February 26, 2024

‘Shit-stirring’ discredits utilitarianism, bioethicist argues

Utilitarianism has an image problem. Whether or not you agree with them, utilitarian arguments are widely used and need to be discusses seriously. However, some of its leading representatives are best known in the media for discussions of taboo-smashing practices like infanticide, love drugs, bestiality or incest.  

New Zealand bioethicist Nicholas Agar is also a utilitarian, but is weary of what he calls “shit-stirring” by his colleagues. In a provocative article in Psyche, he complains that utilitarians are tarnishing their brand by making ethical proposals that they have no intention of following in the “real world”.

It is, he writes, “a triumph of a philosophical style that prioritises aggravation over moral substance. Those who offer them are not engaged in good-faith philosophical debate. They’re engaged in what I call ‘moral shit-stirring’.”

He cites two examples:

Infanticide. Utilitarians like Michael Tooley, Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, John Harris, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have all advanced arguments which condone infanticide, under certain conditions.

The moral obligation to use “love drugs”. Julian Savulescu and Brian Earp declared in a 2012 paper that quarrelling parents who would not use them would fail in their obligations toward their children. For Agar, this is “a provocative statement…  offered initially as an undemanding request only to be made more provocative by being upgraded to a moral obligation.” This philosophical clickbait is, in short, “shit-stirring”.

As moral advice, it is neither useful nor serious: “those making these arguments almost always offer a series of excuses for not acting on their philosophical conclusions”.

Agar is disturbed by the spread of bioethical “shit-stirring” amongst utilitarians because he believes that utilitarianism is a powerful way of solving moral dilemmas. “Shit-stirring” discredits it:

“It’s fun to provoke. Provocation can lead to reflection, which is typically a good thing. But, right now, we have a great need for utilitarianism’s rigorous focus on all the consequences of our actions – and inactions. We need a powerful public morality to tell us to take immediate action on climate change, wealth inequality and racism. Utilitarianism’s distinctive focus on the consequences of not acting is especially important.

“… There’s a problem when it seems reasonable to respond to a utilitarian’s demand that one think about what one could do by saying: ‘I think I understand your utilitarian argument for a moral obligation to immediately address climate change, but isn’t utilitarianism the theory that says it’s fine to kill babies? Why should I listen to that?’”