What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

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:

Imagine most of the human race dies in a zombie apocalypse. The zombies finally got us. There are just a couple of dozen survivors left on the entire planet in a fortress. The men are interested in trying to continue the human race, but unfortunately for them, all eight of the remaining women are lesbians. They were saved from a zombie horde that attacked a gay pride parade. They understandably aren’t interested having sex with the men, even to save the human race. The men realize that the only hope for the human race is for them to rape the women. Should they do it?

In the dozens of conversations I’ve had with utilitarians, I’ve only seen one bite the bullet on this case.

While I haven’t needed to try it yet, I have one more thought-experiment to try the next time the zombie apocalypse story isn’t explosive enough. This time instead of using the example of rape, let’s go with full-on mass genocide:

Surely we could agree that racial tension is bad for society. Let’s suppose that white privilege really gets out of hand. What if white people decided they’re tired of the Black Lives Matter movement and tired of black people in general, and they were able to completely exterminate them? We could imagine them doing this in a militaristic open way, or they could do it through some kind of virus that they engineer to only kill black people. If you’re concerned that black people aren’t a small enough minority to justify the utilitarian logic, imagine their numbers drastically decrease to the point that there are only a few thousand left, but that they are constantly stirring up racial tension. Is there any situation where it is morally justified to intentionally and completely wipe out a race?

My hope with these thought-experiments is to show the utilitarian that their system gets the wrong answers sometimes, with the hope that that will force them to second-guess their system. My system can allow me to be anti-rape and anti-genocide all the time. Theirs can’t.

When you’re trying to figure out how to persuade someone of something, always keep an eye out for crucial pieces of information about their passions. Examples like rape and racism are pretty universally effective, but often you can make a minor adjustment to personalize your thought-experiment in order to help it to connect with the person with whom you’re dialoguing.

Question: What is an effective story that you have used to help a utilitarian to “bite the bullet”?

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The post “What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Former Director of Training

Timothy Brahm was formerly the Director of Training at Equal Rights Institute. He is interested in helping pro-life and pro-choice people to have better dialogues about abortion through 1) taking care to understand what the other person means, 2) using more carefully-constructed arguments, and 3) treating each other with care and respect. He graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in philosophy and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute.

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