I think it was Robert P. George who once insisted, as an argument against utilitarianism, that we would not allow human sacrifice, even to prevent a huge plunge in the stock market. (This is what I remember anyway. It was a long time ago that I would have heard this, so if I’ve gotten it wrong or mischaracterized his words, my apologies to Professor George.)
What strikes me is not that this claim is wrong as a critique of utilitarianism, as that it is simply false. Granted that it is true that we do not (as far as I know) engage in human sacrifices to prevent stock market crashes, but this is only because no one of any consequence believes that human sacrifice has a causal relationship to market movements. If for some reason sufficiently important and influential people were to come to believe that human sacrifice could prevent market crashes, then of course we could expect human sacrifices to begin. It’s not just that human interests are at stake in keeping equity prices up. The interests of rich people are at stake, and barring the occasional revolution rich people get what they want.
To be sure, we might not expect to see naked human sacrifice for the sake of rich people’s portfolios. Perhaps the practice would be kept discreet, an the only open sign of its existence would be that every now and then some people just…vanish.
A more interesting possibility is that we would have the practice of human sacrifice, but with window dressing. We wouldn’t call it “human sacrifice,” but rather “national service.” There would be a draft that everyone would have to register for, you see, and some people would be called up. This arrangement would not be so different from anything we are already used to. Over the last century young men by the millions have been fed into the red maw of war by exactly such an institutional mechanism. You can bet in this latter circumstance that there will be plenty of articulate people, lawyers and academics and newspaper and cable-tv pundits who present smooth, intellectually plausible-sounding justifications of the practice. The rich can buy these people, after all. We might even imagine state funerals for the victims, complete with honor guards in snappy uniforms, a bugler playing Taps, a folded flag handed to the victim’s morning family: “With the thanks of a grateful bourgeoisie…”
One thought on “Sacrifice”
The late Ursula Le Guin’s story “The Ones who walk away from Omelas” looks at a similar situation inspired by William James’s thought-experiment:
… if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a sceptical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
James is more optimistic/less realistic than you.