[I have so revised Utilitarianism: yet another sacrificial cult, including insights from my article The Trolley Problem Explained, and from thoughts arising from teaching this topic, that I am publishing this new version with a new title.]
Utilitarianism represents a nadir in philosophical moral reasoning, more corrupting and evil even than the spontaneous tendency to scapegoat.
Before Plato, the Ancient Greek attitude to morality was “help your friends, harm your enemies.” Modern people can see that such a point of view is grotesquely immoral. It is a description of corruption. Plato’s suggestion was “harm no one.” This is obviously a vast improvement.
The Bible states that “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus took this even further and said “love your enemy.”
Also in the Bible is the heuristic “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This idea is centered around justice, also known as fairness. If I want you to treat me nicely and with consideration, then I should treat you nicely and with consideration. This kind of reciprocity can be seen even with chimpanzees. Chimpanzees who share their food will get offered food by the recipients at a later date. Selfish chimpanzees who do not share also do not receive food from others.
Capuchin monkeys who get given a piece of cucumber while they can see another monkey getting a grape for doing the same activity will protest violently at the injustice of this.
This kind of justice is not cultural and does not need to be taught. Each one of us understands intuitively that if I spend all day helping you move and you reward me by punching me in the face, that is not fair. In fact it is ridiculous. If a professor assigns grades arbitrarily and the hard work of diligent students is not rewarded, then this is a legitimate ground for complaint.
Little children and furry animals understand this without taking classes in ethics. The truth of fairness is not doubted at all by any one of us. The ability to perceive this truth and the existence of this truth says something very interesting about both us and the nature of reality. Reality definitively contains moral truths and people have the ability to perceive them.
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.
The heuristic “do what creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” encourages treating people as nonhuman numbers only. Utilitarianism involves taking a calculating attitude where human beings are just pawns in the calculations. As such, utilitarianism has a corrupting effect; encouraging us to be immoral, not moral and to hell with justice.
Theories are left hemisphere phenomena and deal in abstractions. The LH favors mechanistic thinking and the inanimate. Utilitarianism treats people as objects and abstractions. It is subject/object rather than subject to subject – I and Thou.
Utilitarianism adopts a top down perspective associated with social engineering. Instead of doing what is morally correct, people and situations are to be manipulated to produce the consequences that the moral agent has decided are optimal. It is playing chess with other people’s lives. The murderous and genocidal actions of Stalin and Mao Zedong took precisely this attitude.
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.
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 impossibility of a single person doing this means that scapegoat victims are always innocent of what they are accused. Someone like Hitler had the cooperation of millions of Germans. He could not have done what he did without them and they share in his guilt. 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. The victim is seen as divine in his ability to produce peace. The crowd might even erect a little statue to him and worship it.
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.
A lot of popular culture is sacrificial. Many movies have “bad guys” who have the god-like ability to destroy a society or blow up the world. The movie audience then plays the role of the mob bonding in shared hatred of the villains who are murdered at the end. This sacrificial structure is often hidden by inverting the mob/victim dynamic and having the single individual murder the mob; a patent impossibility. Bruce Lee movies or John Wick have this dynamic. This has the advantage that the bad guy victim can be killed over and over again.
Now that Christianity has become less popular with fewer people going to church, there has arguably been a return to the point of view of the mob with social media and news channels reveling in scapegoating people for their alleged crimes without trial, usually making them social pariahs and destroying their livelihood rather than just lynching them, which might be mercifully briefer
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.
Justice as fairness is a cornerstone of morality. Utilitarianism makes no mention of it and in fact abandons the concept. The reason scapegoating is evil is that it violates justice, among other things. If utilitarianism were to successfully replace the normal human perception of justice, it would mean that even were the injustice of scapegoating to be revealed, its immorality would be imperceptible.
Little furry animals display the ability to appreciate the notion of fairness and thus justice. This means utilitarianism makes humans less morally perspicacious than the very distant evolutionary forebears of humanity. Were this to succeed, it would be the most dreadful calamity. The death of the perception of justice and the advocacy of a sacrificial perspective would be the most morally corrupting event in human history.
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.
However, these reasons evinced for why the sheriff and the doctor should not kill their respective victims still take the perspective of the mob. It is claimed that killing the victim would hurt the interests of “the greatest number.”
Even the professional utilitarian 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.
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.
Philippa Foot invented the scenario described as the trolley problem. It has the same structure as the organ donor example. In it there is a runaway trolley that will kill five innocent people. You, a bystander, have the ability to divert the trolley by pulling a lever so that just one innocent person is killed instead. Clearly, this is sacrificial because the point of view of the mob is taken, not the victim’s.
In another version of the problem there is a fat man looking at a runaway trolley from a bridge. If you push him off the bridge he will get wedged under the wheels and bring the trolley to a halt, saving the five people.
Some philosophers delight in the moral confusion generated by the different moral intuitions people exhibit concerning the two cases. People often countenance the lever-pulling but demur from the rightness of pushing the fat man. It is commonly pointed out that the two cases are functionally the same, but that pushing the fat man is more visceral and less abstract, leading to the different moral choices.
The answer should be easy. Do not pull the lever and do not push the fat man. Murdering innocent people is wrong and committing immoral actions cannot be justified by being useful.
Levers are mechanical devices and thinking of them seems to activate our LH preference for the mechanical, inanimate and thus inhuman.
The French Revolution involved a murderous bloodbath utilizing a guillotine. The revolutionaries even sent out “Representatives on Mission” with their own personal guillotine to dispense summary “justice.” Eventually the proponents of the revolution were themselves guillotined. Such simple mechanical devices seem to act as a magical talisman protecting their users from thinking of their victims as human beings in need of protection.
If the trolley problem scenario is changed to one where terrorists have five hostages, then the moral truth may be more apparent. The terrorists appear on Youtube or television and say that if a victim of their choosing is killed, the five hostages will be spared. If we complied, the ironic situation would be that we would be murderers and the terrorists would not.
In principle, the terrorists could repeat this scenario, always bargaining five lives for one until the human race was extinguished.
Again, imagine the terrorist situation just described except this time the terrorists say that if you personally do not commit suicide the five hostages will be killed. Are you morally obliged to kill yourself? No.
A small minority of students remain in favor of killing the victims no matter what scenario is introduced. They want to kill the potential organ donor, to push the fat man and to pull the lever. But when these students are asked if every time a victim is needed they would volunteer to be killed, they always say no. They are willing to condone the murder of others, but not their own murder. This is a clear case of violating the principle of fairness – “do unto others as you would have them to unto you” They want to be protected from immolation but not to protect anybody else. They are willing to murder, but not to be murdered – to sacrifice the victim, but not to be the victim. When this is pointed out, it puts an end to their willingness to voice their support for murder.
Some students who want to pull the lever in the trolley problem argue that to let people die is exactly the same as murdering them. This position would lead to moral and logical absurdities.
In many cases it might be possible to revive the terminally ill each time they come to the point of death, at least for a while. Since their quality of life might be truly awful, many patients opt for a “do not resuscitate” order. They see no point in delaying the inevitable when there is no prospect of actually enjoying life anymore. A doctor who lets a patient die in these circumstances is not a murderer.
If a grandparent dies at home, in many cases the grandparent could conceivably have been revived to live on for another few hours. Since this did not happen, if there were no difference between killing and letting die, then it would be possible to claim that the grandparent had been murdered. By whom? On this reasoning, every single human being on Earth should be held morally responsible for failing to revive that grandparent. Every person who could have been revived, no matter for how long or for what quality of life, would then have seven billion murderers.
We jail murderers or execute them. It is clearly not the case that every human being who did not prevent the grandparent from dying should be jailed or executed.
If the distinction between killing and letting die were not maintained there would be no basis on which we could continue to jail murderers while avoiding jail ourselves for “letting die” or “failing to save.” This is a conceptual point, not merely a pragmatic one.
If someone were drowning in a lake and passersby did not save that person we may feel rather negatively towards those passersby, depending on how risky it would have been for their own survival. But, they are not murderers.
However, if a James Bond villain was there and said he could save five people from drowning if you would murder someone of his choosing by holding them underwater and drowning them, are you guilty of murder if you refuse? This is the trolley problem scenario and you are not a murderer for refusing to murder someone – obviously, quite the opposite.
The final question, again, would have to be – are you willing to be the drowning victim in order to save those five people? If the answer is no, then in being willing to drown someone you are violating one of the most basic foundations of moral perception; justice.
If by some chance you are willing to be the victim in this case, this still does not give you the right to kill another person.
Altruism is being willing to put someone else’s welfare above your own and is intensely morally admirable. Dying to save others is terrific. Killing an innocent person is not.
Some students have suggested that self-sacrificial altruism is suicide. Suicide is self-murder. In altruistic self-sacrifice, you are not murdering yourself. You are dying to save someone else, like diving onto a hand grenade. Intent changes the moral character of an action. If I kill you in self-defense, I am not a murderer. I am protecting myself from an unjustified attack. The person who is being killed has lost the ability to claim that he is innocent.
Utilitarianism makes it harder to see the immorality of the trolley problem. By ignoring “do unto others” and justice the immorality of being willing to sacrifice another person becomes invisible. The introduction of a lever into the scenario also has a demonic effect on moral intuitions – perhaps to be compared to the consequences of using a guillotine during the French Revolution.
Finally, there is a difference between murder and letting die.
It has been suggested that the trolley problem can be compared with triage in an operating theater. In triage there are too many wounded people to all be successfully operated on by a surgeon. The surgeon has to divide people into three groups; those who are likely to survive without surgery, those for whom surgery is unlikely to benefit and/or for whom there is not time to save, and those who are most likely to be surgically savable given the available time constraints and resources.
Importantly, the surgeon does not murder anyone. He is not morally responsible for not saving them all because that is not possible in this case.
Doctors also have a special duty towards their patients that the rest of us do not share. He has agreed that first he should do no harm and he has a duty to save as many as he can.
Pulling the lever in the trolley problem scenario is taking someone who would otherwise been safe from harm and murdering them. They are not in a triage situation.
The trolley problem has a corrupting effect on students. It is purely fanciful and unlikely and it is an invitation to start thinking along sacrificial lines.
Pagan scapegoating bonds people together in shared hatred of the victim who is thought to be guilty. It cannot work if the mob becomes aware that the victim is innocent. The sense of justice intervenes leading to a bad conscience. Awareness of the scapegoat mechanism is the main remedy for the self-righteous sentiments of the mob. It removes any defense of ignorance suggested by Jesus when he says “Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do” during his own crucifixion and immolation.
When Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” he actively discouraged the immolation of an accused adulterer by a mob.
Pagan scapegoating only works if the mechanism remains invisible. A utilitarian scapegoater, however, knows exactly what he is doing.
Utilitarianism is far more evil than pagan scapegoating because utilitarianism promotes scapegoating with complete disregard for the innocence of the victim.
It is theoretically possible to appeal to the conscience of a potential scapegoater – he knows it is immoral to kill innocent people. The evil utilitarian has no interest in the innocence of his victims and proposes killing them no matter their guilt or innocence. This is a historic novelty – clear-sighted, intentional scapegoating; a contradiction in terms. The utilitarian thinks the lever should be pulled in the trolley problem and the fact that this would involve murdering an innocent, otherwise safe person is considered neither here nor there.
Thus utilitarianism promotes a degree of widespread moral corruption never before encountered on the human stage. This indicates that human reason when decoupled from (moral) intuition is an unreliable and even demonic guide. Worst of all, utilitarianism is considered by some to be one of the most widely popular and influential philosophical theories ever invented.
 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).