Friday, March 11, 2005

Consequentialism, The Justified Torture Objection And Christ

Over at Fake Barn Country, the weblog of the Brown University Philosophy Department, Jonathan has a post up about what a utilitarian has said about the problem of sacrificing some innocent in order to provide pleasure to a huge number. It's a typical objection to utilitarianism, and I take it that it's an objection to consequentialism more generally: the vast majority of the population get pleasure from the mistreatment of some small minority, so we are obliged to mistreat the small minority. I'm not even particularly interested in Jonathan's discussion of this utilitarian's defence against the objection, which seems to be the claim that utilitarianism is not true across all possible worlds, specifically, it might not be true in this particular possible world, which does seem to cast some doubt on their commitment to utilitarianism.

What's really interesting is what Tony Marmo has had to say about the problem in the comments: that it looks very similar to Christ's sacrifice of Himself to save humanity from sin. The ultimate innocent is crucified, dies and is sent to hell in order to redeem humanity. Looks pretty much like the justified torture case to me, although I can think of a few ways in which it might differ, mostly to do with voluntariness and the equivalence of the sacrifice with what is gained by each of those for whom the sacrifice is made. Still, though, it's a bit discomforting for those, like me, who want to claim that these kinds of cases show that consequentialism must be false.


Shuggy said...

I don't really think the idea of Christ's death as atonment fits for reasons that I won't bore you with. Why do you say, "disturbing"? Are you a believer?

Rob Jubb said...

It's not because I'm a believer, but rather because I think, had it happened - which it didn't - it would have been ethically acceptable, whereas I tend to think that even if people volunteered to be tortured to make other people happy, it would be wrong. If the two are equivalent, then those two beliefs don't look like they make sense. That's what's (slightly) disturbing.

I'm genuinely curious about what the relevant differences are. I can think of a couple immediately, perhaps most obviously the equivalence of what was sacrificed and what was gained, and then next, the fact that what was gained could not have been gained by those for whom it was a benefit (i.e., that only Christ's sacrifice, had it occurred, could have saved humanity from having to pay the wages of sin, whereas the connection between my happiness and someone's else torture is, I would hope, uitterly contingent). Anyway, I just thought it was an interesting comparison.