when I noticed that the trolley could be diverted on to a side track.”
“But how did you do it when you were up on that bridge?” Asked Jane.
“Well, I was too far from the switch to throw it myself, and even if I dropped upon it, chances were against a little woman like me moving it. But it so happened that an obese tourist was overlooking the Chicago skyline from the bridge. He was standing just above the switch and leaning over to get a picture on his phone. The count was five to one, so I grasped my duty intuitively in that very moment. I gave him a shove, and the switch was thrown.”
A brief silence.
“What happened to him?” Husband and wife asked together in subdued tones.
“Oh, he’s quite dead. I foresaw that from the first.”
“You saved my husband by murdering a man?” Jane asked in disbelief. Her husband sat still, staring out the window, apparently looking at nothing.
“Murder, boo!!” Shouted their youngest daughter, Sentiment.
“You broke a rule,” accused Formalia, their middle.
“What did you get out of it?” Asked Ian E., their eldest.
“That’s how we do things where I’m from, but maybe that’s not how you do it here.” put in their relative.
For some reason, or perhaps it was non-cognitive, the delight of dinner was diminished. Jim, unable to recover, excused himself from the table to sit alone in a dark room.
Jane, feebly persisted. “You did that for my husband?”
“Well, not for him per say, but for five men. Your husband happened to be one of them, you know.”
“Well, it wasn’t them I did it for, it was for the Greatest Good.”
“Who is that?”
“It’s not a person; don’t be ridiculous. The Greatest Good is the quantity of happiness or pleasure which results from a right action. It is the good which is greater than that which results from other possible actions.”
“Why did you do it for the Greatest Good?”
“Because everybody desires happiness—happiness is our good.”
“But didn’t the man you murdered desire happiness?”
“To be sure. But one man is not five.”
“So did you not care about his happiness?”
“In the equation, his happiness counted as naught against four (subtracting the one who cancelled him out.”
“But if happiness is something that belongs to individuals, and happiness matters, how can it cease to matter for one person only because you discover that you can use him to produce or protect the happiness of more people?”
“Because more happiness is better, haven’t you ever heard of addition or sums?”
“But if all you care about is the greatest happiness, but not who has it, you don’t care at all about the people, the very one’s who experience happiness—the very motive I would have thought for your heroism. You just care about the totality of an abstract.”
“Now you’ve got it!” Said Ms. Kountitall smartly.
“I am afraid I don’t. It seems you stand outside the whole issue, like an inhuman arithmetic prophet. I do not see how happiness can be a good unless people are a good.” She paused and took a different tact, “How can you be so sure you produce happiness, of the consequences?” As she finished, Jane glancing uneasily at the closed door of the room in which her husband now silently sat.
“Well, I was right, wasn’t I?” Querried Ms. Kountitall. “That fat man saved the day.”
“But did your act make everyone happy or even the greatest amount of happiness? What do we know of the results, the happiness of those involved and effected, the different families, their psychological states, etc.?”
“Well, it’s not the results that matter; it’s really the theory of it all.”
“Daddy Psychologically scarred, boo!!” Interjected Sentiment.
“Why you ungrateful, calculating wench! You act as if you would have preferred your Daddy dead.” Said Ms. Kountitall. “I almost wish I had thrown myself upon the switch.”
“If you had, he, I, we would have felt very different about it all. We would have honored you with gratitude and grief.”
“Surely, that’s one possible take on it.” Interjected their relative.
“How tragic, that someone might try to honor me with grief! Subtracting from the general good.” Shuddered Ms. Kountitall.
Dinner broke up in general confusion. Ms. Kountitall was accompanied to the porch and then left there by Jane. A moment later, Formalia surreptitiously stepped outside.
“If only we could come up with a way of knowing how everyone should act in every case!” She sympathized with Ms. Kountitall.
“I thought we had.” Rejoined the guest.
“But its not my rule, and if its not my rule, the rule of my reason, and if it is not the rule of universal reason, it cannot possibly be the right rule. Besides you used that man as a means.”
“True, but all things are ultimately a means to the good”
“No. No. It is the will alone which is good.”
They looked at each other with irritation. Each seemed about to speak when they suddenly heard a positive young man singing a catchy tune across the street.
How good it is to desire what I desire.
They smiled at each other, like those who perceive a fallacy. Formalia went inside. Ms. Kountitall continued to stand there on the porch for three weeks until she determined a course of action to pursue next. She then moved with the certainty of an intuition more than Cartesian for the sake of Devil knows whose good.