Regan Answered Again

(Being an answer to "The Struggle for Animal Rights", 1987, pp47-61, quoted in "Political Theory and Animal Rights" Ed. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey.)

Regan presents us with the case of his Aunt Bea, with which he hopes to show that utilitarianism can sometimes be counter-intuitive. No great problem: we could concede the point and lose nothing, because a reliance on substantial moral intuitions is intellectually bankrupt. (The answer to the question "which is the correct system of morals?" will imply an answer to the question "which moral intuitions should we cause ourselves to have?". Therefore: to attempt to justify a system of morals by reference to moral intuitions is circular, and assumes the validity of the very things we should be hoping our investigation into morals will verify. [See "Moral Thinking" by RM Hare.]) However, in this case, no such concession is required.

My Aunt Bea is old, inactive, a cranky, sour person, though not physically ill. She prefers to go on living. She is also rather rich. I could make a fortune if I could get my hands on her money, money which she intends to give me in any event, after she dies, but which she refuses to give me now. In order to avoid a huge tax bite, I plan to donate a handsome sum of my profits to a local children's hospital. Many, many children will benefit from my generosity, and much joy will be brought to their parents, relatives and friends. If I don't get the money rather soon, all these ambitions will come to naught. The once in a lifetime opportunity to make a real killing will be gone. Why, then, not kill my Aunt Bea? Oh, of course I might get caught. But I'm no fool and, besides, her doctor can be counted on to cooperate (he has an eye for the same investment and I happen to know a good deal about his shady past). The deed can be done ... professionally shall we say. There is very little chance of getting caught. And as for my conscience being guilt-ridden, I am a resourceful sort of fellow and will take more than sufficient comfort - as I lie on the beach at Acapulco - in contemplating the joys and health I have brought to so many others.

Suppose Aunt Bea is killed and the rest of the story comes out as told. Would I have done anything wrong? Anything immoral? One would have thought that I had. Not according to utilitarianism. Since what I have done has brought about the best balance between totalled satisfaction and frustration for all those affected by the outcome, my action is not wrong. Indeed, in killing Aunt Bea the physician and I did what duty required.

Now let us analyse the situation as a real utilitarian would, not the straw-man version with which Regan is familiar, and see how plausible it really is.

First we are, I suppose, to assume from her description that Aunt Bea has no friends, no one to miss her if she dies. Also, being inactive, she does nothing to help others. And, we must also assume, this will remain true: we must be very confident that Aunt Bea would not otherwise form friendships or do anything to bring happiness into others' lives. Not even accidentally. This is questionable, but - given that the money would help lots of children, let's press on.

Secondly, this investment opportunity is "once in a lifetime". How do we know this? Have we visited the local gypsie-girl who has, after consulting her crystal ball, assured us that no comparable investment opportunities are forthcoming? Are we merely taking someone's word for this? If we are, we must be very careful - some "advisors" seem to be promoting "once in a lifetime" dead-cert no-risk high-profit investment opportunities every other week, or thereabouts. This all seems very dubious. Do we have proof? Is there any real evidence that this is a major opportunity? If so, why has this opportunity not already been exploited by someone else? Or are we in some privileged position of knowing things hidden to everyone else? Fine: let us present the case to our Aunt to let us borrow the money, if need be offering her a share of profits. No deal? Why not? She is interested neither in becoming rich, nor in helping others, she just wants to sit at home, with her money, and do nothing? A very strange person, but, alas, such persons do exist. So with one last extra assumption, that I cannot borrow the money from elsewhere (or otherwise obtain it at lower cost), let us move on.

Now we have something very odd: We have a doctor with a shady past, willing to kill one of his patients for money, and we are to do this deal with him and then go our separate ways. If the doctor will kill one of his patients for money, mightn't he kill others in the future? Or me, for my share of the profits? Or do other hideous deeds? No? But how could we know this? If we can't be confident of the future virtue of our doctor, there is a very strong case that we should secretly record our next conversation with him, and turn him and the evidence over to the police. So we shall have to assume another detail of the story - that the doctor is likely to be good in the future.

Let me pause here in my analysis of the story to make some points about what we have found so far. We have found that there are a number of cases where we do not have sufficient information to tell whether or not Utility really prescribes the murder of Aunt Bea. I covered these in my commentary by simply assuming that the scenario is developed in such a way that Regan might still hope to use it to indicate something about utilitarianism. But notice, in order to do so, that I had to do a number of things to make the scenario less plausible - I had to assume certain things about Aunt Bea, which the original story did not specify. I had to assume some strange unquestionable belief, for which I could give no obvious account, on the matter of knowing about the investment... indeed, this investment opportunity sounds altogether too good to be true. And I had to assume knowledge of the doctor's future which I could not possibly have. (So even if Utility did say that I should kill my Aunt, I would never - in this type of situation - actually know that it had.) And so I must reach the conclusion that if Regan wanted to produce a plausible story - which he must've since we cannot possibly rely on our intuitions if we cannot imagine the details of the case - he has failed in his task. So now granted that this story does not show a plausible account of utilitarianism being counter-intuitive, does it show anything about utilitarianism at all?

Let's go back to the story, continuing the examination from the position of the nephew and considering the issue in utilitarian terms. So imagine we have got through this far: we still think it is a potentially useful idea to have Aunt Bea killed, so that we get her money. And then what would we do? We would "lie on the beach at Acapulco". How so? Haven't we planned to give all our money to the children's hospital? No: only a "handsome sum of" it; and this much only "in order to avoid a huge tax bite". But we are supposed to be thinking in utilitarian terms, and this is not a utilitarian consideration - or, at least, we have been given no reason to assume that it is. If utilitarianism implies that we should give money to the hospital, it can only be because this course of action maximizes utility. And if giving some of this money has such wondrous effects in terms of reducing suffering and/or increasing happiness, why stop at giving only a fraction of the money? Why not give all of it and help even more? Shall we assume that the hospital does not need that much money? Fine... but there are other hospitals, and other good causes. Any situation in which there are no other good causes - there are no homeless, no starving, no animals being abused for economic reasons - must be very different from this world as it is, so Regan must surely have to describe it in order for us to understand his point (though why we would be interested in what we ought do in a world so very different from ours is not clear - perhaps we like academic philosophizing, or something). Anyway, let's press on.

"But," Regan might reply, "if we give all the money to charity, we could no longer finance our early retirement and perpetual beach-party lifestyle". But this is no problem for the utilitarian, for we are obliged to give up that lifestyle anyway. Why? Because we should be doing useful work - there are any number of charitable organisations that need volunteer workers, where the utilitarian is obliged to work if he can find no more useful activity. And again, any situation in which this isn't true is very far from the world we are in today. So: we find that Regan's story definitely breaks down: there is definitely something wrong with the plan in utilitarian terms, namely the wayward doctor and the allocation of the money. Not the murder directly, but in other ways a utilitarian could not go through with the plan as originally stated. In order to make it a utilitarian plan, we would have to give all the money to a good cause (our Aunt's money and the profit from the investment), and would not get to retire early. Now can the utilitarian accept it? Perhaps we could, if all the other problems mentioned earlier have been overcome, though perhaps not quite for the reason stated (see definitions). Which brings me, at last, to my final defence.

Let us picture her now, dear old cranky Aunt Bea, sitting atop her hoard of wealth, miserly, utterly refusing to lend it or to give it now rather than waiting for her death, obstinately refusing to agree to our investment plans, and refusing point blank to help the children who will suffer and die from the lack of the resources we could otherwise get for them. We have obviously pleaded with her, quite strenuously, on their behalf, and had our pleas go unheeded. My question at this stage is simply this: is it really so very obvious that it would be wrong to kill her?


In a later section of the paper, Regan recites a piece of dogma so widespread that it really ought to be shown up for the lie it is. He suggests that the rights view never justifies a wrong, that it never allows an infringement of individuals' rights, or at least never does this simply for the benefit of others. In fact, it is trivially easy to produce a scenario in which someone's rights must be violated, an example being the well-known "lifeboat" scenario - and the complete failure of the rights view in lifeboat-style situations is quite notable. Far from never sacrificing some for others, it is not even true that the rights view makes the absolute minimum of sacrifices necessary. In some situations, such as the one Regan himself covers in The Case For Animal Rights (see the penultimate section in my original piece answering Regan), the rights view actually leads to more being sacrificed than utilitarianism would in the same situation. Given Regan's reliance on intuitions, it is quite sad that he has produced a theory with implications so terribly counter-intuitive.