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Utilitarianism and The Lesser of Two Evils

Vegankid has a post arguing that if veganism is a philosophy rather than a lifestyle, then the principles underlying it entail concern for oppressed humans as well. But in the process of making this quite accurate point, she makes some inaccurate comments about utilitarianism. She writes:

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, has been on my shit list for some time now. But now this ethics professor and “founding father of modern animal liberation” is officially on my list of people to be forgotten. In a recent interview, Singer argued that “HIV research would be more useful if it were carried out on brain-damaged humans rather than chimps.” If you are familiar with Singer’s academic work, such a statement will come as no surprise. It is not so much because Singer is a misanthrope (as it would seem at first glance), but because he approaches ethics from a utilitarian standpoint (choosing the lesser of two evils). It is the same reason why Singer recently gave his approval on a new research lab that has been targeted by animal rights organizations for its subjection of monkeys to Parkinson’s Disease.

This provides a good example of why veganism must be based on core principles. Otherwise, false notions of utilitarianism allow us to become ethically bankrupt and veganism means nothing. Once again, veganism becomes relegated to the dinner table and self-congratulatory practices of guilt relief. If, however, veganism is based on a notion of compassion, we could no more sentence a persyn with a mental disability to a life of torture than we could a monkey (and vice versa). In fact, if we are to base our veganism on compassion and non-violence, then the causes of disability rights, workers rights, hell, humyn liberation as a whole becomes an extension of veganism.

First, utilitarianism is not opposed to "core principles," and adhering to a utilitarian justification does not make one's actions "mean nothing." And it certainly doesn't justify treating veganism as a mere exercise in "guilt relief." Utilitarianism is a core principle, a foundational-level basis for ethics. It may be the wrong core principle, but it's clearly in the class of prima facie candidates. And utilitarianism clearly directs us to reach out beyond our personal habits and fight for the disabled, workers, and other oppressed people -- mere personal guilt relief is in fact not very utilitarian. Indeed, utilitarianism does not even conflict with one of vegankid's stated core principles, compassion*. The very basis of utilitarianism is to show compassion for, and attempt to alleviate, the suffering of any being that one can meaningfully have compassion for.

The real issue, I think, is not so much the fundamental basis of utilitarianism, but rather how a utilitarian's compassion is expressed -- the maximizing rule, and the particular conclusions Peter Singer draws. As I see it, the concerns raised by vegankid and other anti-utilitarians who make similar arguments are either positive points about utilitarianism, or failings by Peter Singer.

Vegankid says that utilitarianism requires "choosing the lesser of two evils." This is true, and it's a good thing. Utilitarianism says that when the only possible outcomes are evil, and one's actions can affect which will happen, we are obligated to favor the lesser evil. The alternative is to invoke the act-omission distinction and attempt (insofar as it's actually possible) not to influence the decision one way or another. This alternative is more expressive of compassion, in that a person choosing it makes a show of his or her compassion by refusing to actively endorse any evil. However, I think choosing the lesser of two evils is actually the more compassionate act, because it by definition leads to the least suffering possible. The act-omission distinction, on the other hand, puts a premium on self-righteousness -- "I'm not responsible for that evil."

That being said, there's a serious problem with people who take a utilitarian outlook thinking that our choice is between two evils when it's not. In philosophical thought experiements, your menu of options is given by the premises of the question. But real life is far more complex. There is a lot more room than people realize for finding creative non-evil options. However, a willingness to accept the lesser of two evils when necessary can sometimes turn into a lack of motivation to seek additional non-evil possibilities.

Indeed, some people -- Peter Singer included -- go from being willing to choose the lesser evil to being happy about choosing the lesser evil. While excessive self-flagellation is unproductive, we can never forget that the lesser of two evils is still evil, and still produces suffering, which is a bad thing despite its unavoidability. Someone who is too blase about choosing the lesser evil communicates -- to her- or himself as well as to the victim and bystanders -- a lack of compassion for the choice's evil. It is thus incompatible with the utilitarian directive to show full and equal compassion for all.

At times Singer seems to go even further, seeking out and obessing over "lesser of two evil" situations rather than cases where there's a good option. He especially likes cases where -- as vegankid points out about the testing on a monkey versus a human -- one choice is at best only very marginally less evil than the other. This isn't an entirely surprising trait to find in a philosophy professor, but it's not an admirable one to have in public life. There is so much needless oppression in the world that social justice movements won't have to worry over the hard choices for quite some time.

*Her other princple, nonviolence, is not so easily meshed with utilitarianism -- while I think a good utilitarian would oppose violence in nearly all cases, that conclusion is partially dependent on empirical facts and thus there could be situations in which utilitarianism would entail accepting violence.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said,especially the third and second last paragraphs. What critics of utilitarianism and 'devils advocate' playing 'utilitarians' who get a kick out of offending people don't always understand is that (hedonistic act) utilitarianism can only justify atrocious acts when 1) the pleasure increased/pain minimized is greater than the pleasure minimized/pain decreased and, if it does, *there is no other possible way to achieve the same ratio of happiness over something*. If there is then it isn't a 'necessary' evil.

10:02 AM  

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