Utilitarianism: yet another sacrificial cult

Utilitarianism is a moral theory associated with the Enlightenment that attempts to provide a universal solution for dealing with moral dilemmas. It claims that the correct course of action is that which produces “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.” The option with the best consequences, defined in this way, is the correct moral choice.

The Enlightenment was a period where many thinkers imagined that social progress was to be achieved through a heightened use of “reason,” and reason meant science. Emulating and trying to join in the prestige of science, utilitarianism focuses on quantitative analyses; what is objective and measurable, to promote the greatest happiness.

To aid this “felicific calculus,” Jeremy Bentham identified happiness with pleasure and then proposed adding units of pleasure, “hedons” and subtracting units of pain, “dolors,” to arrive at the action with the highest net pleasure. John Stuart Mill later suggested that the quality of pleasure also matters and advocated emphasizing “high” pleasures, like reading poetry, rather than “low” pleasures, like bowling. Mill said he would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Mill argued that anyone who had experienced the pleasure of reading poetry would know that it is better than the pleasure of bowling because it is of a higher quality. In so arguing, Mill makes his enlightened preferences the standard for moral action, rather than the plebeian desires of the uneducated.

Paying attention to consequences is surely part of moral reasoning. At times, there may be, for instance, a conflict between protecting the innocent and truth-telling. Deciding between the two may involve considering consequences. When the Nazis ask if Jews are hidden in your house; lie.

Christianity, Scapegoating and Utilitarianism

The central image of Christianity is the crucifixion; Jesus murdered, nailed to a cross. Jesus was the innocent victim of an angry mob. He was falsely blamed with causing social unrest and schisms which in fact preexisted Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Jesus was a scapegoat.

A 4158

René Girard points out that scapegoating someone in this way has been the historically dominant form of providing social cohesion when social unrest threatens the existence of a community caused by such things as famine, war, plagues, floods, etc.. Social hierarchies provide order. Their breakdown means that each person is a threat to his neighbor. A society of equals is a society populated with rivals.

The scapegoat mechanism creates order when a victim is counterfactually credited with the god-like ability to disrupt the whole of society. The victim is blamed for causing the crisis and his murder, lynching, immolation, becomes the remedy. Mutual antagonism is converted to unity of purpose; the murder of the victim. Since the victim is now silenced, the perspective of the victim is eliminated and only the benefit to the mob remains visible. The victim’s friends most likely will remain silent for fear of sharing the fate of the victim. The complete unanimity of the crowd concerning the guilt of the victim may also be convincing even for the victim’s friends and relations.

Christianity claims that Jesus died for our sins and the primary human sin is scapegoating. Jesus died to expose the scapegoat mechanism. It needed exposing because scapegoating is done in good faith; the victim is dead and the communal account is thus never questioned.

The crucifixion of Jesus exposed the scapegoat mechanism on a widespread level for the first time in human history. Satan, meaning the accuser and false witness against the victim, tried to cover his tracks in the usual manner, by having the scapegoat killed. However, the disciples and evangelists, in a superhuman act of courage, continued to protest Jesus’ murder, meaning the perspective of the victim remained visible and even salient. Thanks to the evangelists, the innocence and goodness of Jesus was emphasized. He did not cause the social problems his murder was designed to mitigate.

Christianity introduces an anti-sacrificial narrative to human consciousness for the first time.* Prior to that, all mythological narratives were sacrificial. The mythical hero is accused of the worst possible crimes – patricide, matricide, fratricide, killing his wife and children, cannibalism, incest, all the most taboo and forbidden behaviors. The crime must be sufficiently horrible to account for the societal breakdown for which he is blamed. The hero is also regarded as a savior. This savior role is really the benefit the mob derived from his immolation; namely consensus and cooperation – with mutual hostility and antagonism being replaced with shared rage against the scapegoat.

Girard makes the case that myth takes the point of view of the mob; religion the point of view of the victim. That is why the immolation of Jesus cannot be assimilated to all the other hero/savior figures.

Utilitarianism explicitly takes the point of view of the mob. “The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” is inherently pro-crowd. It takes us back to pre-Christian murder. The utilitarian philosopher is forced to spend much of his time denying this implication and coming up with ingenious excuses for not killing people. The logic is pro-lynching but his moral conscience, affected as it is by Christianity, struggles to justify alternative outcomes.

There are many stock examples philosophers use when discussing and explaining utilitarianism and they are all sacrificial in nature. One very famous example is the hypothetical case involving a sheriff who is holding an accused rapist. A lynch mob, that prime exemplar of scapegoating, says that if the sheriff does not give the rapist over to them to kill, they will burn the town down. Another involves a doctor with five patients in need of an organ donor who has to decide whether to kill another healthy patient who it turns out would be an ideal donor for all five.

Students immediately recognize the sacrificial implications of utilitarianism and invariably imagine that the utilitarian will favor scapegoating; sacrificing the victim for the benefit of “the greatest number.” At the very least, this suggests that the cursory introduction most students get to utilitarianism will be harmful; encouraging them to scapegoat with a clear conscience.

The wily-seeming philosophy professor who in fact just has the benefit of knowing arguments rehearsed by many other professional philosophers before him, argues that the sheriff will not hand over the accused rapist because that would undermine the rule of law and encourage further vigilantism. So the “real” benefit for the greatest number is not what it might seem. Likewise, if going to visit a doctor meant that a person may be murdered to harvest his organs, doctor visits would diminish, threatening widespread harm.

But even the professional philosopher can only defer the act of scapegoating. The patient and the accused rapist should not be murdered this time, but only because the consequences would not be convenient. Utilitarianism provides no argument against scapegoating per se and in fact encourages mob thinking. Killing the innocent is, among other things, unjust and unfair. But utilitarianism makes no provision for justice and ignores it.

The utilitarian professor finds himself defending the scapegoat against his class – the mob – who are simply following the logic of the argument he himself has proposed. He creates the crisis by promoting the perspective of the mob and then must hurry to defend the would-be victim.

The other example frequently used is “the trolley problem.” It is yet another sacrificial scenario. The trolley is out of control and is about to kill five people. But you, the bystander, can pull a lever to change the trolley to a different set of tracks, killing just one person. “The greatest happiness for the greatest number” suggests the lever should be pulled. The sacrifice of the innocent victim is clearly the logical thing to do if utilitarianism is correct. This innocent person would not have died if the lever was not pulled, so you are very much playing God. The situation is comparable to one where a terrorist threatens to kill several people if you fail to kill someone else.

Trolley problem

The professor can often get his class to countenance this murderous sacrifice of the single victim, but the students tend to jibe when the example is changed to pushing a fat man off a bridge to stop a runaway trolley. But this difference seems to be merely because the murder is now at close quarters; the sacrificial logic remains the same. Sometimes this difference between the two hypothetical cases is held up as evidence that our moral intuitions are incoherent. But really, the moral confusion is caused by the invitation to scapegoat in good conscience by the professor – something of an authority figure.

Maybe if the fat person were really heavy, it would take several people to push him; thus salving our consciences. Stoning is a traditional form of immolation because it resolves the issue of feeling guilty for murder by making the guilt collective. It is also mimetic – and copying another person often makes an activity easier and seem more doable and permissible. The more one immerses oneself in the mob, the easier it is to do morally wrong things.

What would be morally preferable to utilitarianism and other sacrificial cults would be to promote the point of view of the victim; to emphasize the moral wrongness of murder and the injustice of killing someone to benefit the many.

The scapegoat mechanism is entirely of a piece with consequentialism. Without the benefit of the concept of justice, it is hard to avoid the logical implications of the greatest happiness principle.

Utilitarian calculations; treating people as objects

There is no actual way to measure pleasure, or degrees of pleasure, let alone high and low pleasures, so the scientific-seeming emphasis on quantifying happiness is an illusion. There are no hedons and dolors with which to calculate. The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people imagines the moral agent to have a God-like ability to calculate consequences. In reality, when two utilitarians disagree, it is one person’s guess versus another. There will usually be no actual possible recourse to the numbers.

At most the appeal to numbers is metaphorical. Utilitarians are encouraged to act as though it were possible to actually quantify happiness and to use this as a guide. But even as a metaphor, the theory is inherently corrupting. Utilitarianism promotes taking a calculating attitude towards people. It encourages the perspective of moving people around like chess pieces until the desired outcome is achieved; the behavior of a Stalin or a Mao Zedong. Ironically, the consequences of consequentialist moral perspectives are often bad.

Smiling woman doctor

Even a smart utilitarian doctor would probably not kill the healthy patient to save the many. But continued existence should not be the happy result of a calculation. A sensible person would never trust a doctor who chose whom to kill and whom to save after “doing the math.” There would be no guarantee that the math would continue to come out in the healthy person’s favor. The consequence of having a consequentialist doctor would be to lose faith in such a person in favor of one who abided by entirely commonplace moral understandings, moral principles, and moral prohibitions. A sensible consequentialist moral agent should choose against having a consequentialist doctor, i.e., someone like himself.

Every moderately moral person knows that murder is wrong and they do not need a moral theory to tell them so. Encouraging cost/benefit analyses can only weaken such prohibitions.

Morality involves interacting with people in an I/Thou relationship, not an I/It one. Objects have no real moral status. Mere collections of atoms per se are morally neutral. The correct moral stance is struck when the relation is subject to subject. People are morally important because of their interiors; their thoughts, feelings and preferences. Utilitarianism tends to ignore interior factors other than pleasure and it is hard to care too much about someone considered merely as a pleasure machine.

Arguably, taking even a pretend quasi-scientific approach to moral thinking is counterproductive.


Utilitarianism has a unidimensional psychology; hedonism. Hedonism is the notion that humans are motivated by pleasure and pleasure is what is really important. This theory is conveniently simple. It is also brutish and misinformed. People have myriad motivations and desires – love, autonomy, meaning and purpose being among the more important. Someone’s understanding of his fellow human will be lessened, not increased, if it is imagined that pleasure is all people care about – high or low.

* The word “sacrifice” in English has two incompatible meanings captured by two different words in Greek – one is to murder someone (thyia) and the other is to renounce or give something up (askesis). Retrospectively, the mob in gratitude for the miracle of peace brought about by the murder of the scapegoat interprets the murder (thyia) as a willing sacrifice (askesis) on the part of the victim. In the case of Jesus, his was a willing sacrifice, (askesis) but only to reveal the diabolical evil of sacrifice in the sense of immolation (thyia).

6 thoughts on “Utilitarianism: yet another sacrificial cult

  1. Pingback: Utilitarianism: yet another pro-sacrificial cult | @the_arv

  2. This discussion brings to mind a passage in Michael Polanyi’s ‘Personal Knowledge.’

    Circularity operates by divided roles when a number of persons holding the same set of pre-suppositions mutually confirm each other’s interpretation of experience. Take the following story of a South African explorer, L.Magyar, collected by Lévy-Brühl who regards it as typical.
    [p. 290]
    Two African natives, S. and K., went to the wood to gather honey. S. found four big trees full of honey, whilst K. could find only one. K. went home bewailing his ill luck, while S. had been so fortunate. Meanwhile S., having returned to the wood to bring away the honey, was attacked by a lion and torn to pieces.

    The relatives of the lion’s victim at once went to the soothsayer to discover who was responsible for his death. The soothsayer consults the oracle several times and declares that K., jealous of S.’s rich harvest of honey, assumed the form of a lion in order to avenge himself. The accused denied his guilt strenuously and the chieftain ordered the matter to be settled by the ordeal of poison. ‘Matters then followed their usual course’—says the explorer’s account—‘the ordeal was unfavourable to the accused, he confessed and succumbed to torture…. The accusation appears quite natural to the soothsayer who formulates it, the prince who orders the trial by ordeal, the crowd of bystanders and to K. himself who had been transformed into a lion, in fact to everybody except the European who happens to be present.’

    It is clear to us that K. had not actually experienced turning into a lion and tearing S. to pieces, and so at first he denied having done so. But he is confronted with an overwhelming case against himself. The interpretative framework which he shares with his accusers does not include the conception of accidental death; if a man is devoured by a lion there must be some effective reason behind it, such as the envy of a rival. This makes him an obvious suspect and when the oracle, which he has always trusted, confirms the suspicion, he can no longer resist the evidence of his guilt and he confesses having turned into a lion and having devoured S. This closes the circle of the argument and confirms the magical framework in which it was conducted, and it thus enhances the powers of this framework for assimilating the next case which will come under its purview.

    Communists who have experienced the procedure which leads to confessions in Russian sabotage trials have described a similar circularity. The prisoner will usually resist the accusation to start with, but when it is persistently borne in upon him from all sides by the examining magistrate and by the evidence extorted from his former associates, he begins to give way to the convincing power of the case against himself. On the grounds on which he had habitually condemned others he tends now to condemn
    [p. 291]
    himself—and thus close the circle which once more confirms these grounds and makes them stronger than ever for the next occasion.

    • @ pbw: I once was fired for reasons I never was totally clear about. My supervisors would complain that I should be teaching metaphysics, for instance. I said I was. They said, then it needs to be in the syllabus. I said, it is. They said it needs to be in bold and placed further to the left on the page. This comment was placed as a formal reprimand in their assessment of me as a professor after a class observation. Several such comments accumulated. The sheer mind-numbing pedantry of their complaints bewildered me. My eventual dismissal seemed an injustice. However, the mere act of being ostracized and rejected is itself shocking and depressing. An income is necessary for survival. Being fired represents a failure. These factors mean that you can come to share the poor opinion of one’s former employers even though the actual reasons seem stupid. You are imitating the opinion of those around you – in this case it just happens to be about you! For that reason I can entirely imagine the Russian scenario in particular having had personal experience of the emotions involved.

  3. Pingback: Utilitarianism: yet another pro-sacrificial cult | Reaction Times

  4. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/06/04) - Social Matter


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s