Tuesday, 30 August 2011


There’s a worrying habit among some atheist writers to assume utilitarianism as the only secular ethics worth having.  In his essay The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick (which, despite its dreadful beginning – seriously, it begins with “since time immemorial” – is pretty good) Ebonmuse settles on what he calls “universal utilitarianism”, a combination of positive and negative utilitarianism.  While he at least attempts to justify this position as one among many, there’s a tendency elsewhere (especially in comment threads) to condemn deontologists and virtue ethicists as “less rational”.

I’m not going to pick apart all the problems with Ebonmuse’s essay – it’s too long and I haven’t the time – but let me just point out a few of them in broad strokes.  He goes through several pages on utilitarianism without mentioning preference satisfaction once.  His caricature of deontology relies more on rhetoric than logic, careening from blatant misinterpretation (seriously arguing that the categorical imperative prevents people from having different jobs) to unquestioned appeal to intuition.  Finally, he presents his “universal utilitarianism” as a solution to the problems with act and rule utilitarianism – that is, their lack of support for human rights and justice – without actually demonstrating how his alternative avoids those pitfalls.

The most egregious example of assuming utilitarianism would probably be Sam Harris, who claims that utilitarianism is not only true but backed up by Science (one suspects that he thinks of it with a capital ‘S’).

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them "Adam" and "Eve." Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being.

Why can’t we clearly ask how those two people could respect each others’ wishes most fully?  Or how those two people can make a contract with each other to decide how to live?  It’s ridiculous to argue for utilitarianism by this kind of sleight of hand.

From the comments of Ebonmuse’s post on Sam Harris:

Some people find utilitarian morality unspeakably offensive. I cannot even begin to understand their thinking. After all, what possible basis could there be to evaluate a moral claim if not that?

And from Ebonmuse himself:

Morality is really just the way of figuring out how we can best live together in harmony, of figuring out what ends we should cooperate to support in order to produce the best life for all of us.

This all seems plausible until you actually start to think about what constitutes the “best life” – or, for that matter, “well-being”.  Not only are these sentiments misinformed, they’re actually harmful to the atheist movement.  Assuming utilitarianism ties atheism to the problems with utilitarianism and drives people who reject consequentialist ethics to a more religious perspective. 

The strength of atheism is supposed to be that there’s no single moral framework.  We need more virtue-focused atheists, like Leah of Unequally Yoked,  or deontological atheists.  I’m not rehashing the old saw that scientists ought not to do philosophy (of course they can) – but would it kill them to give a cursory look at the literature they’re contradicting?


  1. There is a simple-mindedness that is rampant in atheist circles. This is a good example. Generally, I regard the atheist movement as misguided, though I remain an atheist myself. Nietzsche himself indicted these fools over a hundred years ago. They claim atheism, but have no concept of the implications. Utilitarianism is a simplistic substitute for nihilism that will not survive rigorous scrutiny. Your previous post may explain the phenomenon better than anything I can say.

  2. Thanks for the comment! My concept of atheist circles - and, for that matter, my support of them - is almost entirely political. New Atheism is a response to what might be termed the New Christianity, and as a social movement that pushes for equal rights etc they're pretty good.

    Philosophically speaking, you're spot on (but, while I'm flattered, you ought to attribute the insight in my previous post to Jeremiah and the translators of the KJV).