Utilitarianism: a new kind of evil


[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.

2Theories 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.

3The 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.[1] 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. 4This 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 5utilitarianism 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 6structure 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.

7Some 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.

8The 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.

9If 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.

10It 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.

[1] 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).

28 thoughts on “Utilitarianism: a new kind of evil

  1. Pingback: Utilitarianism: a new kind of evil | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Utilitarianism: a new kind of evil | Reaction Times

  3. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, I was heartbroken by the scapegoating attitudes of the right-wingers (and a few lefties) around me. They wanted to slaughter every single Muslim on earth. At the time, I’d been getting older and more conservative every day. But reading and hearing argument after argument like “better them than us,” I felt I had to become a peace activist. I joined the peace fellowship at my then church, which was Episcopalian. I dived head first into local left/liberal STUFF, activism, socializing, etc. etc. Everything in my life except my job was lefty. My job at the time was as a clerical worker at a law firm infested with these utilitarian neocon bloodthirsty nutcases. The lawyers there used to laugh about rape, and when I say rape I mean violent stranger rape. They had a party to celebrate the invasion of Iraq. I knew NO conservatives at that time who opposed the scapegoating slaughter until I heard about a funny little man named Ron Paul, someone for whom I thank God.

    Anyway, today I work as a clerical worker for a left wing bunch of nut cases, some of the people who are bringing us today’s scapegoating nonsense. All I can say is at least they aren’t invading other countries and setting up torture prisons, which isn’t, of course, saying much. I’m trying to figure out how to escape this. Here in this very red state I’m trying to figure out how to find a social circle of people who aren’t anti-Christian jerks. Because the local Rethugs truly do deserve the name “thug” because most of them are exactly the scapegoaters described here.

    What advice do you all have for me? How does a middle-aged woman escape from left wing nonsense and evil without ending up back with the right wing nonsense and evil? I’ve left the Episcopal Church for a much more conservative Anglican church, but is there anything else I can do? Any advice at all would be lovely.


    • Hi, Vera Lee; thanks for reading and commenting.

      Being in an academic context and socializing with a lot of academics often means scapegoating is in evidence. Diversity and inclusion is in fact conformity and exclusion.

      You have the right idea. Any desire to be different from your social milieu is difficult. Mimesis, the desire to be liked and fit in draws you towards it. It does help a lot to have a micro-community (Ken Wilber’s phrase) to offer moral and emotional support. If you can find at least one other person who feels the way you do you can team up.

      Besides that, reading up on the topic (Rene Girard) might help. I regard some of my favorite philosophers and authors as friends despite them being dead. Finding pockets of like minded people on the internet might be good. Unfortunately, the Rene Girard FB page is insanely incompatible with Rene Girard’s own thinking. Other than that, I’m hoping that someone else at the Orthosphere might have some ideas.

      • Vera, your conservative Anglican parish is a great start. I can think of no better, from where you now stand. It is extremely likely that there are at least several other people in the parish who think as you do.

        When I was still an Anglican at a conservative parish (I’m now Roman Catholic, and wishing for a local Anglican Ordinariate parish), I asked the rector one day whether he would be willing to consider my convention of a weekly Theology Roundtable, that would be devoted to reading works of theology and understanding Christian doctrine properly. I was astonished when he eagerly backed the notion (pastors are desperate for this sort of lay involvement in the evangelical mission, and are prone to back it if the project seems the least bit likely). A notice was duly posted in the weekly bulletin, and lo, at our very first meeting, we had five or six in attendance! The group continued for many years, until at last I left to cross the Tiber. Not all of the members were bloody minded reactionaries like me, but they were all conservatively inclined, reasonable, and we had really wonderful discussions, in which I was able to change quite a few minds.

        You might consider something like that. If you read old books of theology, you are pretty much bound to begin inhabiting a reactionary world view. And the reactionary world view is by definition neither crazy evil right-liberal nor crazy evil left-liberal, as those positions are these days understood. It is rather wildly Right. Christian Reaction – which is to say, Christian Tradition – is, precisely, orthogonal to the purely secular political spectrum as it has been understood since the French Revolution. It is, to begin with, *not secular.* It is *not of this world.* That’s one of the reasons we call this place the Orthosphere: we are at right angles to mundane politics, because we are Christians of the old, traditional sort, who have prevailed throughout the history of the Church until very lately, and – God’s promise to us about the Church being what it is, namely entirely reliable – who shall eventually prevail again.

        Apart from your church, you might want to see whether there are any orthosphereans near you, and arrange a meet up. You can do that here. We have not lately paid much attention to the offline IRT aspect of the Orthosphere, but we should. Perhaps there is another orthospherean or two quite near you. And they would naturally be connected to other like minded folks. One never knows. My son’s mother in law in New York was stunned when her neighbour began talking about “Kristor the writer at the Orthosphere.” Our writings here had led that family to the Church; they in turn led her (back) to the Church; she in turn led her daughters to the Church.

        So it blossoms.

        Plant a seed. That’s the thing. The Lord will see to the sprouting.

      • Thank you, Richard and Kristor. I’m tempted to go into a woe is me explanation of my life, but I’m 56. I must work because my husband is disabled. I’m not that healthy myself. I have to take care of my aging parents and I am the “safety net” for an assortment of other kin. At our new Anglican parish, I tried to go to an evening class examining and discussing the new catechism the Anglican Church in North America is preparing, but it physically exhausted me. Frankly, I’m trapped. But yet, precisely because of this, I pray a LOT. So maybe in the long run it is all a good thing.

        I hope I kept it short enough. Sorry for belaboring it at all. Anyway, thank you both for the advice. I am considering the local Orthosphere thing. I got the impression this was kind of a men’s club, but evidently not? I’ve read something or the other by Girard and went through a phase several years ago where I was trying to interest Episcopalians in him. No luck. Stares of disbelief kind of like when I would quote NT Wright or George Orwell. I still can’t quite grasp why so many thinkers who seem “merely orthodox” to me so offend so many.

        Anyway, thank you both. I will keep reading.

  4. For some reason I have difficulty with Girard. I read a bit, mostly because I saw him mentioned here quite often, but his scapegoating idea feels a bit far-fetched and forced to me. I think that the above conclusions can be reached through different means, but maybe my intuition is wrong.

    • Thanks for commenting, roundreason. Personally, it seems to me that scapegoating has reached truly epidemic proportions. Brett Kavanaugh I’m sure could relate. It would be truly great news to learn that great mobs of people are not in fact baying for anyone’s blood and that we peaceable citizens are quietly living our lives and minding our own business. If Trump and the deplorables, for instance, are not in fact a scandal (stumbling block) to the mob with their very existence sticking in the mob’s collective craws motivating the mob to seemingly stop at nothing to get rid of them I’ll be mighty relieved.

      I should add, perhaps, that though utilitarianism sanctions a peculiarly cold-blooded and calculating form of scapegoating, those very characteristics prevent it from uniting people in shared hatred. The shared hatred will have to come from some form of ideological possession instead.

      • I meant the ‘mechanism’ as a driver and explanation of culture. I certainly won’t go denying the existence of scapegoating and its effects.

      • Ah. Sorry for the confusion. If you also agree that scapegoating bonds people together in shared hatred in a way that can temporarily heal antagonisms caused by some kind of crisis by giving people common cause against a victim or class of victims then you also have scapegoating’s role in culture.

        For me, the fact that every Greek culture hero (Theseus, Perseus, Heracles) has a dual nature – supremely evil and supremely benevolent – can only be explained by the hero’s original capacity as the scapegoat who is blamed for initiating a crisis and then in retrospect credited with solving it. Hence, Heracles murders his whole family – a supremely evil and morally prohibited act while also being regarded as the most wondrous potential benefactor – very close to the modern comic book Superman.

      • Sure, I can see it that way. However I do not see any obfuscation or revealing, nor do I agree with the idea of some switcheroo performed by a “primitive” religion designed to control some inescapable vicious circle of violence.
        For example, if we agree that utilitarianism has lost sight of the sacredness of life, do we really need any other explanation of its consequences? I also am missing your point with the Greek heroes. Surely someone can be both evil and benevolent, and heroes are supremely exaggerated.

        Caveat, I am not nearly as well read as the contributors here, so I may be talking nonsense.

      • Are you referring to obfuscation and revealing concerning scapegoating? Scapegoating works only if people don’t know they are scapegoating. They have to see themselves as virtuous and doing the right thing in prosecuting the miscreant – not as evil bastards victimizing the innocent. The crucifixion of Jesus reveals this evil dynamic – or ought to. But I might be talking past you.

        There is nothing “designed” about primitive spontaneous scapegoating – although human sacrifice implicitly relies on the same mechanism for generating social cohesion in a controlled manner less likely to spill over into rampant widespread violence. Human sacrifice is definitely “designed” though again without full awareness of what is going on.

        Secularism in general by definition cannot appeal to the sacred and therefore cannot generate a working morality without hypocrisy. So you are right to think that losing sight of the sacred is absolutely crucial and utilitarianism is part of that. However, that is in no way unique to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism as a theory is active encouragement to be immoral: to jettison morality all together in the name of trying to make as many people “happy” at any price. It is only fairly recently that my insight into utilitarianism has achieved must larger scope and that it advocates a mob/victim dynamic returning us to pre-Christian times BUT with the added evil of forbidding appeals to justice.

        Utilitarianism is evil in its own special way and understanding that can contribute to moral understanding in a way that goes beyond noticing that it too has no place for recognizing the sacredness of human life.

        Concerning the Greek heroes the uniformity of their dual nature fits EXACTLY with the theory of scapegoating and no other. The absolute uniformity of this duality needs explaining. The modern version of Superman has been purged of the bloodthirsty and supremely criminal. Why is that? Why aren’t all modern heroes similarly ascribed a dual nature? I suggest it is that some awareness of the scapegoat mechanism has permeated modern consciousness.

        Are people likely to be supremely benevolent and evil at the same time? No.

      • That does clarify things, I think I found my error. Still confused by the heroes part, but I think we can let it go.

    • Inspired by my reading this evening, I would add that women’s studies, gender studies, African-American studies, Chicano studies, whiteness studies would not exist without white men to hate. If any of those “studies” merely celebrated women’s, blacks’, Chicano achievements they could not function.

  5. Richard @ I’m always glad to see utilitarianism exposed as an ersatz morality. This post was doubly welcome because I’ve been brushing up my understanding of scapegoating. I run a small discussion group on Friday afternoons, and one of the members proposed scapegoating as tomorrow’s topic. She encountered the idea in Kostler’s Darkness at Noon, where it seems to correspond to what the communists used to call a “Wrecker.” What I mean is that the dysfunction of a dysfunctional system is explained as the work of a few “bad apples.” This seems to leave out much of the richness of the original concept.

    Do you think there can be morality without a sense of honor? Dishonor or degradation can be seen as a consequence, and so fit into the utilitarian system, but these things strike me as more than mere consequences. A man defiled by immorality lowers himself on the great chain of being, moving farther from God and closer to the beasts or the devils. To our movement up and down on this vertical axis, our movement forward in time seems incidental.

    • Thanks for reading, JMSmith. The idea of a wrecker seems very thin and not very enlightening.

      I agree. Morality needs a sense of honor and not because honor is useful. The trouble with doing useful things is that they are to be discarded when no longer expedient and with utilitarianism, only if it is useful to the mob.

      Biologists sometimes defend morality as “useful.” But that is very different from it being true. It all gets incoherent immediately because then they want to say that things being “useful” is “good” – but the two things have just been equated. Moral realism is imported to defend morality as a useful fiction.

      Honor, if it is real, must be good, true and beautiful. I concur with your comments about the great chain of being. If evil is untruth, estrangement and darkness, then honor and goodness draw us nearer to reality, God and salvation.

      There seems a connection to the notion of being good only to get into heaven, i.e., only for the consequences. If your heart is actually filled with resentment and hatred, even heaven would not be heavenly.

  6. “Girard makes the case that myth takes the point of view of the mob”

    Did he discuss Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy? I think the Greeks were a bit more complicated than a mob.

    • Hi, ia: I would prefer to actually discuss Greek tragedy than Nietzsche. With a contradiction you can prove anything you like and Nietzsche was filled with contradictions. It also seems relevant that Nietzsche renounced The Birth of Tragedy – perhaps when he returned to love of the mob and his anti-Christian sensibility. His love of Dionysus – means love of the murder of the scapegoat. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Zarathustra says we have killed god with our bloody knives. The god you kill is the scapegoat victim who later gets deemed the savior god who brings peace.

      Dionysian religious “mysteries” included drunk orgies where individuality was temporarily lost by merging with the crowd = the mob.

      Scapegoating is “perfectly natural,” and Nietzsche rejected any attempt to ameliorate the worst aspects of the human condition with morality. He did this by mistakenly thinking that “acceptance” of life is the one and only virtue as seen in the eternal recurrence – and morality means wanting to make life better. Of course, you can contradict me because Nietzsche contradicted himself and you can find elements of Nietzsche describing the man-God (Ubermensch) – but that just creates its own problems. Jesus was the God-Man – the man-God is something else entirely, think Stalin, Hitler.

      The fact is that it is indeed necessary to have compassion and acceptance, while also striving not to keep making the same mistakes over and over again and trying to learn and improve. Eros and agape.

      In Euripides’ The Bacchae, Euripides seems to be renouncing the violence associated with Dionysus and wants nothing more to do with it. But there is no proper insight into the scapegoat mechanism.

      Which Greek tragedies would you like to discuss? Some of the best tragedies are borderline between religion and myth. There is a reason that some Greek thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, were subsequently regarded as proto-Christians.

      • Thanks for your reply. I know very little about Greek tragedy but a lot about Greek art. However, I just finished reading Birth on a trip to Athens, Delos, Delfi and Olympia and was impressed with Nietzsche’s content and writing style.

        “His love of Dionysus – means love of the murder of the scapegoat.”

        I didn’t get the impression from reading Birth that he loved murdering a scapegoat! His main idea was that the Greeks were a high point in Western culture and that the Germans should learn from them. Apollo, god of light, represented what he called individuation. To take a random quote (page 80 in my Dover Thrift Edition):

        “. . . we may still make the definite statement that it is only a glorious appearance, namely, the aforementioned Apollonian illusion, through whose influence we are to be delivered from the Dionysian obtrusion and excess.”

        He was attempting to describe how and why the Greeks developed tragedy, which was related to the chorus – comprised originally, I think, of satyrs. Satyrs would represent Zoé, indestructible life and associated with Dionysus, the god of wine, madness and maenads. (Maenads are women while possessed by the god who slaughter any male animal they find. This sounds rather modern to me.)

        Myself, I think the Greeks had a better understanding of human nature (or at least European nature) than Christians. European Christianity needs the Greeks. I’d like to see both Greek and Christian cultures combine as they did up until the Enlightenment. I might add I was raised in a very strict but culturally simple Christian family.

  7. The Greeks were still stumbling round in the dark concerning the scapegoat mechanism which is fundamental to human nature – resentment driven scapegoating is the primary human defect to be ameliorated as much as possible. Fortunately, Christianity is informed by Greek thought – unfortunately it can’t work the other way! So, no, I don’t agree with Nietzsche that we were more enlightened with the Greeks, much as I love them. Plato – harm no one. Excellent! Jesus – Love your enemy. Superlative!

    The Maenad’s murderous frenzy is not something that should be brought back. When you say it sounds very modern that they chose male animals, you are quite correct. That’s going to be the subject of my next post. Anti-Christian moderns in the West are doing just what you desire; rediscovering the joys of murder – at the moment mostly symbolically – via the destruction of job and reputation.

    • Richard, what makes you think I want to murder people? I don’t even like killing animals. I’m describing something in European women that apparently hasn’t changed much in the last several thousand years.

      It seems to me loving someone who wants you dead, or at least a slave, isn’t very conducive to survival. I suppose you could say you lovd someone while at the same time defend yourself from their aggression towards you. If that’s what you mean I guess that’s okay but it doesn’t inspire any sort of vision of what you are trying to save. Europeans need an identity and vision of who they are that separates them from the people who want them dead.

      • Hi, ia: I’m not suggesting you want to murder people. I also don’t think European women are particularly murderous. I’m just claiming it is a mistake to compare Christianity with Dionysian cults and imagine that the animal and human sacrifice associated with the latter marked the high point in Western civilization and that Christianity represents some kind of diminishment. The main reason Nietzsche is interested in talking up the Greeks in this context is because, as I have written, he thinks that morality means rejecting “life” instead of accepting it in all its brutality. What he misses in this analysis is that “life” also includes, potentially, learning, improvement, growth.

        In Plato’s view “harm no one” is completely consistent with self-defense and execution. Execution for murder is just. If someone is treated in a just and fair manner, that person has not been harmed. In fact, punishment is good for the criminal. There is the possibility that he will renounce his evil deeds. The punishment is just. And if he is executed, he is prevented from any more wrongdoing. Preventing someone doing evil is not harming him.

        I agree that Europeans need a sense of what is worth preserving about themselves. Since Christianity does not reject Greek thought – categorically and explicitly – but adds to it, and since Christianity dominated Western civilization for 2000 years, rejecting Christianity in favor of the Greek in the fashion of Nietzsche, would mean renouncing the majority of our own heritage. As far as I’m concerned, Plato and Jesus are on the same team. Nietzsche can be an interesting, insightful and thought-provoking thinker but it is impossible to get a coherent plan for living out of him since he was deeply deeply confused.

    • Richard@ I look forward to reading what you have to say about the sadism that seems to run through so much of postmodern politics. When modern politics was corrupted, it was normally because of greed. Now there are some who lust only to drink the tears of their enemies. In fact, variations on that image of tear drinking are very, very common online. I’ll confess that I am not altogether free of this spiritual corruption.

      • @JMSmith: I know what you mean. When I go on and on about resentment I by no means mean to exempt myself, nor from the evil of scapegoating. I THINK I am better than the man-haters and have been spending a fair bit of time pointing out some of the most egregious misandry uttered by this politician and that writer. I, unlike many liberals, am not condemning whole groups of people by the color of their skin or their sex, but I can hardly claim that I only have love in my heart for those I despise.

  8. Pingback: AI and the Dehumanization of Man – The Orthosphere

  9. I have to say this is one of the best pieces on utilitarianism I have read. I am ashamed to say I was once such a student that was willing to sacrifice others but not themselves. I have since recognized the evil that utilitarianism brings forth in people and abandoned it for a better and more just worldview. Now when they ask me about the trolley problem I always respond that I would put myself on the track and I’d like to think I would genuinely do so if such a bizarre and unlikely scenario were to ever occur. Thank you for this.

    • That’s very kind, Jordan. Thank you! When I first started thinking about the trolley problem I wasn’t sure what to think myself. Sacrificing others – scapegoating – is a very human tendency. The trolley problem is a very tempting invitation to do evil.

  10. Pingback: Feminism and a loveless future – FOR GOD AND COUNTRY


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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.