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Moral Philosophy and its Discontents

A response to Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of my Scientific American column on utilitarianism, deontology, and rights. (Illustration above by Izhar Cohen.)

My May 2018 column in Scientific American was titled “You Kant be Serious: Utilitarianism and its Discontents”, a cheeky nod to the German philosopher that I gleaned from the creators of the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale, whose official description for those of us who score low on the scale read: “You’re not very utilitarian at all. You Kant be convinced that maximizing happiness is all that matters.” The online version of my column carries the title (which I have no control over): “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” The answer by any reasonable person would be “of course it does!” And I’m a reasonable person, so what’s all the fuss about? Why was I jumped on by professional philosophers on social media, such as Justin Weinberg of the University of South Carolina on Twitter @DailyNousEditor, who fired a fusillade of tweets, starting with this broadside:

I sent a private email to Justin inviting him to write a letter to the editor of Scientific American that I could then respond to—given that Twitter may not be the best medium for a discussion of important philosophical issues—but I never received a reply.

Social media responses were following by a critical review by the noted scientist and philosopher (and fellow skeptic) Massimo Pigliucci (“Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and ‘natural rights’” in his blog Footnotes to Plato that was 2.5 times the length of the original column. Because I respect Massimo (he and I have been friends since the mid 1990s) and I always appreciate it when people take my writings seriously enough to respond, allow me to explain what I was trying to do in this column (and all my columns) in general, address Massimo’s specific comments in particular, and then consider the larger issues in these competing ethical systems on the moral landscape.

1. Limits

For each of my @SciAm columns I try to find an interesting and important topic, considered within a larger theoretical framework, sparked by some new survey, study, article, or book, that includes my opinion (these columns are in the “Opinion” department of Scientific American), and is written in a manner engaging enough to hold the attention of busy readers. I have one page, or about 710 words, to do this. The July column was triggered by a new paper titled “Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two-Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Psychology”, by University of Oxford philosophers Guy Kahane, Jim A. C. Everett, Brian D. Earp, Lucius Caviola, Nadira S. Faber, Molly J. Crockett, and Julian Savulescu, published December, 2017 in the prestigious journal Psychological Review. It is a 35-page, 32,000-word in-depth, complex, scholarly article that was difficult to summarize in a few paragraphs and still meet my other column criteria. So the accusation that I am oversimplifying is necessarily true.

2. Greatest Good for Who?

Massimo objects to my use of this example of utilitarianism: “Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry?” He says this example, representing the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number,” embodies just “one of many versions of utilitarianism, and it was immediately abandoned, by none other than John Stuart Mill,” adding that today philosophers distinguish between act utilitarianism, “where we must evaluate the morality of each act, a la Bentham,” and rule utilitarianism, “where we conform to rules that have shown overall to bring about the greatest amount of good, a la Mill.” Massimo then adds: “More generally, utilitarianism has a long history, and nowadays it is actually best thought of as a particular type of consequentialist philosophy. I could be wrong, but Shermer seems unaware of these distinctions.” In point of fact, this example comes straight from the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale (on a 7-point scale from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree):

If the only way to ensure the overall well-being and happiness of the people is through the use of political oppression for a short, limited period, then political oppression should be used.

So Massimo can take up the matter with Kahane, et al. of whether or not this (and the other questions on the scale) properly represent modern utilitarianism and its corresponding “greatest good” principle. And yes, I am familiar with act and rule utilitarianism, and since credentials came up a lot in these online responses, let me add that while I am not a professional philosopher, I am not philosophically naïve: I took two undergraduate philosophy courses (Intro and Ethics), studied the philosophy of science for my Ph.D. in the history of science, have taken several of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses in philosophy, read everything the highly regarded philosopher Daniel Dennett has written (and consider him both a friend and philosophical mentor), teach an honors course at Chapman University on “Evolution, Ethics, and Morality,” and wrote two related books: The Science of Good and Evil (2004) and The Moral Arc (2015).

3. Trolleyology

Massimo says that my use of the famous trolley problems as an example of utilitarian thinking “is just flat out wrong.” Again, he can take this up with Kahane, et al. as they state in the first sentence of the abstract of their paper:

Recent research has relied on trolley-type sacrificial moral dilemmas to study utilitarian versus nonutilitarian modes of moral decision-making.


The main approach in this research has been to study responses to ‘sacrificial’ moral dilemmas (such as the famous ‘trolley’ scenario and its various permutations; see Foot, 1967) which present a choice between sacrificing one innocent person to save a greater number of people, or doing nothing and letting them die. In analyzing these responses and relating them to other variables, such as individual difference scores on personality measures or patterns of brain activity, researchers have tried to uncover the psychological and even neural underpinnings of the dispute between utilitarians and their opponents—such as defenders of deontological, rights-based views of the kind associated with Immanuel Kant.

What Kahane, et al. want to do is separate the sacrificial from the beneficial sides of utilitarianism, which is the focus of their paper, as they write in their discussion of trolleyology research:

Thus, although sacrificial dilemmas were an important first step in studying utilitarian decision-making, and have already yielded valuable findings about attitudes in favor of and against instrumental harm, they need to be supplemented with further tools that allow us to study utilitarian decision-making along both its dimensions….

Thus, one might argue that trolley dilemmas represent only one form of utilitarianism (sacrificial), or that utilitarians would be well advised to focus on the beneficial side of their philosophy, but it is inaccurate to simply assert that trolley problems have nothing to do with utilitarianism. But then, Massimo says he didn’t even read the Kahane, et al. paper (“so I will not comment on it”), which is too bad as that was the central focus of my column. More importantly, Kahane, et al. leave readers with an actionable conclusion that “drawing public attention to the negative side of utilitarianism—one upshot of the widespread identification of utilitarianism with sacrificial solutions to trolley dilemmas in current moral psychology—may do little for, and even get in the way of, promoting greater moral impartiality.” In the context of discussing Peter Singer’s efforts to expand the moral sphere to include other sentient animals, Kahane et al. note:

Singer’s session on effective altruism at Victoria University drew those who were excited by the idea of impartial beneficence—but also a group of outraged protestors repelled by instrumental harm. 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.

4. Utilitarian Psychology

Massimo is nearly apoplectic with this observation of mine in the column for which he says I veer “from simplistic to nonsensical”:

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 in order 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:Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.

In response Massimo writes:

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.

From our point of view, witch hunters and genocidal dictators were ignorant and superstitious and acted out of fear, but they certainly didn’t think of themselves that way. To understand evil we must consider the point of view of the evil doers. What were these people thinking? Of course, it is easier to target the weak and defenseless, but why were they targeting anyone in the first place? The answer may be found in what I called in The Moral Arc “the witch theory of causality”:

It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you—and everyone around you including ecclesiastical and political authorities—truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty.

Referencing the trolley problem, I then note how easy it is to get modern people to throw a switch to kill one in order to save five, and therefore…

We should not be surprised, then, that our medieval ancestors performed the same kind of moral calculation in the case of witches. Medieval witch-burners torched women primarily out of a utilitarian calculus—better to kill the few to save the many. Other motives were present as well, of course, including scapegoating, the settling of personal scores, revenge against enemies, property confiscation, the elimination of marginalized and powerless people, and misogyny and gender politics. But these were secondary incentives grafted on to a system already in place that was based on a faulty understanding of causality.

My focus in that chapter was on the importance of science and reason to bending the moral arc by debunking incorrect theories of causality (e.g., witches), but here let me clarify to anyone who thinks I can’t even get my centuries straight that I’m not arguing Torquemada sat down with Pope Sixtus IV to compute the greater good sacrifice of 10,000 Jews in order to save 50,000 Catholics; instead I am aiming to understand the underlying psychological forces behind witch hunts and genocides, noting that in addition to the many other motives I listed (human behavior is almost never mono-causal), the utilitarian psychology of sacrificing the few to benefit the many is a major driver. Hitler and many of his German followers appear to really have believed the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory for why Germany lost the First World War: Jews, Marxists, Bolsheviks, and other “November Criminals” defeated the country from within. Yes, anti-Semitism was already rampant throughout Europe for centuries (note Martin Luther’s 1543 book The Jews and Their Lies), but from 1933 to 1945 that prejudice was put into service in the utilitarian calculus that sacrificing the Jews to save the Germans would serve the greatest good for the greatest number. In my chapter on evil in The Moral Arc, here is how I considered competing ethical systems in the context of moral conflicts:

Moral conflicts may also arise between prescriptions (what we ought to do) that bring rewards for action (pride from within, praise from without) and proscriptions (what we ought not to do) that bring punishments for violations (shame from within, shunning from without). (Eight of the Ten Commandments in the Decalogue, for example, are proscriptions.) As in the limbic system with it’s neural networks for emotions, approach-avoidance moral conflicts have neural circuitry called the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) that drive an organism forward or back, as in the case of the rat vacillating between approaching and avoiding the goal region…. These activation and inhibition systems can be measured in experimental settings in which subjects are presented with different scenarios in which they then offer their moral judgment (giving money to a homeless person as prescriptive vs. wearing a sexually suggestive dress to a funeral as proscriptive).

So, for example, under such conditions researchers have found that the BAS is affiliated with prescriptions but not proscriptions, whereas the BIS is affiliated with proscriptions but not prescriptions. I then demonstrate how certain emotions, such as disgust, can drive an organism away from a noxious stimulus because in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry noxiousness was an informational cue that a stimulus could kill you through poisoning (tainted food), or disease (through fecal matter, vomit, and other bodily effluvia). By contrast, anger drives an organism toward an offensive stimulus, such as another organism that attacks it. In an approach-avoidance system in a human social context, if you believe that Jews (or blacks, natives, homosexuals, Tutsis, etc.) are bacilli poisoning your tribe or nation, you naturally avoid them with disgust as you would any noxious stimulus; by contrast, if you believe that Jews (or blacks, natives, homosexuals, Tutsis, etc.) are dangerous enemies attacking your tribe or nation, you naturally approach them with anger as you would any assaulter.

This approach-avoidance conflict model in moral dilemmas shine a different light on such classic philosophical dilemmas as pitting a deontological (duty- or rule-bound) principle such as the prohibition against murder, against a utilitarian (greatest good) principle such as the trolley experiment where most people agree that it is acceptable to sacrifice one person in order to save five. Which is right? Thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt kill one to save five? Such conflicts cause much cognitive dissonance and vacillation—as in the approach-avoidance scenario—and moral philosophers have many work-arounds, as in the distinction between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism, the latter of which is further refined into Weak Rule Utilitarianism (WRU), which degrades into act utilitarianism when enough exceptions to the rule are made (it’s wrong to lie, except…) and the rules have sub-rules and sub-sub-rules, and Strong Rule Utilitarianism (SRU), which asserts that moral rules should be obeyed at all places and times, unless of course it’s a Nazi at the door demanding to know the whereabouts of Anne Frank.

To this end Massimo cites a 2010 paper by Helga Varden in the Journal of Social Philosophy, aptly titled “Kant and Lying to the Murderer at the Door…One More Time: Kant’s Legal Philosophy and Lies to Murderers and Nazis”, in which she argues that the Nazis “did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis.” There is much more to her analysis of Kant, but it seems to me that in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent, and a rule/rights decision that qualifies why we should care about the innocent in the first place: because, say, Kant’s rule about never treating people as an ends to a mean but as an ends in and of themselves, or that all people have a right to their own life.

5. Rights

This brings me to the final point on rights, which Massimo calls “true nonsense”, quoting Bentham’s famous assessment that rights are nonsense and natural rights “nonsense on stilts.” Massimo is here talking about finding rights in nature, but he misses the foundation of natural rights in his own throw-away line, “Yeah, we all prefer to be alive rather than dead, other things being equal.” And we all prefer to be free rather than enslaved, rich rather than poor, healthy rather than sick, safe rather than endangered, happy rather than sad, and the rest that comes with being alive. Here is how I open Chapter 1 of The Moral Arc:

Morality involves how we think and act toward other moral agents in terms of whether our thoughts and actions are right or wrong with regard to their survival and flourishing. By survival I mean the instinct to live, and by flourishing I mean having adequate sustenance, safety, shelter, bonding and social relations for physical and mental health. Any organism subject to natural selection—which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well—will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish, for if they didn’t they would not live long enough to reproduce and would therefore no longer be subject to natural selection.

Thus, I argue, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my moral starting point, and it is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature—principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world. I emphasize the individual because it is individual sentient beings who perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer—not populations, races, genders, groups, or nations. In fact, the Rights Revolutions were grounded on the freedom and autonomy of persons, not groups. Individuals vote, not races or genders. Individuals want to be treated equally, not races. Rights protect individuals, not groups; in fact, most rights (such as those enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution), protect individuals from being discriminated against as members of a group. The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature.

Although moral truths are not measurable in the same sense as physical phenomena—such as the mass of a particle or the gravitational force of a star—there are abstract Platonic truths that most scientists agree exist, such as those in mathematics, a point made by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in a 2008 article in the New York Times magazine (“The Moral Instinct”):

[W]e are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Take cooperation. Over billions of years of natural history and thousands of years of human history, there has been an increasing tendency toward the playing of cooperative “nonzero” games between organisms. This tendency has allowed more nonzero gamers to survive. Thus, natural selection favored those who cooperated by playing nonzero games, thereby passing on their genes for cooperative behavior. In time, reasoning moral agents would conclude that both should cooperate toward mutual benefit rather than compete to either a zero-sum outcome in which one gains and the other loses, or both lose in a defection cascade. Pinker draws out the implications for moral realism:

If I appeal to you to do something that affects me then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously. I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

From here we can build an ethical system based on human nature and natural rights, by which I mean rights that are universal and inalienable and thus not contingent only upon the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. It is in this sense that I am a moral realist. I believe that there are real moral values. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was a moral realist when he famously said:

If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Since I wrote a book about the Holocaust, Denying History, I would add:

If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

How do we know that slavery and the Holocaust are wrong—really wrong? Really as in reality, as in the nature of things. Since I’m grounding morality in science let’s start with the most basic of sciences, the physical sciences. It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Where? In our nature.

Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong? END

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality & Utopia.

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