The ethical conflict between my instinct for egoism and philosophical adherence to utilitarianism has nagged at the back of my mind since I read about child soldier Ishmael Beah shooting his fellow nationals at gunpoint in A Long Way Gone. I have found a reconciliation between these two. I was debating with my brother (a strong utilitarian) who described ethically preferring self-interest in some cases, and I claimed his understanding could be reasonable under utilitarian ethics. How?
Imagine you're given the choice: you must either commit an action that would break someone else's arm, or one which would break your own arm. I imagine that most people would quickly choose to break the other's. This might make them feel guilty - this is inconsistent with whatever understanding they have of morality. But is it? When a moral theory flies so strongly in the face of most people's considered moral judgements, perhaps it warrants an examination.
I think not many would argue that our confidence in other people's consciousness is, for however slim an epsilon it is, nonetheless less than in our own. I can be completely confident that I exist, that I experience, that I am conscious, because it's tautological. My experience proves my experience. Cogito ergo sum. However, for whatever slim chance it may be, my experiences of others may be fabricated. For all I know, other people around me are merely robots. Or, I am the one conscious, experiencing person in the world, and everyone else is merely pretending. Philosophical zombies.
In utilitarianism I am trying to maximise the expected value of total happiness. It is impossible to know what the outcome will be, so this expected value is the sum of each possible value times its chance of occurring. In the case of choosing who’s arm to break, the payouts are equal - without more information, we can assume an equally negative payout in each case. The probabilities, however, are counterintuitively not equal. Because these payouts assume that each of us are living, experiencing beings. That epsilon of uncertainty, whose value may be rationally debated but is certainly greater than zero, makes the probability of negative outcome for breaking the other’s arm less than my own.
In the case of death, the same applies, however there is an added variable that exaggerates this effect significantly, making this probability insignificant. When faced with the death of another versus myself, regardless of my understanding of their ethical viewpoint, I would choose for them to die. This is because I have greater confidence in my own ethical standpoint than any other; otherwise it would not be my ethical standpoint. The person who should continue existing is the person who will continue to make the most ethical choices. However, I nonetheless think Beah’s actions in Sierra Leone were unethical (though completely understandable!), because he knew that he would need to continue killing many people.
We hold onto moral absolutism because it is the only way for there to be any ethics at all - because it is the only way for there to be meaning in life - and because it makes sense. We choose ethical theories that provide general explanation for specific cases so that we might generalize when we come to new and confusing cases. Ultimately, the ethics we determine come from an engineering of reason and emotion, and when a theory flies in the face of our emotional understanding, consideration must be made. But when this can be explained while not breaching the theory, it merely strengthens the theory’s power as a decision making tool.