Blackmailing a Utilitarian

Often in a TV show—notably in 24 and Arrow—the bad guys kidnap a family member, and our character has no choice but to cooperate with the criminals. “I have your wife” is the name of the tvtrope. Fearing harm to the one hostage, a “good” character often puts a hundred or a thousand or a million people at mortal risk to save one person. Of course, the bad case where a million people die never happens, and the good guys almost always manage to save the city as well as the hostage, all whilst never considering a sacrifice for the greater good. Even in the most dire circumstances, they claim, “There is always a way.”

This method has always seemed super irrational to me. The most classic thought experiment in ethics is the trolley problem, where a trolley is about to run over five people but you have the ability to flip the tracks to run over one different person instead. It seems like you should almost always save the five people, even if the one person were your family. As a utilitarian, I find that the blackmail dilemma makes little sense.

The only case I would let the five die is if the one person on the other track was obviously very good for humanity and many times more so than average. Maybe you could argue that Elon Musk has enough of a climate-change-mitigating effect on the world that it’s better that five random people die than Musk, who might arguably avert the loss of a hundred thousand people to environmental degradation.

I have often made the claim before that even if the one person were family, I’d save the five people in a trolley problem.

“But wait,” multiple people have told me when I express that idea. “You might claim to be a utilitarian, but when you actually have someone you care about, or children someday, there’s no way you would actually decide to abandon them.”

The fact that everyone says that is definitely an update to my belief. But at the same time, I can’t help but to think, “Sure, I understand from evolutionary biology/evolutionary psychology why the base desire to protect one’s genes is so strong. But at a lot of human civilization and progress has occurred because of suppression of base desires encoded in our genes, e.g. murder and tribal warfare. If we’ve learned to not murder, it’s also possible that we’re capable of reasoning about which person to save rationally, not just decide as we’re biologically programmed to.”

“That sounds reasonable,” they respond. “But until you’ve held your own child in your arms, you don’t know what it means. You can’t possibly understand.”

“Sounds right,” I say. “But even knowing that you think that, I can pre-commit to making the utilitarian decision in the trolley problem.”

In the blackmailing trope, the character is often made to directly do something to endanger the lives of lots of people. In some season of 24, some dock worker helps terrorists smuggle in a nuclear bomb(?). The person wasn’t under gunpoint; they had a full day to go to the police, and yet they did nothing.

Would we be better off if everyone claimed to be a utilitarian? Probably not, since the claim wouldn’t be very credible. If there are 5 powerful people in some organization and one of them needs to be blackmailed for some purpose, criminals could target the person they deduce is least utilitarian. Therefore, a few people converting to be utilitarian doesn’t help so much. However, if blackmail were more common, it would probably nudge people to be more utilitarian, as signaling one is a utilitarian has a deterrence effect on criminals from kidnapping one’s family members.