Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Utilitarian Logic of Killing Ben Shapiro

In response to Ben Shapiro's coming visit to the University of Utah, Ian Decker defends, in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, the attempt to shut Shapiro down. According to Decker:

Utah is already a state with a homelessness and suicide crisis amongst LGBTQ youth. Ben Shapiro has openly called transgender people mentally ill. He portrays the gay rights movement as a conspiracy to “root out god-based institutions.” He has recently defended conversion therapy, which is nothing short of abuse.

I assume Decker's argument is that if Shapiro is allowed to speak, such right-wing beliefs will become further normalized and LGBTQ youth homelessness and suicide rates in Utah will get even worse than their current state. Otherwise, it makes no sense to even bring up the challenges to LGBTQ youth. In fact, Decker makes a point in arguing that Shapiro's visit will have material consequences. 

I am perfectly willing to accept Decker's assumptions. I lose nothing with taking down Shapiro. What interests me is Decker's logic. He has a plausible utilitarian argument that, in order to save the lives of LGBTQ youth, it is morally justifiable to interfere with the ability of University of Utah conservatives to exercise their free speech and of Shapiro to earn his livelihood traveling to college campuses to say inflammatory things. Note that Decker willingly abandons the moral high-ground of simply defending his right to publically denounce Shapiro while not physically interfering with Shapiro's ability to speak. Decker states that his purpose is "shutting down Ben Shapiro." 

If we seriously accept Decker utilitarian argument about sacrificing free speech to save lives, why stop at just shutting down Shapiro tomorrow; why not seek a more permanent solution? I know the synagogue where Shapiro prays. It would not be difficult, during the coming Jewish holidays, to walk up to him and shoot him at point-blank range. It should be noted that the empirical fact that it is childishly easy for any relevant human political actor to kill any other human is one of the foundations of any meaningful political science (try making sense of Hobbes without this assumption). Decker's politics requires this assumption more than most as he needs to postulate that Shapiro can bring about the deaths of LGBTQ youths without even ever approaching them with a gun. 

To my liberal readers, let me pose the following challenges. Is there a morally principled argument (as opposed to the practicalities of political reality) that allows you to shut Shapiro down (as opposed to just denouncing him) that cannot equally be used to justify murdering him. Keep in mind that Decker takes it as a given that Shapiro's actions do cost lives. Imagine, God forbid, that some leftist accepted my line of thinking and actually did gun down Shapiro. You are on the jury and the defense pursues an unorthodox defense. Unable to challenge the fact that the defendant killed Shapiro, they convincingly demonstrate that, since the murder, LGBTQ youth suicides have gone down. Thus, the defendant has actually saved lives through his actions. Would you be willing to vote for an acquittal?   

One recalls the Talmudic doctrine of the rodef that it can be permissible to kill someone in order to save the life of a third party. This doctrine was infamously weaponized by Yigal Amir to justify assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With Rabin as well, the utilitarian argument was quite powerful. His policies got Israelis killed and there is nothing absurd about the idea that killing Rabin saved lives. We may be horrified by this thinking, but that does nothing to challenge the soundness of its logic. 

If you are not terrified as to the implications of arming conservatives with the rodef argument, consider what it would mean for conservatives to wake up with concrete evidence that they can be murdered in cold blood and liberal jurors will let the killer walk. That being said, such practical considerations do not count as principles. Why should Shapiro not assume that if Decker and those trying to shut him down ever took power that he would find himself on a train heading to a gas chamber? I mean, clearly LGBTQ youth lives matter.     



Pat Sullivan said...

There are so many things wrong with this:

1. According to the Talmudic doctrine, non-Jews are not human.
2. It is never ok to kill, not even in the Utilitarian universe. You are only looking at one 'possible' facet. What if Ben Shapiro funds a cure for cancer in the future? You cannot argue on a theoretical, and you definitely cannot justify on the grounds of a theoretical.
3. You accept Decker's assumptions. Why not take a look at Shapiro's assumptions? They may not be as radical as you think.
4. They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither. He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security. - Ben Franklin
5. Shapiro is not in favor of killing LGBTQ youth. He is in favor of providing more medical care to all mentally ill patients. The verdict is still out on if transgenderism is a mental illness. But due to the fact that homelessness directly correlates to mental illness, and transgenderism directly correlates to suicide, one can draw lines.
6. It is not ok to shut down anybody's speech, especially not on the grounds of their politics. The world is an open forum: nobody is given more rights than another, no politics is more right than another.

Izgad said...

1. The Talmud does assume that non-Jews are human and are subject to ethical considerations. More importantly, do you doubt that whatever game you want to play, whatever quote you want to take out of context, I would be able to apply the same "logic" to demonstrate that your group does not believe that non-members are not human?

2. Are you allowed to kill a man running at you waving a knife, screaming "I am going to kill you?"

3. The point of the post was to refute Decker by engaging in a reductio ad absurdum. Hence it was necessary to accept his premises. Ironically, if I were attacking Shapiro, I would need to accept his premises.

4. All government is an exercise in trading liberty for protection. I am an anarchist so I reject that deal. But even I accept that it might be necessary to violate people's rights to stop them from harming yours.

5. I never said that Shapiro favors killing LGBTQ youth. I just note that his opponents argue that his words lead to such ends. I am neutral on the matter.

6. Even J. S. Mill believed that certain kinds of speech were outside of the issue of free speech. For example, telling an angry mob that someone is a thief. Are you familiar with the case of Julius Streicher? Was it a violation of free speech for the Allies to hang him at Nuremberg? I support free speech in general, but not to conspire to kill people. Such a person is a murderer and should be treated like any other.

Pat Sullivan said...

Then to give you an answer from a Utilitarianism perspective:

According to Mills, when asked with the question, "Does utilitarianism require us to kill such people who are the 'cause of no good to any human being, of cruel physical and moral suffering to several'", Mill says no, his point being that nobody's life would be safe if people were allowed to kill others whom they believe to be a source of unhappiness. He goes on to say that People should follow the rule not to kill other humans because the general observance of this rule tends to promote the happiness of all.

When you get to the point where you are 'theoretically' arguing the plausible benefits of political assassination of your ideological opponents, you should take a step back. Human life should never be disregarded so easily.

Izgad said...

I am talking about people getting killed. Let us imagine, that Shapiro was planning on murdering some LGBTQs. I assume you would agree that it would be ok to kill him first. Under standard utilitarianism, there is no difference between intentionally killing someone and an action that happens to result in death. This lack of concern with means is one of the things that distinguish utilitarianism from virtue and duty ethics. You bring in rule-based utilitarianism which combines an element of duty ethics. I fail to see how that changes anything. Note that we are not talking about hosting a Hunger Game on the assumption that the happiness of millions of viewers outweighs the unhappiness of the kids killed in the arena. We are talking about self-defense. It does not contradict rule-based utilitarianism to kill people before they cause the death of others. I am willing to live under such rules. To be clear, it is irrelevant to me whether Shapiro's speeches have caused any deaths. He is part of my social contract while people with strong suicidal tendencies are not.

Pat Sullivan said...

This argument hinges on the theoretical that Ben Shapiro is planning on murdering some LGBTQs, which I am pretty sure is not something he plans on doing. Speech is not equal to this either. This would not be an act of self defense. It does contradict rule-based Utilitarianism, at least according to one of the fathers of it. This is a direct quote from him.

The ethics also do play a huge part in it. The role of ethics determines whether or not society has to act on those who break the social contract, and justice supposedly either brings them back into the fold or deals punishment accordingly.

Finally, even if you are willing to live under such rules, everyone else may not be. That's the problem with utilitarianism and most forms of ideologies. In order for them to work, everybody has to follow them.

All in all, this is all just a horrible argument. Even under utilitarianism, if you want to go as far as judging the value of a single life against the good of society's, no one can predict all of the implications of a single action.