May 29, 2024

Where are the true utilitarians who have not bent the knee to Baal?

Nothing has done more to tarnish the prestige of utilitarianism in recent years than academic interest in trolley-ology.

Nothing has done more to tarnish the prestige of utilitarianism in recent years than academic interest in trolley-ology. This neologism is shorthand for a flourishing cottage industry in a well-known philosophical dilemma: should you push a fat man onto a track to save five innocent people from being hit by an oncoming railway trolley? (See the recent book, Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong.)

People who say Yes say often explain why by invoking the greatest good for the greatest number so critics have called these fat-man-sacrificers typical utilitarian thinkers. Digging deeper, several researchers have found a correlation between this decision and Machiavellian, egotistic or even psychopathic personalities. Utilitarian=Psychopath has never been a good marketing slogan.

Responding to this interpretation, a leading utilitarian bioethicist, Julian Savulescu, of Oxford University, and colleagues argue in the journal Cognition that this slur is based on a mistake. They looked more closely at people’s reactions and found that these “utilitarians” were really motivated by “the more modest, unremarkable, and ordinary thought that it is, ceteris paribus, morally better to save a greater number”. In fact, they were more likely to be moral egotists, whose only motivation is to maximize their own selfish welfare. They were faux utilitarians.

The true utilitarianism, says Savulescu, is a lofty, cerebral and exacting doctrine which is diametrically opposed to egotism:

“Utilitarianism is a radically impartial view: it tells us to consider things as if ‘from the point of view of the universe, without giving any special priority to ourselves, or to those dear or near to us. Instead, we should transcend our narrow, natural sympathies and aim to promote the greater good of humanity as a whole, or even the good of all sentient beings. Needless to say, this view of morality is strongly at odds with traditional ethical views and common intuitions. It is also a highly demanding moral view, requiring us, on some views, to make very great personal sacrifices, such as giving most of our income to help needy strangers in distant countries.”

Perhaps too lofty. In an post on the Oxford blog Practical Ethics, he confesses that he himself, a standard-bearer in the vanguard of utilitarianism, fails to live consistently by this demanding creed.

“Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices.”

And then he makes an extraordinary confession:

“People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding. I try to live my life according to ‘easy rescue consequentialism’ – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly.”

Which leaves his readers perplexed. If utilitarian sinners are psychopaths and utilitarian saints are non-existent, is utilitarianism a moral philosophy for ordinary human beings or only for the authors of obscure journal articles?
Creative commons
Julian Savulescu
Peter Singer