Friday, September 24, 2010

The Dark Side of Utilitarianism

Some time ago I reviewed a book by David Benatar, a South African utilitarian, whose view of life was so bleak that the headline was "the ultimate miserabilist". The theme of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, is that we all would be better off had we never existed. As the old Jewish joke goes, "Life is so terrible, it would have been better never to have been born. Who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand!"

It turns out that the same utilitarian argument can be applied to animals. Jeff McMahan recently argued in the New York Times that carnivores cause such dire suffering in the animal world that we (homo sapiens) should organise their extinction as soon as possible.

I highlight this only to suggest that the "felicific calculus" of utilitarianism can produce peculiar answers. The ultimate utilitarian, Peter Singer, has become the guiding light of the animal rights movement because he wants to decrease suffering in chicken farms and laboratories. However, the same principle also leads to McMahan's extinction idea.

It seems to me that utilitarian thinking, however compassionate it may sound, has a dark side. Taken to its logical extreme, the best way to eliminate the suffering of living beings is to eliminate the living beings. Does this say something about utilitarian arguments for euthanasia? Should we look elsewhere for an answer to the perennial problem of pain?

Michael Cook
Editor of Bioedge

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