Issues in Philosophy Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

Michael Shermer on utilitarianism, deontology, and “natural rights”

by Massimo Pigliucci


You may have noticed that I don’t opine on quantum mechanics. Or jazz. The reason for this is that — although I’m very interested in both topics — I just don’t know enough about them. Not enough to be able to offer an informed opinion, at any rate. So I sit back, read what other, more knowledgeable people have to say about quantum mechanics and jazz, form my own second-hand opinion, and try to avoid embarrassing myself by pontificating in public.

Apparently, my friend Michael Shermer does not follow the same philosophy. At least, not when it comes to the field of moral philosophy. He has recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” which starts out simple (simplistic, really) enough, and ends in a crescendo of nonsense. Let’s take a look.

After asking whether you would politically oppress a people for a limited time, if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry, Michael explains that that’s utilitarianism, the philosophy started by Jeremy Bentham back at the beginning of the 19th century, often summarized with the slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number.” (Bentham, incidentally, is currently visiting New York, go see him, if you have a chance.)

Well, that is one of many versions of utilitarianism, and it was immediately abandoned, by none other than John Stuart Mill, Bentham’s student, who actually wrote the classic 1861 text entitled Utilitarianism. Indeed, before that Mill wrote two important articles, “Remarks on Bentham’s Philosophy” (1833) and “Bentham” (1838), in which he criticized his mentor and began to develop modern utilitarian thought. One of the major distinctions one can draw within utilitarianism still today is that between so-called act utilitarianism (where we must evaluate the morality of each act, a la Bentham) and rule utilitarianism (where we conform to rules that have shown overall to bring about the greatest amount of good, a la Mill). More generally, utilitarianism has a long history, and nowadays it is actually best thought of as a particular type of consequentialist philosophy. I could be wrong, but Shermer seems unaware of these distinctions.

Michael then tells his readers that “modern utilitarianism” is best instantiated by the (in)famous trolley problems. This is just flat out wrong. The original dilemma was introduced by Philippa Foot back in 1967. Here is the first version:

“Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose airplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five.”

Contra Shermer, the trolley dilemma was proposed, and it continues to be used (not only in philosophy, but in social psychology), in order to probe people’s moral intuitions, not to “instantiate” utilitarianism. For instance, a deontologist would refuse to frame an innocent or switch the lever, on the basis of the Kantian notion that one ought never to treat others solely as means to an end. The fact that many people switch from utilitarian to deontological responses when considering different versions of the dilemma tells us that they tend to react emotionally, which leads them to deploy an incoherent moral philosophy.

Michael then says that “the problem” with utilitarianism is that there are situations in which following its precepts one would end up endorsing psychopathic behaviors, as in the famous case (which I pose to my intro philosophy students) of the surgeon who has five patients in the emergency room, each with a failing vital organ, and decides to pick up a stranger from the street, cut him up into pieces, and distribute his organs around to save the other five. Too bad that this sort of thing is precisely why Mill (remember, already in 1833) introduced rule utilitarianism, which blocks the psychopathic doctor in his tracks. Again, no mention of this in the SciAm article.

Shermer briefly mentions a recent paper in Psychological Review (which I have not read, so I will not comment on it), mostly to tell us that he took the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale test and scored 17/63. He ain’t no utilitarian, according to the test. Neither am I, apparently (phew!), since I scored 21/63. You can do the test yourself, here.

After a brief mention of Kantian deontology, the article really veers from simplistic to nonsensical: “Historically the application of a utilitarian calculus is what drove witch hunters to torch women they believed caused disease, plagues, crop failures and accidents — better to incinerate the few to protect the village. More recently, the 1:5 utilitarian ratio has too readily been ratcheted up to killing one million to save five million (Jews: “Aryan” Germans; Tutsi:Hutu), the justification of genocidal murderers.”

What?? No, absolutely not. Setting aside the obvious observation that utilitarianism (the philosophy) did not exist until way after the Middle Ages, no, witch hunts were the result of fear, ignorance and superstition, not of a Bentham- or Mill-style calculus. And this is the first time I heard that Hitler or the Hutu of Rwanda had articulated a utilitarian rationale for their ghastly actions. Again, they were driven by fear, ignorance, superstition, and — in the case of Nazi Germany — a cynical calculation that power could be achieved and maintained in a nation marred by economic chaos by means of the time-tested stratagem of scapegoating. (The latter is also what perpetrators of witch hunting and the Rwandan genocide did: prey on the weak, it’s easy to do and get away with it.)

But Shermer doesn’t let Kant off the hook either. He brings up the famous example (which, again, I confront my intro philosophy students with) of lying: if it is the case — as Kant says in one formulation of the categorical imperative — that we should only accept as moral those principles that we would be willing to make into universal rules, wouldn’t that mean that I should never lie and give up the Jew I’m hiding in the basement if a Nazi officer (it’s always the Nazi!) politely asks me? Or, as Michael updates the scenario: “if you live in Syria and a band of ISIS thugs knocks on your door demanding to know if you are hiding any homosexuals they can murder in the mistaken belief that this fulfills the word of God — and you are — few moralists would object to your lying to save them.”

Notice the pejorative term “moralists,” instead of moral philosophers. Anyway, you would think Kantian philosophers would have something to say about this. Oh, right, they do! A good example is a paper by Helga Varden in the Journal of Social Philosophy, entirely devoted to Kant, lying and the Nazi officer. I do not have the time here to do justice to her analysis, but a couple of points need to be brought to bear: first, in that case, Kant was writing explicitly within the context of a discussion of the doctrine of rightful interactions (the original, short paper in which he tackles the case is entitled “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy”). As Varden says, within that context, “we can make sense of why lying to the murderer, although a wrong, is not to wrong the murderer, why we become responsible for the bad consequences of the lie, and finally why lying is to do wrong in general.”

More to the point, Kant was talking about a murderer (he, obviously, couldn’t have contemplated the Nazi), but when one changes the scenario to a Nazi officer — or an ISIS terrorist — it turns out that the problem dissolves itself, because “the only time doing wrong in general by lying is legally punishable [within Kant’s framework] is when we lie to or as a representative of the public authority. The Nazis, however, did not represent a public authority on Kant’s view and consequently there is no duty to abstain from lying to Nazis.” Or to ISIS. Again, I didn’t notice any of these qualifications in Shermer’s article.

Michael, predictably, makes no mention at all of the third great framework in moral philosophy, virtue ethics, which would actually do a lot of the work he wants to do, against both utilitarianism and deontology — in their philosophically sophisticated versions, not the caricature we get in the SciAm article.

But never mind that. The true nonsense comes right at the end, when Shermer puts forth his preferred view, the one that, in his mind, has allowed for true moral progress throughout the ages: “both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are trumped by natural-rights theory, which dictates that you are born with the right to life and liberty of both body and mind, rights that must not be violated, not even to serve the greater good or to fulfill a universal rule.”

Setting aside that you get precisely the same result from Mill’s rule utilitarianism, not to mention that natural rights theory has no argument against Kant, “natural rights” are what Jeremy Bentham famously, and correctly, referred to as “nonsense on stilts.” There is no such thing as a natural right, and we, therefore, are not born with them (contra the mindless libertarian mantra that Shermer is repeating). Michael is confusing human desires and instincts — some of which are actually culturally dependent (it is empirically not the case that everyone on earth desires liberty of mind, for instance) with rights. But rights are, obviously, a human creation. Which accounts for why, as Shermer himself notes, they have to be written down in things like the Bill of Rights, and protected by the force of state-enabled law. It’s also why people have come up with different lists of rights at different times. The United Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, provides a much more extensive list than the one arrived at by James Madison and co. back in 1789.

To argue that rights are “natural” is to commit the most elementary logical fallacy in ethics, that of the appeal to nature. And even if one were to overlook that little problem, there simply is no consistent empirical evidence for most of such alleged rights (i.e., desires, instincts) in Homo sapiens or its recent ancestors. Yeah, we all prefer to be alive rather than dead, other things being equal, but natural selection does not care about mere survival, it only favors survival that leads to reproduction. And it favors it, it doesn’t guarantee it. (So you can’t derive a natural right to sex. Too bad!)

This is the sort mess one gets when Michael talks about moral philosophy. Or when I talk about quantum mechanics. Or jazz. Please, let us all stick to what we know. It’s hard enough as it is.


Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His interests are in the philosophy of biology, the structure of evolutionary theory, and the nature of pseudoscience. His latest book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism (Chicago Press). He blogs at can find the original version of this post on Massimo’s blog, available here.


  1. Today marks the launch of a new metric which attempts to roughly measure the reasoning ability of particular philosopher pundits.

    The metric is: how many times does the author mention nuclear weapons on their website? The reasoning behind this metric is as follows:

    METRIC REASONING: If you had a hair trigger loaded gun in your mouth, it would be irrational to focus on anything else until the gun situation was resolved. Nuclear weapons are a hair trigger loaded gun in the mouth of civilization. Thus, it is irrational for citizens of that civilization to focus on most other subjects.

    According to Google, the author’s blog at…

    … has 22 mentions of nuclear weapons. A quick manual search suggests that almost all these mentions are by visitors to the blog in the comment section. Corrections to this analysis are welcome.

    Thus, the author’s reasoning ability is judged to be limited by this poster, though his blog does exceed the nuclear weapons count on this blog.

    The author is essentially discussing a fancy philosophical concept with a hair trigger loaded gun in his mouth, an irrational act. In fairness to the author, his situation would seem to be shared by most or all of his peers, and the culture at large.

    Philosophers who are not focused on nuclear weapons are not rational. They may be very intelligent, articulate, learned, and respected by their peers, but that does not automatically make them rational. In a group consensus where almost everyone is ignoring the loaded gun in one’s mouth, one can appear normal by doing the same. Being normal does not automatically equal being rational.

  2. Here’s how to defeat the challenges I am presenting to academic philosophy culture. To illustrate, let’s use an example…

    Imagine I were to challenge a religious group by saying, “There is no evidence for your god.” The group could respond by saying, “That’s ok, no problem, because we have faith.” The religious group could deflect all reasoned challenges simply by choosing a methodology other than reason as their guide. No one is obligated to be bound by the rules of reason, and the religious group could chose not to be so bound.

    The APA could deflect all my challenges simply by stating that loyalty to reason is not their priority, if that is the case. And so when I claim that ignoring nuclear weapons is not rational, the APA could reply that they are not primarily about being rational, but rather about doing philosophy. I’m defining philosophy here as analysis of the topics typically addressed on this blog, the above article being a good example.

    The only way my challenges succeed is if 1) the APA states that it’s primary mission is the pursuit of reason, and then 2) I can show that the primary activity of the APA is not rational. I believe I’ve succeeded at #2, but I have no control over #1, so the success or failure of my challenges is really in the hands of the APA.

    But of course, what is most likely to happen is that APA members will simply pretend this challenge doesn’t exist, and hide from it within the “above it all” defense. Thus, the status quo where everyone can be comfortable coloring within the lines of the group consensus can continue undisturbed.


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