What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

Helping someone change their mind about something often comes down to presenting them with a choice: change your mind or bite a bullet. In other words, demonstrate that their position requires them to accept a conclusion they really don’t want to accept. This is why a good thought-experiment can be so effective.

People are loathe to change their minds, so the more difficult the bullet is to bite, the better. I like to say that I want someone to have to bite an explosive round, something they can’t just tolerate and act like they don’t mind it.

Earlier this year I wrote about how I respond when people attempt to defend the pro-choice position by appealing to utilitarianism. I start by responding with a straightforward thought-experiment:

Suppose a given person has a healthy heart, lung, kidneys, bone marrow, and blood. By kidnapping him, we could save five people or even more by distributing those body parts to other people that need them. Should we do it? Or what if it’s just one person that we can save, but it’s a more important person? Should we kill a homeless person if it means we can save, say, an important scientist?

This is a tough bullet to bite, but sadly, for some, it isn’t tough enough. Some people struggle to think clearly about murder. I suspect this is because when it comes to killing people, there are exceptions. You can kill in self-defense, most people believe you can kill in war, and while it’s more controversial, many believe you can kill in capital punishment. My colleague Rachel Crawford has also pointed out to me how deeply confused people are about revenge. Revenge stories are popular in books and film because we’re sympathetic to the avenger. It feels just for the wrongdoer to be punished in an act of vengeance. All of these problems make any thought-experiment about murder a little less effective.

But there are other actions that virtually everyone think have no exceptions, such as rape. Most people think rape is wrong, not just generally, but every single time. Utilitarians find it much harder to bite the bullet on rape. Here’s the thought-experiment I use after they bite the organ-theft bullet:

“Inconsistent” is Different Than “Wrong”

Picture: An inconsistent red umbrella in a sea of black umbrellas.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time on social media lately know that political discourse has been particularly ugly in recent weeks. Ever since the controversy began over separating children from parents caught crossing the border illegally, there have been comments about what it means to be “pro-life.” My favorite tweet from the time of that controversy came from my colleague Rachel Crawford:

There are many worthwhile discussions to be had about immigration policy, but policing the term “pro-life” is not a prudent way to start one. [Tweet that!] There are good, compassionate, reasonable pro-life people of every political stripe. This is possible because being pro-life in regards to abortion is entirely consistent with all kinds of other positions all over the political spectrum.

Thanos Would Be Pro-Choice

My wife and I love the Marvel movies. They’re always charming and fun, even if they aren’t profound. But the latest one, Avengers: Infinity War, was an exception. Don’t get me wrong, it was charming and fun. But it was also profound. It was possibly the most effective anti-utilitarian movie I have ever seen.

Avengers Infinity War with Thanos logo

Spoiler warning: Plot summary ahead.

Avengers: Infinity War revolves around the character of Thanos and his personal quest to reduce the population of the universe by 50%. His adopted daughter Gamora describes this as a goal he has had for as long as she can remember. The film even shows a flashback scene where Thanos meets Gamora as a little girl and takes her in. His army invaded her city and divided the survivors randomly into two groups. While Thanos bonds with a young Gamora, his soldiers opened fire on one of the groups. The reason he pursues the incredibly powerful infinity stones is that if he gets all six of them, he can wipe out half of the universe with just a snap of his fingers.

Why would someone want to murder billions? Thanos explains his motives very clearly: There are too many people. The universe has limited resources. If we don’t kill some, it will be worse for all.

Gee, why does that sound so familiar?

John Oliver’s Lies about Abby Johnson and Crisis Pregnancy Centers

John Oliver is a tremendously talented comedian. Unfortunately he’s also an abortion extremist and he has no intellectual honesty. Recently on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, Oliver set his sights on Crisis Pregnancy Centers. He painted a very bleak, and very inaccurate, picture of CPCs. He suggested that they’re full of nasty, dishonest people that just want to control women. Here is a breakdown of his biggest lies, spin, and deception.

#1: Oliver flagrantly, and knowingly, takes Abby Johnson out of context

Abby Johnson

Abby Johnson

This segment features two quotations from pro-life advocate Abby Johnson, speaking at a 2012 conference for Heartbeat International (it’s also worth noting that Oliver exclusively refers to her as a pro-life activist and never mentions the fact that she is also a former director of a Planned Parenthood). I interviewed Abby after Oliver’s hit piece came out, and she explained that Oliver’s producer reached out to her via email while they were writing their segment. He told her they were writing a piece on Crisis Pregnancy Centers and that he had some quotations from her that they wanted to use but that he wanted to talk to her first. Abby said he was extremely friendly on the phone and that he came off like he was listening to what she was saying. He asked her to give him context for the quotations they were using, which is particularly damning because they still used both quotations completely out of context.

Oliver sets up the first quotation by saying:

Way too often, women are being actively misled while trying to access healthcare. And CPCs seem happy to have women confuse them for abortion clinics. Just listen to Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist addressing a conference for one of the largest CPC organizations.

Then he gives the Abby Johnson quotation:

We want to appear neutral on the outside, The best call, the best client you ever get is one that thinks they’re walking into an abortion clinic. Okay? Those are the best clients that could ever walk in your door or call your center–the ones that think you provide abortions.

But Abby wasn’t talking about actively misleading clinics. Abby told Oliver’s producer that she has never encouraged a center to lie about what they do. Pro-life advocates think that lives are on the line so of course we’ll do everything we can while remaining moral to try to get the abortion-minded woman into the center. She has options other than abortion and we have good reason to believe abortion facilities won’t fairly present those options to her. Let’s focus on Planned Parenthood for a moment because they are the largest provider of abortions and we have the most data about them.

PODCAST: Building Rapport with a Benevolent Dictator

Download Audio MP3 | 00:04:31

Many conversations about abortion succeed or fail because of your rapport, or lack thereof, with the pro-choice person. Even a perfectly articulated pro-life argument will just glance off of a combative pro-choice mind, so people who are skilled at dialogue use wisdom to build rapport and make the tone of the conversation friendly.

This piece gives a kind of interesting dialogue tip that has made a huge difference in building rapport in my conversations. I didn’t even notice it was significant until my colleague Rachel pointed it out.

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