Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


To Pee, Or Not To Pee: That Is The Question – Urinetown The Musical

Now, I don’t know if you, the reader, have ever had the pleasure of seeing or hearing of a musical by the name of Urinetown (I applaud you if you have), but I think it brings up an interesting moral dilemma that begs to be discussed.

For those unfamiliar with this show (don’t lie to me, you probably are), Urinetown is set in a time of drought that has lasted a long twenty years, and shows no signs of stopping. The town in the show has put in place a system to regulate water usage, the story highlighting one particular aspect of it: toilet regulation. Those in charge can’t let people have private household toilets, and they also can’t have people urinating in the streets, so the Urine Good Company (UGC) sets up public amenities where people need to pay a hefty fee to use the toilets there. And to combat the people’s desire to ignore the public urination laws instead of using the amenities, the penalty for getting caught doing your business anywhere but a public amenity is being sent to the mysterious “Urinetown.”

The story follows those who frequent amenity #9 as they rebel against the UGC by refusing to pay the fee, and using the washroom whenever they want. Of course, this causes conflict with the UGC, but they are eventually overthrown by the revolutionaries. It is revealed throughout the story that the UGC is buying off the legislature so they can do whatever they want and not run into the law. This includes raising amenity fines, the profits, of which, they are using to become fabulously rich, since they have given up on actually trying to find a scientific solution years ago. Furthermore, they have also paid off the police force, which is responsible for sending people to “Urinetown,” but in the words of one of the cops, “there is no Urinetown; we just kill people!”

So, the people of amenity #9 had good reason to take the UGC down, and as the show is coming to a close, things look like they’re going to be good for all in the town. This is soooooooo not the case. The hard truth is that they chose to live good and die fast, using up what little resources they had left in a short period of time, ending the show dead on the stage from dehydration and sickness. Their brief happiness ensured everyone’s death, and the viewer, despite their hate for the UGC, is forced to revaluate the positives of the company and the regime it formed. It is mentioned in a line during the closing number that the UGC was very effective in regulating water consumption, and was able to supply its employees with healthy salaries and good lives that would have lasted for quite a while if not for the revolutionaries. And even though there were people suffering, they were alive, weren’t they?

Herein lies our dilemma, dear reader (if you’re still there), because one is forced to confront two options: Have everyone be happy for a short amount of time (then suffer and die), or have the people suffer a bearable, yet constant amount for a long time and be happy rarely, and experience happiness of a lesser strength than the first option. Otherwise known throughout the show as side “what of today” and “what of tomorrow.”

Honestly, as options go, they’re both totally shit. The “what of today” option proposed by the revolutionaries, which makes it so that you have a really good life, but it’s so short, and you suffer so much near the end, that one would wonder if it was worth it. Then there’s the “what of tomorrow” option proposed by the UGC and other upper-class members, where people live in constant bearable misery, and things are the worst for the lower classes, since the people on top are using their money in order to live comfortably, as well as controlling the population by killing disobedient citizens, which begs the question again, is it really worth it?

Because what is your happiness worth if it’s built on the broken backs of the unfortunate? Is it ethical to deny people of their needs for the good of the whole if doing so causes constant suffering and a loss of dignity? In the case of Urinetown, the people of the town are not unlike a person suffering from a painful terminal illness in the way that the death of the people is inevitable, and the suffering is only going to get worse as time goes on, so the real question is, should they quit while they’re ahead, or do whatever they can to drag out their lives for as long as possible through any means necessary. In terminal patient terms, this would mean doctor assisted suicide versus treatment to prolong life.

Since the two options seem to be at odds in terms of their level of suck, I will now asses the options in terms of utilitarianism.

People who like utilitarianism, I think, would probably be in favour of the “what of today” option, since it creates maximum happiness for all, and is totally equal and indiscriminatory, even if it’s for a short time, and ends in the most suffering.

On the other hand, some utilitarian thinkers might be in favour of the “what of tomorrow” option if they valued the longer lives of the whole over the suffering felt, and wouldn’t mind that certain misfortunate people would be killed along the way. Because lengthening the lives of the whole is still a benefit to the whole.

There’s nothing I can really say about the categorical imperative people, since cutting your life short when you could have prolonged it goes against the motive of duty, but treating people badly for your gain goes against the concept of good will, even though it goes with the whole concept of duty. So… there isn’t really an answer for people who like Kant.

This is just really tough in general, and it’s hard to justify either one through logical reasoning.

Conclusion: It’s really too close to call. I’d probably try to have something in between the two options, since the “what of tomorrow” option is much to cruel, and the “what of today” option seems much to careless and naïve to me.

Also, reader, (thank you so much if you’re still there; you’re the best) here’s a video of the show if you’re interested. trust me, it’s good, and, not to mention, it’s hilariously depressing.


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