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Jeremy Bentham, Winston Churchill, and Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham has been cited as the founder of Utilitarianism, the concept in which the value of an action is the result of its consequences. In essence, individuals make decisions regarding their actions based upon the perceived consequences of the action; namely which action would result in the happiness and satisfaction of the largest number of people.

History tells us that Winston Churchill had foreknowledge of the November 14, 1940 bombing of the British city of Coventry. However, despite being given at least 48 hours notice that the city was to be the target of a German air raid, Churchill did not warn the residents of the area. Although a host of legal, political, and moral dilemmas arise from such a decision, Churchill was certainly faced with what must have been a horrifying decision; sacrifice the people and the city of Coventry or make the Germans aware of the fact that British code breakers had deciphered an important means of German military communication.

Breaking the code was likely a major military triumph for the British and Churchill certainly would not have wanted to sacrifice their newfound knowledge to the Germans. Therefore, Churchill would have had to choose the lesser of the evils and let the people of Coventry fend for themselves as they had in previous bombings. Certainly Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism would have found the sacrifice morally and politically right as the fate of millions throughout the world rested on Churchill’s willingness to sacrifice the city of Coventry. Still, the knowledge that the British now possessed did not prevent the annihilation of millions of Europeans.

Undoubtedly, any decision, such as that faced by Churchill in 1940, would be extremely unpleasant, and many people would not be able to commit to such a decision. However, if the sacrifice of hundreds or thousands would ultimately save millions, or even billions, the decision must be made. There can be no instance in which the decision could be determined morally wrong unless the sacrifice would not yield similar results; namely, to use Coventry as an example, if the sacrifice of the city was only to protect the knowledge of the code, and that knowledge would not ultimately save millions. The mere protection of the code would not be enough to rationalize such a decision, but the protection of millions of people would be.

The application of Bentham’s hedonistic calculus to this example yields interesting results. The pleasure that results from Churchill’s decision in this instance would have to be the potential of the code to end the war and save millions of lives, although there was surely no actual pleasure involved in the situation at all. Such an equation would be weak as the results of the decision would be some time in coming if at all. Churchill took a calculated risk in sacrificing Coventry, which could have easily backfired. However, one cannot use equations or theories to approach morality as morality is a self-defined and emotional concept.

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