The Death Cure

The Death Cure "The Ends Justify the Means": Utilitarianism and Trolley Problems

One of the more philosophically poignant moments in The Death Cure is when Janson claims, with respect to WICKED trying to find a cure for the Flare, that the end–i.e. finding a cure–justifies the means–i.e. subjecting people to torturous and often lethal trials. The phrase "the ends justify the means" is commonplace in society today, but it's not always obvious just what it means in terms of moral decision making. Here, we'll review the ethical theory of utilitarianism, from which the phrase "the ends justify the means" is derived.

Utilitarianism traditionally finds its roots in the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Although the theory has various formulations, its core thesis might be framed as this: actions are right in portion with the degree to which they maximize utility, where 'utility' is often understood as something like 'happiness'. So, if one action increases overall happiness more than another action does, then the first action is a proportionately better action, ethically speaking, than the second action.

While the above formulation of utilitarianism may seem rather abstract, various thought experiments can help to make it more intuitive. Consider, for instance, a classic version of what's known as 'the trolley problem'. Imagine that a runaway trolley is barreling down a track, and three people are tied to the tracks in front of the trolley. You are standing at a switch; if you pull the switch, then the trolley will change to a track with only one person tied to it, meaning that the three original people will live, but the fourth person will die. Would you pull the lever?

There are many versions of the trolley problem, and many ways to fill out important missing details of the example. But, broadly speaking, a utilitarian probably would pull the lever because the happiness of three people is worth three times as much as the happiness of one person. You might think, of course, that there's something uncomfortable about effectively sentencing a person to death by pulling the lever; this is where the utilitarian would say that the end–maximizing happiness–justifies the means–pulling the lever and killing one person.

Now we are in a position to see how utilitarianism connects with The Death Cure. Oftentimes, utilitarian considerations are invoked in order to justify human experimentation. Consider: if killing, for instance, ten people in human experiments leads to the development of a cure for a disease that kills millions of people, we are basically just looking at another version of the trolley problem. Thus it makes sense that a utilitarian would be in favor, in the above example, of conducting experiments in order to develop the cure.

Of course, utilitarianism is not the only ethical system, and you may well think that some actions are forbidden even if they might maximize happiness. So, what do you think? Is WICKED justified in their actions? Is utilitarianism a sound ethical theory, or should we look elsewhere in determining the ethical value of actions?