Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Utilitarian Cannibals: You Are What You Eat

Watching Michael Sandel's lectures on justice at Harvard, where he discussed utilitarianism via a case in which a group of shipwrecked survivors, adrift in a lifeboat, sacrificed the life of the weakest amongst them, sustaining themselves on his flesh, were rescued and then tried for murder. Had the following points to add to his limited half-hour discussion:

1. The decision not to act is itself an action. No getting around the responsibility to make choices. None.
2. One can rescue Bentham by suggesting that an 'enlightened' view of utility involves dire consequences to the happiness of a nation, and its citizens as individuals, not just now, in this specific case, but going forward indefinitely in time, applied to all cases, of the notion that murder can be acceptable in some circumstances, to the extent that one of the most fundamental laws of that nation is violated. Bentham himself might have voted for conviction out of a utilitarian argument. (He was at pains to define pleasure more broadly than one usually does.) One can, therefore, reject murder consequentially as well as categorically. The two might well not be entirely mutually exclusive.
3. The question then begged is how to evaluate the justice of a law itself: whether Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, from 'Les Miserables', seeing the necessity of law as a constraint on individual conduct, is justified in hounding Jean Valjean over a stolen loaf of bread, whether Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v Sanford and Miranda v Arizona carry equal requirements that they be followed, whether a citizen of Nazi Germany should follow laws passed by a government clearly supported by a majority of its citizens.
4. Using these arguments, one can reduce the case, as is often done in law school, to a question of the moral basis of the law itself, and the duty of a citizen to conduct him/herself within it. An obvious contrast to Hugo here is Robert Bolt's Sir Thomas More, from 'A Man For All Seasons', who sees law as a bulwark against the Devil, acting through a fallen humanity. Such an argument transcends the actors' duty in the cannibalism case to embrace the duties of all citizens, which obviously introduces political philosophy alongside of, and complementary to, moral philosophy.

The series of lectures is well worth the time, and is online: