Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

Nazi officerYou may have noticed that I don’t opine on quantum mechanics. Or jazz. The reason for this is that — although I’m very interested in both topics — I just don’t know enough about them. Not enough to be able to offer an informed opinion, at any rate. So I sit back, read what other, more knowledgeable people have to say about quantum mechanics and jazz, form my own second-hand opinion, and try to avoid embarrassing myself by pontificating in public.

Apparently, my friend Michael Shermer does not follow the same philosophy. At least, not when it comes to the field of moral philosophy. He has recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” which starts out simple (simplistic, really) enough, and ends in a crescendo of nonsense. Let’s take a look.

After asking whether you would politically oppress a people for a limited time, if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry, Michael explains that that’s utilitarianism, the philosophy started by Jeremy Bentham back at the beginning of the 19th century, often summarized with the slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number.” (Bentham, incidentally, is currently visiting New York, go see him, if you have a chance.)

Well, that is one of many versions of utilitarianism, and it was immediately abandoned, by none other than John Stuart Mill, Bentham’s student, who actually wrote the classic 1861 text entitled Utilitarianism. Indeed, before that Mill wrote two important articles, “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy” (1833) and “Bentham” (1838), in which he criticized his mentor and began to develop modern utilitarian thought. One of the major distinctions one can draw within utilitarianism still today is that between so-called 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). 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.

Michael then tells his readers that “modern utilitarianism” is best instantiated by the (in)famous trolley problems. This is just flat out wrong. The original dilemma was introduced by Philippa Foot back in 1967. Here is the first version:

“Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.”

Contra Shermer, the trolley dilemma was proposed, and it continues to be used (not only in philosophy, but in social psychology), in order to probe people’s moral intuitions, not to “instantiate” utilitarianism. For instance, a deontologist would refuse to frame an innocent or switch the lever, on the basis of the Kantian notion that one ought never to treat others solely as means to an end. The fact that many people switch from utilitarian to deontological responses when considering different versions of the dilemma tells us that they tend to react emotionally, which leads them to deploy an incoherent moral philosophy.

Michael then says that “the problem” with utilitarianism is that there are situations in which following its precepts one would end up endorsing psychopathic behaviors, as in the famous case (which I pose to my intro philosophy students) of the surgeon who has five patients in the emergency room, each with a failing vital organ, and decides to pick up a stranger from the street, cut him up into pieces, and distribute his organs around to save the other five. Too bad that this sort of thing is precisely why Mill (remember, already in 1833) introduced rule utilitarianism, which blocks the psychopathic doctor in his tracks. Again, no mention of this in the SciAm article.

Shermer briefly mentions a recent paper in Psychological Review (which I have not read, so I will not comment on it), mostly to tell us that he took the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale test and scored 17/63. He ain’t no utilitarian, according to the test. Neither am I, apparently (phew!), since I scored 21/63. You can do the test yourself, here.

After a brief mention of Kantian deontology, the article really veers 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 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.”

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 latter is also what perpetrators of witch hunting and the Rwandan genocide did: prey on the weak, it’s easy to do and get away with it.)

But Shermer doesn’t let Kant off the hook either. He brings up the famous example (which, again, I confront my intro philosophy students with) of lying: if it is the case — as Kant says in one formulation of the categorical imperative — that we should only accept as moral those principles that we would be willing to make into universal rules, wouldn’t that mean that I should never lie and give up the Jew I’m hiding in the basement if a Nazi officer (it’s always the Nazi!) politely asks me? Or, as Michael updates the scenario: “if you live in Syria and a band of ISIS thugs knocks on your door demanding to know if you are hiding any homosexuals they can murder in the mistaken belief that this fulfills the word of God — and you are — few moralists would object to your lying to save them.”

Notice the pejorative term “moralists,” instead of moral philosophers. Anyway, you would think Kantian philosophers would have something to say about this. Oh, right, they do! A good example is a paper by Helga Varden in the Journal of Social Philosophy, entirely devoted to Kant, lying and the Nazi officer. I do not have the time here to do justice to her analysis, but a couple of points need to be brought to bear: first, in that case Kant was writing explicitly within the context of a discussion of the doctrine of rightful interactions (the original, short paper in which he tackles the case is entitled “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy”). As Varden says, within that context, “we can make sense of why lying to the murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do wrong in general.”

More to the point, Kant was talking about a murderer (he, obviously, couldn’t have contemplated the Nazi), but when one changes the scenario to a Nazi officer — or an ISIS terrorist — it turns out that the problem dissolves itself, because “the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally punishable [within Kant’s framework] is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis.” Or to ISIS. Again, I didn’t notice any of these qualifications in Shermer’s article.

Michael, predictably, makes no mention at all of the third great framework in moral philosophy, virtue ethics, which would actually do a lot of the work he wants to do, against both utilitarianism and deontology — in their philosophically sophisticated versions, not the caricature we get in the SciAm article.

But never mind that. The true nonsense comes right at the end, when Shermer puts forth his preferred view, the one that, in his mind, has allowed for true moral progress throughout the ages: “both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are trumped by natural-rights theory, which dictates that you are born with the right to life and liberty of both body and mind, rights that must not be violated, not even to serve the greater good or to fulfill a universal rule.”

Setting aside that you get precisely the same result from Mill’s rule utilitarianism, not to mention that natural rights theory has no argument against Kant, “natural rights” are what Jeremy Bentham famously, and correctly, referred to as “nonsense on stilts.” 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. It’s also why people have come up with different lists of rights at different times. The United Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, provides a much more extensive list than the one arrived at by James Madison and co. back in 1789.

To argue that rights are “natural” is to commit the most elementary logical fallacy in ethics, that of the appeal to nature. And even if one were to overlook that little problem, there simply is no consistent empirical evidence for most of such alleged rights (i.e., desires, instincts) in Homo sapiens or its recent ancestors. Yeah, we all prefer to be alive rather than dead, other things being equal, but natural selection does not care about mere survival, it only favors survival that leads to reproduction. And it favors it, it doesn’t guarantee it. (So you can’t derive a natural right to sex. Too bad!)

This is the sort mess one gets when Michael talks about moral philosophy. Or when I talk about quantum mechanics. Or jazz. Please, let us all stick to what we know. It’s hard enough as it is.

106 thoughts on “Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

  1. wtc48

    Saphsin: “Ethics is prior to Rights, not the other way around. In fact, one can imagine a society where there is no Tradition of Philosophy of Rights but people organized society in a similar way on the basis of human obligations or another ethical framework, though I think that’s hard to do for our society at the moment.”

    To come at this from a slightly different angle: “wrongs” are much more palpable than “rights.” The latter concept is forward-looking, dealing with justifiable expectations; the latter is retrospective, reacting to action in the past. This difference is at the heart of the current national debate (if I may so dignify it) about the Second Amendment. The irresistible force of argument, based on the tragic history of shootings, is countered by the immovable object of constitutional authority, as represented by those committed to its quasi-scriptural status in the most literal sense.


  2. brodix

    Isn’t a large part of pinning down these rights and their source due to it being a tension between the individual and the group?

    That there is no exact point in between, but that whenever one side pushes, there is pushback and the result fluctuates, based on all factors involved.


  3. Massimo Post author


    and reason indeed! So, I think this was a good example of honest and open dialogue, where we ended up not only clarifying each other’s positions, but actually agreeing on the substance.

    I would therefore revise my position and say that I agree with Bentham’s characterization of natural rights IF one wishes to get a metaphysically thick meaning out of the phrase.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    Rights, to bring Hume back into the equation, are based on human … more than desires … human passions.


    Per the metaphysically “thick,” the theological angle still lies behind traditional beliefs in traditional ideas of free will, which at one time, before years of posts here and previous blogs of his, and comments by myself, him and others, and my blogging, and etc. … but before that, I thought Massimo had a hang-up there.


  5. SocraticGadfly

    In a cou8ple of prevoius comments, I’ve tied some ideas here to other posts by Massimo. I’ve been reminded, throughout, by the discussion over Laland’s books. Except for something like a “right” not to be murdered, relatively few human rights come off as “universal,” despite a UN Convention on such and other things. Likewise, as noted in discussion over Laland’s book, relatively few moral stances come off as universal. And, of those that seem even semi-universal, different societies weight them differently.

    So, an appeal to a state of nature is bound to fail, when human cultural evolution is proceeding on its own merry way. Hence, there cannot be a Platonic (or Rousselian) state of nature.


  6. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    The vrious versions of the dilemma are used still today to study people’s moral intuitions, not to provoke people to think along utilitarian lines.

    Even so, I’d say the specific version of the trolley problem Shermer brought up tends to provoke people to think along utilitarian lines. I think that’s all he was trying to do in raising it. Perhaps it would have been better to say something more like “Consider the following version of the famous trolley problem… if you would say you would flip the switch, you are far from alone. You are thinking along utilitarian lines, and if we stopped here utilitarianism might seem plausible. But consider …”

    the notion really is nonsensical in the dictionary meaning of the word: I can make no sense of it.

    I think there is a difference between “I can make no sense of it” and “it is nonsense”. The latter phrase forecloses on the possibility that you are missing something.

    I’ll drop the discussion of the Kant-Nazi situation as I have not yet read the paper and you don’t want to discuss it further anyway.

    Fair points on “with power comes great responsibility”. It seems we agree, that the issue is perhaps more with his unearned air of authority and less with his addressing the topic int he first place.

    One other point on which I think you may be a little unfair to Shermer is in assuming that his natural rights are metaphysically thick or that he has quasi-Platonic ontological commitments. He doesn’t say this, and to me it seems this assumption of yours is unjustified. A more charitable interpretation would be that he finds the most plausible moral framework to be that in which we assume that people have certain rights. These rights don’t have to exist “out there” in the world. They might simply be a system of axioms that it makes sense to adopt. The axioms we should choose are those that seem most natural (in the sense of obvious or intuitive, perhaps) to us. I don’t think we necessarily have to assume he’s thinking of a state of nature which never existed.

    If these rights don’t have an ontological status independent of humans, then you might hold him to task for the arbitrariness of a framework for which there is no objective basis with regard to deciding which rights we ought to assume and which rights we ought not. But the same could be said of virtue ethics with regard to which traits we ought to deem virtues and which we ought to deem vices. If virtue ethics doesn’t have to have any thick metaphysical commitments then I don’t see that natural rights has to.


  7. saphsin


    “To come at this from a slightly different angle: “wrongs” are much more palpable than “rights.” The latter concept is forward-looking, dealing with justifiable expectations; the latter is retrospective, reacting to action in the past.”

    No one here is referring to the term “rights” as the opposite of the word “wrongs” Two different definitions of the same word, I thought that was clear.


  8. saphsin


    Right, I suppose Dan’s clarification makes his use of the term less problematic, but I’d rather avoid it for similar reasons Massimo avoids the term free will. The connotation seeps through, and it’s conceptually more effective to phrase what we mean in a different way for ehem, Wittgensteinian reasons.


  9. brodix

    Possibly nature is not so much a state, as a dynamic, of cause and effect, action and reaction. Then the issue is not rights, but attainments.

    The mind finds it easier to focus on structure, than process.


  10. Robin Herbert

    Oddly enough, Shermer wrote the following tweet back in January, with a much more nuanced approach:

    Utilitarianism must be balanced with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance & fairness ethics, natural rights theory, Rousseau/Hobbes’ Social Contract theory, Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, etc. No one theory works.


  11. Massimo Post author


    odd indeed. Though I still think it is a mistake to treat utilitarianism and virtue ethics as if they were scientific “theories,” or if they were somehow comparable.


  12. Massimo Post author


    “Even so, I’d say the specific version of the trolley problem Shermer brought up tends to provoke people to think along utilitarian lines”

    Again, this was not the reason trolley dilemmas were introduced, and it is not the way they are used, either in philosophy or in neuroscience. Sure, some people may see them that way, but Shermer’s phrasing is much stronger than that. You are being too charitable.

    “I think there is a difference between “I can make no sense of it” and “it is nonsense””

    Of course, but people are making a bit too much of my (I thought clever!) citation of Bentham, who came up with the famous phrase. And at any rate, I’m not the only one who cannot make sense of natural right (in the metaphysically thick sense), and I can adduce good reasons for that stance. So it’s a bit more than the simple statement that I, personally, cannot make sense of them. That statement could be used to describe my attitude toward quantum mechanics, but since I know little about it, then I abstain from stronger statements in that area. I wish Michael had done the same.

    “One other point on which I think you may be a little unfair to Shermer is in assuming that his natural rights are metaphysically thick or that he has quasi-Platonic ontological commitments.”

    Well, if he isn’t then the conclusion of his article is far weaker than he makes it come across. In general, I know that libertarians (knowingly or not) tend to assume a metaphysically thick meaning of natural rights. Even though they probably don’t know what “metaphysically thick” means, they need the concept to do a lot of work for them, and a weaker version along the lines that emerged from my discussion with Dan simply won’t do.


  13. labnut


    Oddly enough, Shermer wrote the following tweet back in January, with a much more nuanced approach:

    Utilitarianism must be balanced with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance & fairness ethics, natural rights theory, Rousseau/Hobbes’ Social Contract theory, Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, etc. No one theory works.

    That sounds remarkably like my Six Moral Hats thesis.
    I rest my case.


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