Jules van Schaijik

Are we all equal, i.e. equally worthless?

Oct. 22, 2010, at 1:49pm

Utilitarianism, in one form or another, has a serious grip on the contemporary mind. No matter how logically compelling the arguments against it may be, or how often they are repeated, the habit of utilitarian thinking seems to prevail unchecked. I even notice the problem in my own mind. In spite of my rejection of the theory, both morally and intellectually, I find it all too easy to sympathize with the likes of Jack Bauer who are willing to break any and every moral principle as long as the results seem to justify it.

I also see the problem in my students. Some of them are unabashed utilitarians. They agree that euthasia, torture, cannibalism, etc., are undesirable in themselves, but they also think that such acts are sometimes justified by their consequences. Others are more like me. They reject the theory in principle, but can’t help sometimes falling into utiliarian ways of viewing and thinking about the world.

I am always on the lookout, therefore, for persuasive arguments against utilitarianism—especially for arguments that show how inhumane and depersonalizing the doctrine really is. The latter is important because utilitarianists often seem to be more personalist than their critics since they pay more attention to the interests of persons than to abstract, universal moral rules. Such rules are fine, they argue, as long as they serve the general interest. But in case of a conflict, we should never sacrifice the interests of persons to an abstract rule.

So I appreciated an argument I came accross recently in an article by Tom Regan (an animal rights advocate with whom I otherwise mostly and strongly disagree). Whereas many advocates of animal rights make their arguments on utilitarianist grounds—Peter Singer among them, who famously holds that “all animals [human or not] are equal”—Regan thinks that the utilitarian conception of equality is badly flawed: it basically says that all individuals are equal only in the sense that none of them have any intrinsic value at all. As Regan puts it: “Utilitarianism has no room for the equal moral rights of different individuals because it has no room for their equal inherent value or worth. What has value for the utilitarian is the satisfaction of an individual’s interests, not the individual whose interests they are.” Here is an analogy he uses to clarify his meaning:

a cup contains different liquids, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, sometimes a mix of the two. What has value are the liquids: the sweeter the better, the bitterer the worse. The cup, the container, has no value. It is what goes into it, not what they go into, that has value. For the utilitarian you and I are like the cup; we have no value as individuals and thus no equal value. What has value is what goes into us, what we serve as receptacles for; our feelings of satisfaction have positive value, our feelings of frustration negative value.

Let me also quote the long example he gives to further illustrate the way in which the utilitarian calculus works, and how it completely disregards the value and rights of the individual:

That utilitarianism is an aggregative theory — different individuals’ satisfactions or frustrations are added, or summed, or totalled - is the key objection to this theory. My Aunt Bea is old, inactive, a cranky, sour person, though not physically ill. She prefers to go on living. She is also rather rich. I could make a fortune if I could get my hands on her money, money she intends to give me in any event, after she dies, but which she refuses to give me now. In order to avoid a huge tax bite, I plan to donate a handsome sum of my profits to a local children’s hospital. Many, many children will benefit from my generosity, and much joy will be brought to their parents, relatives and friends. If I don’t get the money rather soon, all these ambitions will come to naught. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real killing will be gone. Why, then, not kill my Aunt Bea? Oh, of course I might get caught. But I’m no fool and, besides, her doctor can be counted on to co-operate (he has an eye for the same investment and I happen to know a good deal about his shady past). The deed can be done . . . professionally, shall we say. There is very little chance of getting caught. And as for my conscience being guilt-ridden, I am a resourceful sort of fellow and will take more than sufficient comfort - as I lie on the beach at Acapulco - in contemplating the joy and health I have brought to so many others. Suppose Aunt Bea is killed and the rest of the story comes out as told. Would I have done anything wrong? Anything immoral? One would have thought that I had. Not according to utilitarianism. Since what I have done has brought about the best balance between totalled satisfaction and frustration for all those affected by the outcome, my action is not wrong. Indeed, in killing Aunt Bea the physician and I did what duty required.

What do you think? I think this argument is basically sound (even though it would have to be shored up against all sorts of utilitarian counters). But is it convincing? Will it leave an impression? Or do you, my kind reader, have a better argument I can use?

Rhett J Segall • Oct 24, 2010 - 11:33 am


Regan’s analogy is very close to the situation envisioned by Dostoyevsky’s Raskalnakov in “Crime and Punishment.” Raskalnakov, the destitute college student, decides to kill the miserly old lady pawn broker. No one knows who the culprit is except Raskalnakov. Dostoyovesky then describes R’s spiritual breakdown in carrying this secret within himself. It is only through the loving Sonya that R’s redemption is brought about.

I think the utilitarian crime must dehumanize the culprit. In addition it ursurps God’s work with the sinner-perhaps the miserly pawn broker. In addition it creats a social atmosphere of Machiavelianism. Further it exalts a comfortable physical life as the ultimate value. All of these points are “seeds of destruction”.

The analogy I like to bring home the idea of intrinsic value is that of the $100.00 dollar bill. Offer it to someone and they will take it. Step on it and they will still take it because it’s value (economic) is not dependent on it’s appearance. Crumple it and people will still take it because of its inner worth.
P.S. I know Vhd only considers values to reside in “intrinsic importance” and this creates some problems for an American audience that constantly uses the word “value” for multiple areas.

Jules van Schaijik • Oct 24, 2010 - 7:48 pm

That’s interesting. It is true that the two cases—Regan’s story about aunt Bea, and Dostoyevsky’s about Raskolnikov (isn’t that his name?)—are similar in many ways. However, I remember the latter more as an illustration of Nietzsche’s Übermensch philosophy. Isn’t Raskolnikov motivated by the idea that there is a morality for the masses which does not imply to people like himself? And isn’t that somewhat different from the utilitarian philosophy, which is supposed to be applicable to all?

Both philosophies are dehumanizing of course, but for different reasons.

Rhett J Segall • Oct 24, 2010 - 9:13 pm

Just checked-yes it is Raskolnikov-and I can see you are right about Raskolnikov’s motivation. What a mess out there!


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