Voegelin on Utilitarians

"A crippled man, however, does not cease to be a man. Spiritual obscurantists, or anithumanistic utilitarians, are not animals; they continue to function as humans. Still, they can no longer solve human problems rationally, or on the basis of the spiritual experiences the possession of which characterizes mature man. Hence there appear the curious transpositions of the problems of mature Western civilization to the new level of utilitarian immaturity." -- "Positivism and Its Antecedents"

I just saw a very good example of this: Peter Singer spoke to a colloquium I attend at NYU. He argued that utilitarian ethics would make it mandatory for, say, a surgeon to, on occasion, deliberately kill a (mostly) healthy patient under the knife in order to harvest his organs for several other patients who need them. I think his demonstration was sound, but, of course, Singer, being an anithumanistic utilitarian, thought this was a good argument for occasionally doing just this, rather than a crushing refutation of utilitarian ethics!


  1. "'Discussion' with a Marxist or Positivist is senseless. One cannot enter into rational discussion with a "case" whose disease consists in the denial of the order of the logos." -- Eric Voegelin

  2. OK, Silas, I'm probably going to kick myself for doing this, but I'm going to reply, and try to be nice to boot!

    A real difficulty I have in "discussing" things with you is that you seem to make an immediate assumption that anyone who doesn't agree with you is an idiot. For instance, in this case, you immediately assumed that Singer, who is a tenured professor of philosophy at Princeton, would be so dull as to fail to recognize a problem that any freshman student in an ethics survey class would know about. Now, as you can see, I'm no fan of Singer, but I realize that, to get a tenured chair at Princeton, you have to be pretty bright, and not make freshman level errors in your subject.

    Your quick assumption he is an idiot led you to overlook a phrase in my post: "on occasion." Because you assumed that Singer is an idiot in the position of a professor of mathematics who has to be told that addition is commutative, you didn't think to ask, "On what occasions?" (Note that explaining which occasions are involved was beside the point for my post, which was not trying to summarize Singer's paper.)

    Singer's answer is, "On those occasions when the surgeon can be quite certain that his deed will never be discovered," e.g., when he is performing a very delicate operation where even the best can screw up, the nurses will never know, etc., etc. In fact, Singer makes a point of insisting that the surgeon must never, ever reveal what he did, or else patients will start to fear their doctors.

    Assume others are smart, my friend, and you may, in the end, be proven wrong, but your conversations will go better.

  3. Silas, I am more secure than ever in my belief that being nice to you and trying to rationally discuss something with you is an absolutely idiotic waste of time.

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