Friday, December 9, 2011

The corrupting influence of utilitarianism

Yesterday on The Impractical Catholic, I wrote with some well-merited fury about the Air Force dumping the cremains of 274 or more soldiers in a Virginia landfill, as reported in the Washington Post (“Betrayal: treating soldiers like garbage”). As I said, this act is far more than a lapse of good judgment; it’s a slap in the face, a betrayal not just of those soldiers and their families but of the entire military community, of everyone who wore the uniform with pride and honor.

But I fully expect the Pentagon to rake through their personnel in an ecstasy of ass-covering to produce some desk-jockey lieutenant colonel, whom they’ll sacrifice in the usual way with the usual media connivance. That’s not sufficient, because this isn’t an “oopsie”: several people in the Air Force and DoD civilian leadership, at least one of which had to be flag rank, had to screw this up. Even desk jockeys don’t take that kind of decision on themselves.

This digs into the deeper question: How could this have happened? How could any collection of human beings lose their heads or their hearts so far as to dump the remains of citizens like so much refuse? How could they have lost sight of the fact that the ashes were once people whom other people loved and lost, that they were owed at minimum a decent burial, a dignity we accord even convicted felons … in full justice, burial with bugle and 21-gun salute, their families given folded flags “with the thanks of a grateful nation”?


We’ve talked before about the essential flaw and futility of utilitarianism. At its root, it’s the assumption that actions and people have an objectively knowable and measurable quality called “social utility”, and that you can make moral decisions by comparing different social utility scores. Or, as one person put it, “The theory boils down to, ‘Imagine a perfect world. Do whatever leads to it. Pretend you’re doing math in between.’”

As I said in that article, the flaw shows up in the “trolley problem”, where you’re asked if you’ll save the life of five workers by throwing a large man in front of a runaway trolley: since the right to life is not an additive property, the workers don’t have “more” right to live than does the large man simply because there are more of them. Moreover, since their “social utility” can’t be known or even reasonably guessed in the time given, the only quality you can know is that there are five of them and one of the large man; on what pretext do you assume that his “social utility” is less than the five of them put together? How can you assume that his death won’t cause greater social harm than theirs?

Behind the mask of the sheer absurdity and real-world inapplicability of such “moral math”, utilitarianism keeps hidden a more frightening visage. Consider the case of the ultrasound tech in Australia who was supposed to abort one of a pair of unborn twins who had a congenital heart defect, and who aborted the healthy one instead by mistake. Behind this tragedy and travesty was the decision that the less-healthy baby wasn’t worth the time or resources necessary to repair the defect, an operation that occurs regularly in the US, as I know from my own family’s experience. The baby’s social utility score wasn’t high enough.

To say such a decision is inappropriate is to engage in understatement.

When a culture denies the justice of a higher power, be it a god or an unknowable and impersonal Tao, inevitably some people take its place on its judgment seat. The immediate implication of “social utility” is that human beings have no intrinsic dignity, that their right to live is on a sliding scale and can be lost for reasons other than retributive justice, that people can become “worth” less and less until they become worthless. On the flip side, the argument presumes that some people are qualified and fit to judge the social utility of others, and that they not only can but must make those judgments “for the betterment of humanity”.

Underneath the argument for euthanasia is the assumption that, because the Alzheimer’s patient suffers confusion and fear, and because taking care of her only prolongs the suffering while her dementia makes her more of a burden and less useful while draining resources, her life is “worth less”: she's "better off dead". But by that rationale, there’s no logical barrier to euthanizing her forcibly as soon as she’s diagnosed.

It’s just such a rationale that for some people makes it a moral imperative to abort babies with Down’s syndrome or spina bifida. But why stop there? Why spend money on homeless shelters and social safety nets when it’s much more cost-effective to march vagrants, prostitutes and the chronically unemployed into gas chambers? (Arbeit macht frei, indeed.) The assumption of social utility poses no logical barriers to such a social clean-up.

As silly as utilitarianism is when reduced to its essence, its barbaric premisses are easily assumed. We should never have had debates over beginning- or end-of-life issues had not the earliest apostles of eugenics and racial cleansing created the notion of lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life”. Yet not only is this notion responsible for the growth of Planned Barrenhood, as well as the encroaching legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, it has so far corrupted our current Administration that the ashes of a soldier who died in his country’s service could be dumped in a landfill like so many cigarette butts in a public ashtray.

For all their canting hypocrisy about human rights and social inclusion, the Obama Administration has implicitly denied the intrinsic value of the individual human being that could ever make such ideals meaningful. The proof lies in a landfill in Virginia. They have treated our heroes as garbage.

No, two or three heads from Air Force personnel won’t be enough. The whole Administration needs to go.