A New Rationalization For A Slow Sunday: #57A The Utilitarian Cheat, or “If It Saves Just One Life”

On another thread, a reader attacked the Rationalization List <GASP!>,, the beating heart of Ethics Alarms, arguing that many of what are labelled rationalizations are valid justifications and cited as such on this very site. A vile canard! Of course many rationalizations can also be valid arguments for or against conduct. Take #59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do.” We do the right things because they are right, but we also have calculated why they are right, which means dealing with and rebutting the counter-arguments that might suggest those decisions are not right.  However, #59 addresses the frequent use of the “It’s the right thing to do” as a argument-ender, employing it as evidence when it really has to be a conclusion based on other evidence and analysis.

The latest addition to the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List does not have this problem. It is almost always a cheap rhetorical device, slyly edging what needs to be a clear-eyed, rational analysis of proposed conduct into the confounding realm of emotion. #57 A, The Utilitarian Cheat or “If its saves just one life” is a sub-rationalization under #57, 57. The Universal Trump, or “Think of the children!”  (It could easily be the other way around.)

#57 A. The Utilitarian Cheat or “If it saves just one life”

Invoking Rationalization #57A is as good a test as there is for identifying an untrustworthy demagogue. The claim that something is worth enacting, eliminating, establishing or doing is ethically and morally validates “if it saves juts one life” is aimed directly at the mushy minds of sentimentalists  and the dangerously compassionate. If the argument is made in good faith, the speaker is an incompetent dolt; usually it is the desperate last resort of a someone who has found that their real arguments are inadequate or unpersuasive.

The insidious trick inherent in the device is that we agree that human life is precious, and that we can not and will not place a dollar sign on a human being. The next step, however, in which a single life, or even many, is deemed justification for any expense or other draconian societal trade-offs, is impractical and irrational. It would save many lives if automobiles were built like tanks and could never exceed five miles an hour. Locking up ever angry husband that threatened the life of an estranged spouse with a menacing phone call would save many lives. So would forcing women to carry their babies to term, eliminating the right to have an abortion. Torture used without restrictions probably would save one life or more. Prohibition was sold using #57A.

All of these policy conundrums and many others are too complex by far to use simple-minded absolutism as their ethical guideline, and about 30 seconds of logical clarity will usually make that clear.  Those who employ The Utilitarian Cheat, however, don’t want clarity. It is an appeal to embrace acts that can do wide-ranging harm to society, civilization, human aspirations and liberty, because un-named lives can be saved. Though it is opposite of the exploitation of human life for other goals that Kantian ethics forbids, it is equally invalid.


Graphic: gunssavelives.net

11 thoughts on “A New Rationalization For A Slow Sunday: #57A The Utilitarian Cheat, or “If It Saves Just One Life”

  1. I’m a bit puzzled about this in certain cases. For example, those that would prohibit scary looking weapons (I.e. “assault rifles”, etc.) I’m sure have used this argument. What about waterboarding which is now defined as torture as it might result in the death of a terrorist and does inflict severe pain and mental distress. I think of the case of Hassan Gulh, who was a currier for Bin Laden who was repeatedly waterboarded to obtain information about him which may have saved many lives. Would this be an argument based on #57A?

    • Sure.
      Torture is a direct violation of the human rights principles on which the USA’s founding is based, and thus as close to an absolute taboo for this country and culture as there is. The good guys don’t torture, except in the theoretical ticking bomb that destroys the earth scenario.

  2. This exchange on Usenet from 1992 is an excellent example.


    Lets take a lead form Canada, from Sweeden, from England. These
    countries have outlawed the handgun. And an amazing thing has
    happened….They have in essence no murders by handgun! If you combine the total number of deaths by handgun in all of three of these countries for the last five years, they do not compare with the number of deaths in D.C. alone last year. In Canada, we are talking about less than 20 murders by handgun last year!

    – George W. Hunter

    heir murder rates are RISING. Of course that’s beside the point anyway. Whynot take the lead of South Africa? We could institute a pass law system and limit the movements of young Black males. We could make them live in barbed
    wire enclosed hostels so that the police could better control their movements.Why not follow THAT example? The next thing you know, you’ll be telling me that that would be unconstitutional and WRONG….

    Of course if you DID get your way, and you conferred upon Daryl Gates and Jesse Helms the monopoly on the means of armed force, the above probably WOULD

    – Christopher C. Morton

    Locking up ever angry husband that threatened the life of an estranged spouse with a menacing phone call would save many lives.

    It is a crime to make threats of criminal violence.

    What is the downside of locking them up?

    Torture used without restrictions probably would save one life or more.

    Universal warrantless searches and racial profiling can also be justified.

  3. The more prevalent variation, “If it saves just one child” has justified draconian sex offender legislation for a decade, and no amount of rational discussion, fact-checking and expert analysis can override the basic animal instinct that comes from scaring parents to unreasonable levels of fear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.