I want to show how the morality on display in the movie 300, in which babies are cast into a chasm for minor deformities or other weaknesses and illnesses, is easily compatible with utilitarian logic. In doing so I hope to show that utilitarianism provides completely insufficient scaffolding around moral reasoning to eliminate almost any policy, norm or cultural practice you desire. Objective welfare analysis is a utilitarian fantasy.
I was motivated to write this post after discussions that were stoked by my take on the moral foundations of economics, particularly in relation to health policy. Why it is optimal from a utilitarian point of view to allocate medical resources to the young rather than the elderly? While my personal view is that in our current social and political environment this is probably appropriate, it is by no means a superior position by utilitarian reasoning, and certainly there remains debate about such welfare foundations.
To get this brief analysis started, here is a Wikipedia excerpt about life in Sparta:
Shortly after birth, a mother would bathe her child in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the Gerousia by the child’s father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to be reared or not.
It is commonly stated that if they considered it “puny and deformed”, the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae. This was, in effect, a primitive form of eugenics.
Sparta is often portrayed as being unique in this matter, however there is considerable evidence that the killing of unwanted children was practiced in other Greek regions, including Athens.
Here’s that basic utilitarian rationale for the ‘Spartan morality’ of disposing of sick children. It requires a number of starting propositions.
- That people with life-long physical disabilities or other chronic illness have lower utility than those without
- The existence of these ill people reduces the utility of their carers
- The reduced ability to contribute to productive activity of disabled and their carers (and medical professionals) reduces the utility of others in society
- Disposing of sick children brings forwards births of non-sick children because of replacement reproductive effort
- There is relatively low utility loss from mothers and family of disposing of their sick child
In fact, we need not even invoke the 2nd and 3rd propositions in order for Spartan morality to be utilitarian, since the 1st, 4th and 5th clearly show that infanticide of the sick, “puny and deformed”, would be a straight substitute of one lifetime of low utility for one lifetime of high utility.
And that’s just about all you need.
I hope that this challenges your faith in the objectiveness of economic reason. As Joan Robinson would say, utility is a mere meta-physical construct – its existence resting on a series of circular reasoning, defining it in terms of itself.
Similar utilitarian reasoning could be applied to the subjects of gay marriage, slavery, or other such social practices to support any desired outcome.
We shouldn’t feel helpless in the absence of an objective method of social reasoning. We should feel freed from its shackles to debate the our underlying moral values, and why they are appropriate for a modern wealthy society.
Applying utilitarianism means you can support mutually contradictory ends and means. You can end up at the repugnant conclusion, or justify slavery to a ‘utility monster‘. Or if you take an average principle of utilitarianism, you can get to the point of justifying killing disabled children by appeal to Spartan morality. Or, as we deem currently acceptable, arrive at the point where we should allocate the medical resources to children above the elderly in accordance to ‘need’.
There is no absolute reference point in utilitarianism. It is always applied with reference to current norms, customs and practices and can evolve to support different conclusions as society evolves.