Last week, Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine published a column in Scientific American describing his view of moral philosophy, arguing against a heavily simplified form of utilitarianism and in favor of natural rights theory. This, in turn, garnered a response from philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who pointed out Shermer’s gross oversimplification of the complexities of philosophy, and Shermer responded on Twitter by claiming to already know and understand the aspects of philosophy that Piglucci pointed out, but without explaining why he chose to ignore two centuries of philosophical development in order to rail against a version of utilitarianism that went out of fashion in the 1830s.
To be entirely honest, it gets a little dull making the same points over and over again. As regular readers know, I don’t have much love for the idea shared by the secular humanist / atheist authors that science can define an objectively correct morality. I revisit the subject today, because I was pleased to see that Pigliucci identified the same problem with Shermer that I did: namely, that he is ignoring rule utilitarianism in—the belief that the greater good is served by following a fixed set of ethical rules—in order to attack act utilitarianism—the belief that each act’s value is judged independently of all others. The latter view was already understood by John Stuart Mill to justify prima facie terrible outcomes, which is why he sought to limit it by rules.
This is why it is so strange to see in Scientific American Shermer pretending as though rule utilitarianism doesn’t exist in order to imply that he and his colleagues have the answer for solving the “problems” of act utilitarianism, specifically the logical but grisly conclusion that it is ethical to sacrifice some people to improve the lives of the majority:
Still, if we can decouple the sacrificial side of utilitarianism from its more beneficent prescriptions, moral progress may gain some momentum. Better still would be the inculcation into all our moral considerations of beneficence as an internal good rather than an ethical calculation.
In response to a question I asked on Twitter, Shermer told me that he is indeed basically a rule utilitarian. Why he hides that fact, I can only speculate. The incentive to present Mills’s solution to the utilitarian extreme as a new discovery is perhaps too great.
But what dismays me is that I can recognize this with only a freshman course in philosophy from two decades ago. It’s a refrain that Pigliucci returns to in his own piece, speaking repeatedly of how the points Shermer raises are those that Pigliucci poses to “my intro philosophy students.” In less respectful words, basically the science-oriented non-philosophers are having a freshman bull session.
I will leave you to reach Shermer’s column and Pigliucci’s rebuttal, but I wanted to point out a key issue that Shermer and colleagues like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker don’t really grapple with in a serious way. They are keen on the idea of natural rights, and that moral progress comes from working toward the fuller expression of the inherent rights we are born with, but they don’t really consider the fact that any right that must be expressed in legal terms is not actually a self-evident right but an artificial creation. As Pigliucci puts it:
There is no such thing as a natural right, and we, therefore, are not born with them (contra the mindless libertarian mantra that Shermer is repeating). Michael is confusing human desires and instincts — some of which are actually culturally dependent (it is empirically not the case that everyone on earth desires liberty of mind, for instance) with rights. But rights are, obviously, a human creation. Which accounts for why, as Shermer himself notes, they have to be written down in things like the Bill of Rights, and protected by the force of state-enabled law.
The other issue with Shermer’s column that bothered me immensely is his effort to cast utilitarianism as a moral evil by suggesting that historical crimes are the work of utilitarian operatives:
Historically the application of a utilitarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures and accidents—better to incinerate the few to protect the village. More recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five million (Jews:“Aryan” Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.
Pigliucci takes issue with this, for good but incomplete reasons:
What?? No, absolutely not. Setting aside the obvious observation that utilitarianism (the philosophy) did not exist until way after the Middle Ages, no, witch hunts were the result of fear, ignorance and superstition, not of a Bentham- or Mill-style calculus. And this is the first time I heard that Hitler or the Hutu of Rwanda had articulated a utilitarian rationale for their ghastly actions. Again, they were driven by fear, ignorance, superstition, and — in the case of Nazi Germany — a cynical calculation that power could be achieved and maintained in a nation marred by economic chaos by means of the time-tested stratagem of scapegoating.
The issue here is that Pigliucci is reading “utilitarian” as a philosophical concept rather than a description of action. It is completely true that the Nazis and the Catholic Church did not apply utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. On the other hand, Shermer seems to be using “utilitarianism” in a looser sense, roughly akin to a cost-benefit analysis. Here he sees the argument as essentially that the Church saw dead witches as a net good and therefore excused killing in the name of public good. But this is to make no argument at all, for all behaviors occur because the person doing the action considers it somehow better than not acting, at some level. Labeling it utilitarian is merely a pejorative, with no explanatory power. Putting up a scarecrow or offering a prayer are also “utilitarian” actions in that sense.
Instead, the problem is that Shermer viciously attacks utilitarianism because it comes closest to being a threat to his own moral authority as a would-be guru of scientism. (And lest you think I impose that term on him, Shermer, in his academic writings, approvingly refers to “scientism” as the governing philosophy of our age.) Shermer’s view—the one shared by Harris and Pinker and the others—is that science can dictate correct moral choices by indicating the decisions that will lead to fixed outcomes, namely increased health and wealth for individual humans. The threat is that this view is indistinguishable from rule utilitarianism, except that the Shermer-Harris-Pinker version doesn’t deal with the problem of deciding who gets to make the rules or what happens when rules come into conflict. They pretend there is only one rule—basically, to increase health and wealth—and that nothing can ever truly come into conflict with it. That’s why, for example, Steven Pinker has such a hard time imagining that a democracy could ever vote to actively harm large numbers of its own citizens, despite living in a country that has repeatedly done exactly that. Shermer at least pastes over this this fig leaf of natural rights to justify the rules he wishes to use science to support, but he forgets that people are not “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” except insofar as we humans, by mutual agreement, choose to create those rights.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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