Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On Utilitarianism, the Greater Good, Moral Choices, and Whistle Blowers

In modern America, the prevailing ethical philosophy has always seemed to be utilitarianism, where our decisions are based on the best possible outcome for the most possible people.  Or at least, its supposed to be.  And I also supposed that this is probably the best guiding principle for a truly democratic society.  But I think there are limitations to that philosophy.

I have been thinking about this because I recently read an article about the use of torture on terror suspects and the fact that they (the government, that is) have discovered that some of the "terror suspects" that they've tortured (and let's not use any euphamisms like "agressive interrogation techniques"; let's call a spade a spade here:  it was torture) were innocent people caught up in a wide net and assumed guilty because they were so caught.

Under the utilitarianism philosophy, torturing a few innocent people is acceptable if it results in saving the lives of many more innocent people.  "The greater good" and all that.  If torturing terror suspects gets us information that prevents further attacks, then the cost (that we're intentionally injuring people who have done nothing wrong and do not deserve to be tortured at all... assuming that there are people who do deserve to be tortured) is acceptable.

The problem, as I see it, is that I think we as a society have fallen to the trap of believing that just because torturing people meets the basic standards of our utilitarianist framework, the decision to accept that we will torture people was the right one to make.  We have forgotten that there are some things that are wrong, regardless of the benefits.  Regardless of how many lives a particular action saves, committing that action absolutely, and without question, the wrong thing to do.

We have to be willing to take a stand.  We have to be willing to say, "No, this is wrong by definition and we will have no part in it regardless of any other considerations."  We must draw a line in the sand and say, "this far and no further."

I do recognize that such moral purity is subject to just as much abuse as any other philosophical position. But overall, I prefer to live in a world where someone is willing to stand up and say, "This is wrong!" and mean it.  Especially when we have somehow managed to convince ourselves that it is somehow acceptable to torture people, rationalizing it away with the morally dubious notion that it is justified as being for "the greater good."

I don’t like "slippery slope" arguments, but if we accept torture as an unpleasant necessity,  what else will we accept?  Will we accept the intentional death, the sacrifice if you will, of an innocent child?

This is a horrible choice, but the truth is, we've already seen that under some circumstances, our society has in the past said "Yes" to this very question.  In some cases, the sacrifice of a child, who has no idea why it is being sacrificed and who has committed no wrong we can name, has been judged an acceptable price to pay for the greater good.

So what about two children?

Or how about ten?

Or a hundred?

How about a thousand?  You willing to murder a thousand innocent children if it means the rest of our society is untroubled?  If it serves the "greater good"?


Tell me, people, where do we draw the line?  Where do we stop?

No.  We as a society need to uphold basic standards.  We need to be willing to take a stand on principle against those people who would continue such blatant wrongs and point out that they have lost their way.

As for those people already doing this, you don't have to agree with them, but I think you must respect them.  Because we need such people in our society.  We need to hear them.  Personally, I'd hate to live in a world where such dissent is suppressed so that we can all pretend that everything is hunky dory, while behind the scenes our collective soul is eroded piece by piece due to our choosing "the greater good" over basic morality.

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