Calculating Consequences: the Utilitarian Approach to Ethics

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When Oliver North was asked to explain why he lied to congressional committees about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, he replied, "Lying does not come easily to me. But we all had to weigh in the balance the difference between lies and lives." Elsewhere in his testimony, North was asked about the false chronology of events he fabricated when preparing a summary of the government's involvement in arms sales to Iran: Questioner: . . . You have indicated that. . . in your own mind . . . it was a good idea to put forth this false version . . . [But] there were reasons on the other side, were there not? North: . . . Reasons on the other side?

Questioner: . . . First of all, you put some value, don't you, in the truth? North: I've put great value in the truth. I came here to tell it. Questioner: So . . . that would be a reason not to put forward this [false] version of the facts? North: The truth would be reason not to put forward this [false] version of the facts, but as I indicated to you a moment ago, I put great value on the lives of the American hostages . . . and I put great value on that second channel [an intermediary used by the U.S. to deal with the Iranians], who was at risk. Questioner: By putting out this false version of the facts, you were committing, were you not, the entire Administration to telling a false story? North: Well, let, let�I'm not trying to pass the buck here. OK? I did a lot of things, and I want to stand up and say that I'm proud of them. North's method of justifying his acts of deception is a form of moral reasoning that is called "utilitarianism." Stripped down to its essentials, utilitarianism is a moral principle that holds that the morally right course of action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. So long as a course of action produces maximum benefits for everyone, utilitarianism does not care whether the benefits are produced by lies, manipulation, or...
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