The key to answering the nagging question of utilitarianism – to the extent that it can be answered – lies in the primacy of love. As outlined in the last post, love is the momentum of unity. It is not chosen or willed. The experiential encounter of life with other instances of life can bring it to the fore if it has been hidden beneath layers of self, but it is always present even if not known or recognized. Justice, on the other hand, is a reflection on unity. Experience comes before reflection, and hence love before justice, even the expanded sense of justice we developed.
The concrete question we were struggling with at the end of that development was whether it would not be in the interest of life as a whole to remove “flawed” instances of consciousness – people who for one reason or another can’t or won’t cooperate, who insist on harming others or place great burdens on available resources. Let’s begin by asking another question: acting out of love, can we destroy life?
Of course, we could just answer that question “No!” and be done with it. But that would be to resort to ideology, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. It would also place understanding ahead of love, whereas we just emphasized that love comes first. We can observe love as the inevitable attraction of life to life, but there is no objective reason for this. It simply happens. We can observe it but not calculate it from first principles.
Having said that, I would venture that all of us have had some kind of “cosmic” or transcendent experience of connecting with life as a whole, perhaps an experience we categorized as religious. And I’m willing to bet that the urge to destroy was not part of it. This is not to deny that some people have claimed to experience a cosmic or divine mandate to destroy, perhaps in the throes of war or religious frenzy. But these are what they are, products of extreme situations, and even then only the most extreme of the extreme, if any, have identified such actions as arising out of love.
It might seem at this point that we are heading down the slippery slope of relativism. And that is because we are. It is all that is left once you strip away ideologies and omniscient, all-powerful anthropomorphic deities. And that is why so many people are reluctant to do so. The unsettling truth is that there are no absolutes in a freely evolving world. In our way of looking at things, all that matters is whether an action in a given situation fosters or hinders life’s journey. But this does not mean that anything goes. Circumstances might be critically important in certain cases, but life’s journey is holistic. A situation is not isolated but is part of the evolutionary flow.
All things considered, we can make general rules as long as we realize they are compromises that cannot be absolute. A great example comes, surprisingly, from Pope John Paul II. Despite the Catholic Church’s fierce opposition to relativism, that pope argued against capital punishment in a remarkably relativistic way. He acknowledged that society has the right to take a life should no other way to protect itself exist, but he added that he could not conceive of such a situation actually existing.
Our answer, then, lies in reality and not the imaginary world of pure thought, where abstraction pushed to the limit produces intractable problems. We cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that the best way for life to move forward in a particular situation would be to take a life, but everyone who actually experiences love as the binding force of life might agree that they never have been able to justify such destruction.
There is another consideration as well. We cannot forget that we are not in possession of all knowledge, so we must make reasonable allowance for error, give the benefit of the doubt. This holds all the more should the potential error be irreversible. Need we consider our overall track record? Need we wonder whether an ounce of humility serves us better than a pound of arrogance? This reason on its own is vulnerable to the “common good” argument, but it complements the primacy of love.
Nonetheless, we must consider some extreme situations such as self-defense or, perhaps, a case in which killing someone would stop that person from killing innocent people. There is an obvious difference here, in that the choice is not between life being taken or not taken but between which life is taken. Protection of the innocent life or destruction of the aggressor must be accepted in such situations, although not prescribed, for the reasons already given – notably allowance for error. Affirmation would require the certainty that this action saved innocent life, and practically speaking it is impossible to say with certainty that someone will pull a trigger; it can only be said in hindsight that someone did or did not pull the trigger.
The consequences all down the line must be considered as well. It is tempting to argue, for instance, that assassinating Hitler in World War II would have saved countless lives, but this might have proven false. An equally or more deadly person might have taken his place. As an example, Hitler went against the advice of trusted generals by not invading Britain, by delaying the invasion of Russia to crush a minor rebellion and by deploying forces far from the D-Day invasion site. Going the other way in any of these decisions would have meant prolonging the war or even a German victory, and most likely the deaths of many more people.
Clearly, the only reasonable affirmation for taking life requires a certainty we cannot possess. Killing would have to be presumed an act against life unless proven otherwise, which would be more than exceptional and maybe impossible. Further evidence for this conclusion comes from the wealth of esteemed human experience and reflection through the ages that has championed nonviolence. Naturally we love, and just as naturally we reject violence as anything but a last resort.
This is already long, but we might need to briefly consider the cases of euthanasia or withholding exceptional means of life support. All I will say here is that the same basic formula applies. There can be no absolute rule, and the exact circumstances must be taken into account with as close to absolute certainty as possible. Even the matter of abortion must take circumstances into account, although these circumstances include long-term psychological effects as well as immediate desires.
So the answer I propose to the utilitarian challenge is that while there are no absolutes, certain questions could have a guiding consensus or relatively certain answers that seem to hold for all but extreme situations. And even in those situations, love and not reason alone would have to inform the answer. We can go no further, because reality tends to have rounded corners rather than the perfect angles of geometry.