Primitive cultures need a dose of utilitarianism
By Scott Sumner
In this post I will discuss two primitive cultures, the Sudanese and the Americans. I will argue that both need to adopt a utilitarian ethical framework. Let’s start with the Sudan.
In the Sudan, female genital mutilation is a common practice. A western visitor to the Sudan might make the following argument:
“Yes, your culture views this practice as very important, related to deeply held beliefs about purity and the female body. But from a practical point of view it is harmful. It can result in pain, as well as severe medical problems and even loss of life. You should abandon this practice.”
Now consider this recent passage from the New York Review of Books:
Calabresi’s most plausible example of a merit good involves bodily organs. The law forbids people to buy and sell kidneys, and one reason does involve inequality: it’s gruesome to think of poor people walking around with fewer organs because rich people have made them an offer they can’t refuse.
The rich/poor distinction is a red herring. Under the current system, the rich are far more likely to receive kidney transplants than the poor. If a market were created, virtually all Americans who needed kidneys would get them, both rich and poor, because it’s much cheaper for medical providers/insurers/Medicaid to pay for a transplant, than to take care of someone who needs a transplant.
The real concern is that selling an organ is morally repugnant. The human body is sacred, not a commodity to be bought and sold. So how might a visitor from Iran react to America’s cultural views on the body? (In Iran, kidneys can be sold, and there is no shortage. In America, many thousands die each year because of our kidney market prohibition). Perhaps an Iranian would respond as follows:
“Yes, your culture views the human body as scared, and organ sales violate your deeply held beliefs about purity. But from a practical point of view this prohibition is harmful. It can result in pain, as well as severe medical problems and even loss of life. You should abandon this prohibition.”
I believe that these two primitive cultures, the Sudanese and the Americans, could learn a lot from reading Jeremy Bentham, and also from studying Iranian cultural practices.