Tuesday 4 October 2011

Utilitarians have a distorted view of humanity

Jeremy Bentham
I read recently an article in The Economist (September 24, 2011) entitled "Goodness has nothing to do with it". It was sub-titled “Utilitarians are not nice people”.

The Economist reminded readers that the goal of utilitarianism is encapsulated in the saying of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation”.

The article explores the question: What kind of people agree with utilitarian acts which involve killing one individual in order to save five individuals? ... and it cites the research of Daniel Bartels at Columbia University and David Pizarro at Cornell.

The Economist states:
“One of the classic techniques used to measure a person’s willingness to behave in a utilitarian way is known as trolleyology. The subject of the study is challenged with thought experiments involving a runaway railway trolley or train carriage. All involve choices, each of which leads to people’s deaths. For example: there are five railway workmen in the path of a runaway carriage. The men will surely be killed unless the subject of the experiment, a bystander in the story, does something. The subject is told he is on a bridge over the tracks. Next to him is a big, heavy stranger. The subject is informed that his own body would be too light to stop the train, but that if he pushes the stranger onto the tracks, the stranger’s large body will stop the train and save the five lives. That, unfortunately, would kill the stranger.

“Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro knew from previous research that around 90% of people refuse the utilitarian act of killing one individual to save five. What no one had previously inquired about, though, was the nature of the remaining 10%.”
Bartels and Pizarro, according to The Economist, found a strong link between "utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machieavellian or tended to view life as meaningless.”

OK, one might think, The Economist will probably now go on to reach adverse conclusions about utilitarianism as a proper theoretical basis for legislation. Not a bit of it. The final paragraph reads:
“That does not make utilitarianism wrong. Crafting legislation—one of the main things that Bentham and Mill wanted to improve—inevitably involves riding roughshod over someone’s interests. Utilitarianism provides a plausible framework for deciding who should get trampled. The results obtained by Dr Bartels and Dr Pizarro do, though, raise questions about the type of people who you want making the laws. Psychopathic, Machiavellian misanthropes? Apparently, yes.”
It’s horrifying, isn’t it, that utilitarianism can be lauded like this in a leading international news journal - and in spite of such (predictable) results from an experiment to test the personality of those making utilitarian decisions?

I cannot, however, fault the article in terms of its analysis of our current political and legislative situation. In September 2008 I noted Dame Mary Warnock’s view that people with disabling conditions have a duty to die prematurely. In an interview with the Church of Scotland's Life and Work magazine, Lady Warnock said:
"If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives – your family's lives – and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service.
"I'm absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there's a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.

"Actually I've just written an article called 'A Duty to Die?' for a Norwegian periodical. I wrote it really suggesting that there's nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so for the sake of others as well as yourself."
Now I'm not saying that Lady Warnock is psychopathic, but what sort of person says that a person with dementia is wasting their family's lives? On what grounds does she make this claim? Lady Warnock said that people with dementia are wasting National Health Service (NHS) resources.  But if the NHS isn't there to care for the sick, such as people with dementia, then what is it for? To assist us to die before we inconvenience our families?

Remember that Lady Warnock has shaped legislation that we live with today in Britain. Earlier this month I reported on the excellent conference at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre where Dr David Albert Jones, the centre's director, gave a fascinating insight into why Britain has one of the least restrictive policies on human embryo research in the world:
"Not only does UK law permit every conceivable category of embryo to be created for research, but it also shows little evidence of willingness to restrict human embryo research in practice. By 2008, 2 million embryos had been destroyed in clincal practice or research in the UK. In the same period the regulator (the HFEA) had only once refused a research license, and this was later granted on appeal."
Commenting on Lady Warnock's report*, on the basis of which the British Parliament voted in 1990 to legalise destructive research on human embryos for a wide range of purposes, Dr Jones said:
"Warnock's approach is highly problematic. It is disingenuous to call this an account of the status of the embryo. The embryo drops out of consideration and it is the moral feelings of objectors that are considered. But it fails also as an attempt to respect these feelings, for it does not critically engage with the arguments but treats concern about harm to the embryo as a mere expression of emotion, in contrast to the concern about benefit to patients which is treated as an objective concern."
I strongly recommend everyone to read the summary of Dr Jones's address or to read it in full when the proceedings of the day conference are published. (Two years ago, I wrote on one aspect of the theme Dr Jones explored with such expertise in a post entitled Reasonable-minded citizens should be genuinely frightened of Mary Warnock.)

In hindsight I would like to adjust my advice to reasonable-minded citizens with regard to Mary Warnock. We need not be frightened of her, terrifying as her views and influence may be. Neither do we need to judge whether or not her open utilitarianism suggests psychopathic tendencies. But we do need to be aware of exactly what Lady Warnock and others like her think and we need to be prepared to stand up and refute their distorted view of humanity with the truth that all life is worth living.

*The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, Cmnd. 9314, London, 1984

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