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Flight 93 and Utilitarianism in Times of Crisis

Essay Topic: ,

On September 11, 2001 United Airlines flights 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It has been theorized that the crash was a result of the passengers trying to regain control after it had been hijacked by four members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group in their attempt fly the aircraft into either the White House or the U.S.

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Capitol building.

With that being said, let’s change the scenario a little bit. Suppose that none of the passengers attempted to interfere with the terrorists plot to crash the plane into Washington D.C. Would it be acceptable for the government to launch military aircraft to intercept and possibly shoot down the airliner knowing that all 44 people on board would be killed? From a utilitarian mindset my answer would have to be yes.

The whole point behind utilitarianism is to find the one action which maximizes utility, meaning, producing the greatest net benefit. When all things have been considered there is only one right action. It looks at what is good for the greatest number which means that it is possible to do something that has a positive net benefit for the majority but may be very harmful to another segment of the population.

In the case of flight 93, shooting down the airliner and sacrificing 44 lives would have, in turn, save the lives of hundreds of people on the ground. Preventing the terrorists from reaching their destination would have averted the likelihood that a large number of our elected officials would have been severely injured or killed. Also, it would have prevented the potential shutdown of the U.S. Government, a shutdown that would have had negative effects felt around the world.

This brings to light an interesting question. Are we more likely to accept the idea of utilitarianism in times of crisis? Again, I would have to answer yes. People tend to gravitate toward and readily accept structure and guidance, especially in times of crisis. By applying a utilitarian style of thinking, everything is broken down into costs and benefits and can be
quantified and rationalized.

There are times that we may find utilitarian style of thinking to be to our advantage. For example, in times of crisis, however, I don’t feel that this makes the utilitarian theory universally acceptable because utilitarianism has the potential to be very unjust or unfair. It is human nature to apply a mix of all these different theories to our every day decision-making process. We can’t just apply one style of thinking to the situation. I guess this is why some decisions seem nearly impossible to make.

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