Utilitarianism is a theory of ethics that is difficult for non-utilitarians to understand. Apparently, the lack of comprehension extends even to self-identified utilitarians!
Take the economist Scott Sumner, a self-described utility-maximizer who teaches economics at Bentley University in Massachusetts. In a response to Bryan Caplan’s post about double standards in war, Sumner wrote:
Scott Sumner: Suppose that in 1943 we knew for a fact that dropping a bomb on Germany and Japan, and killing 3,000 civilians, would have caused them to surrender. Would the act have been morally justified? I’d say yes, but only because we were fighting the ”bad guys.” On the other hand even if Al Qaeda knew for a fact that killing 3,000 Americans would cause us to surrender, it still wouldn’t be morally justified. They were fighting the “good guys” (or for you Chomsky fans, the “less bad guys.”)
There is no such concept of “good guys” or “bad guys” in utilitarianism. Units of utility are judged equally regardless of the being who holds them. Moreover, utility is not dependent upon a being’s prior acts. Jeffrey Dahmer did not forfeit his moral worth after he became a serial killer – in fact, it stayed the same. Call him a “bad guy” if you will, but such classification is irrelevant to a utilitarian.
What is relevant to utilitarians is future probabilities based on past data. Forcing Germany and Japan to surrender would produce a different amount of utility than if America were to surrender (has al Qaeda ever demanded a US “surrender”, as in turning over the Capitol building to bin Laden?). If the expected outcomes differ in utility amounts, it is not hypocritical to support one but not the other.
Sumner posts a second reply to Caplan, and digs himself a deeper hole.
Scott Sumner: It’s true I haven’t seen any occasions when I thought foreigners would have been justified in killing lots of Americans. But I’m not sure that means I have a double standard. I don’t recall many occasions (in the past few decades) where I thought a country would be justified in killing lots of Estonians, or Thai people, or New Zealanders, or Canadians, Portuguese, or people from lots of other countries.
It’s funny he mentions Portugal as if the country hasn’t been in a war since the 1600s.
I suspect that Sumner’s unease at American deaths has more to do with group serving bias than historical facts. How was it not justifiable for Iraqis to shoot at Americans who had shot at them first? Is that really a difficult question?