Utilitarianism goes on a charm offensive

But sprinkling the pixie dust of Christianity won’t change its dark public image

By Michael Cook

Peter Singer has been called the world’s most influential living philosopher — but not everyone agrees that his influence has been benign. Last year he participated in an event which showcased all the contractions in the public image of the philosophy with which he is identified, utilitarianism.

In March Singer presented a TED talk on his program for “effective altruism” at the University of Victoria in Melbourne. Effective altruism is Singer’s utilitarian initiative for data-driven compassion to help as many poor people as possible with scarce resources. It’s an ambitious plan to eliminate poverty around the world. It sounds eminently appealing.

But protesters almost wrecked the event. They ignored the date-driven compassion and complained that the university was implicitly supporting the murder of disabled people and eugenics by giving Singer a platform. A few students stood on stage and read out a list of names of disabled people killed in 2016 and 2017 by their families and caregivers. Later on the meeting turned into a shouting matched between effective altruists and disability activists chanting “eugenics is hate” and “disabled lives matter.”

So there you have the two sides of utilitarianism: both its impulse to change the world for the better and the perception that it is heartless, even wicked.

In order to reach out to their foes, philosophers at Oxford University – where another Australian, Julian Savulescu, heads up a utilitarian stronghold, the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics — have embarked upon a charm offensive. In a long article in the journal Psychological Review they work hard to explain “the positive, altruistic core” of their philosophy.

There’s no denying that utilitarianism is in a bad odour, even if it often becomes the default logic for thinking through issues in medical ethics. As Savulescu admits in a blog post about his article:

It is now equated with Machiavellianism: the end justifies the means, whatever those ends may be. It is also seen as coldly calculating, or else simplistically pragmatic. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a morality appropriate for shop keepers. Recently it has even been portrayed a doctrine for psychopaths. Pope Paul II put it succinctly in 1995: “Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of ‘things’ and not of ‘persons,’ a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”

Savulescu doesn’t back away from utilitarian positions on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and so on.

it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If killing a severely disabled child would lead to more good overall—as Singer believes is at least sometimes the case—then utilitarianism, in stark contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the child be killed. This explains the angry protests at Singer’s talk.

But this is just the “negative” dimension, he says. There is a positive dimension, “impartial beneficence.” This is a doctrine which obliges us to treat everyone the same. Savulescu explains:

it compels us to do as much good as we can in the world—a much more positively oriented aim—while treating each of us in exactly the same way. So when I ask, “What is the right thing for me to do?,” my own wellbeing counts no more (or less) than anyone else’s. So, if I could give a kidney and save someone else’s life without putting my own life at equal or greater risk, I should give a kidney. This is very demanding. And if I do it, admirable—maybe saintly.

“Saintly” – an odd word in the mouth of a thorough-going utilitarian. But Savulescu doubles down on this: utilitarianism “requires that people not only be Good Samaritans, but Splendid Samaritans.”

Can imparting more information about the doctrine of “impartial beneficence” really make utilitarians warm and cuddly?

No, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

The movement of effective altruism was launched from this insight. In recent years Singer has written two books to promote it, “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty” and “The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.”

Former Microsoft boss Bill Gates, who praised the latter as “an optimistic and compelling look at the positive impact that giving can have on the world,” has signed on the effective altruism agenda at the gigantic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

However, extra adjectives should always be treated with care. If you were offered to choose between an ounce of effective gold and an ounce of pure gold, choose pure gold. And indeed, effective altruism comes with some unfamiliar ingredients.

A typical hero of effective altruism is Zell Kravinsky, an American who has two PhDs, has lectured on the poet Milton and has made a large fortune in Philadelphia real estate. Instead of wallowing in the sty of filthy lucre, he has given most of it away. He has but one suit, bought for $20 at a thrift shop. He even donated one of his kidneys to a stranger, ignoring his wife’s objection that one of his children might need it someday. Kravinksky responded, “The sacrosanct commitment to the family is the rationalisation for all manner of greed and selfishness.”

How many fathers do you know who share his detachment? If effective altruism is altruism, it’s a different species of altruism from what most of us expect.

This flows logically from the doctrine of impartial beneficence, or, in the words of the Gates Foundation, “all lives have equal value.”

All lives – the life of your daughter should have the same value for you as the life of a girl in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. They both count as one life.

So if you are deciding what to do with your money – a typical utilitarian conundrum – you can probably spend $1,000 more effectively on them than on sending your daughter to the dentist. As Savulescu and his colleagues explain:

To adopt a thoroughly impartial moral standpoint is to treat the well-being of every individual as equally important. No priority should be given to one’s own good, nor to that of one’s family, friends, compatriots, or even fellow humans over nonhuman animals.

It might be possible to conclude that your $1,000 would be better spent on saving pigs than your daughter. And although Savulescu & Co invoke the classic exemplar of Christian altruism, Mother Teresa, it’s unlikely that she would spend it to save 1,000 pigs rather than 100 abandoned children.

It’s hard to escape the impression that the Oxford utilitarians are trying to make their dark philosophy more appealing by sprinkling Christian pixie dust over a philosophy whose hostility towards Christianity hitherto has been matched only by Marxism.

Singer, for instance, is a resolute atheist, arguing that the existence of God fails to account for the existence of evil:

If … we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the god who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler.

But in recent years Singer, and now, his followers, are trying to make common cause with religion. As he said in an interview in the New Humanist recently:

My ethic is secular based, and it doesn’t make any appeals to religion. But when speaking about poverty, it’s worthwhile to make common cause with people of various religions. This emphasis on helping the poor is everywhere in the Gospels. So we should be pointing the finger at those Christians who don’t regard it as a dominant obligation.

But as far as I can see, the utilitarian approach and the Christian approach are polar opposites, not kissing cousins.

First, denying that family ties have any special significance is simply not realistic, not simply because it is difficult, but because it is universally denied, except perhaps by some Buddhists. This suggests that there exists a deeper reason for privileging close relationships. The fact that utilitarianism cannot account for the existence of family ties and friendship says more about the deficiencies of its psychology than the strength of its logic. Philosophers are supposed to account for reality, not create fantasies.

Second, Singer and Savulescu esteem “self-sacrifice,” which is why they admire the Good Samaritan and Mother Teresa. But what is the “self” for a utilitarian? Only a locus for some level of consciousness.

Set the bar high, and humans count as units for whom we should sacrifice ourselves. Set it a bit lower, and we include the great apes, pigs and dolphins (and exclude some humans). Why shouldn’t we set it even lower, to include ants and slugs? Effective altruism for garden snails is not what the Good Samaritan was all about.

Third, Christian altruism is ultimately inspired by love of God, not effectiveness. The Mother Teresas of this world see in the people around them a unique person created in the image and likeness of God. They deserve to be helped because in some mysterious way they reflect the grandeur of the Creator. Utilitarian altruism is merely the efficient allocation of material resources.

Savulescu & Co believe that showcasing utilitarianism as the kind of Christianity which might appeal to Dr. Spock will help change its public image. As they write in their article in Psychological Review, “To the extent that the positive aim of utilitarianism has greater moral priority, utilitarians would be advised to downplay the negative component of their doctrine and may even find a surprisingly pliant audience in the religious population.”

But their initiative is doomed to fail. It may have charm but it is still offensive. Christianity is about loving people; utilitarianism is about moral bookkeeping.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet, where this appeared.