I think most readers of this blog have already heard of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It's a long-running Harry Potter fanfic where our hero isn't the slightly dopey jock aristocrat of Rowling's books, but is instead a hyper-intelligent bookish kid with a penchant for logic, reason, the scientific method and world domination.

If you haven't read it, it's perhaps not good enough to bump to the top of your queue, but is certainly a pleasant way of spending a long haul flight. Certainly I've read more than one published work of fiction that was far preachier and much less fun to read.

It's written by a chap named Eliezer Yudkowsky who helped found Less Wrong, a website notionally aimed at helping you & I be more rational. There's some pretty good stuff there, as well as plenty of things to take issue with. Others have done so much better than I could, but I've yet to read anything to take issue with the thing that bugs me the most: utilitarianism.

Their pitch is that a rational agent will (and should? is "should" a thing?) choose a course of action most likely to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. Simple enough, and a useful decision making tool for questions like "Should I bring a blue cheese or a bottle of wine to dinner?" or "Should we compel people to purchase insurance?".

Harry exemplifies this throughout "the Methods of Rationality". He is remarkably consistent in choosing his actions based on his best understanding of the greatest good for the greatest number. He even has a crisis of conscience when he become unsure of whether carrots are sentient.

Except, well, he's not. At least, I don't think he is.

My suspicions were first raised in Azkaban. When Harry visits there and realizes what's going on, he reacts with moral fury. Azkaban is not simply irrational, it is simply wrong for human beings to be treated this way. Deontological ethics if ever I heard any. After all, it's entirely possible that keeping a subset of humanity locked up in awful conditions will maximize utility, no?

But reading up on consequentialist ethics for this piece, I can see a way to restore him to utilitarian purity. Harry's objection is not simply that it's a prison, but one where the prisoners are tortured to death. He reacts with such passion because there'd be more utility if they weren't being tortured, and either he doesn't buy the argument that Dementor wardens is the only way to safely guard them, or he thinks that an ineffective prison would be better than such one staffed by Dementors.

Even earlier than Azkaban, but only discovered by me while working on this piece, there's a scene where Draco tries to enlist Harry to aide him against the murderer of Draco's mother, who was burnt alive. Harry eventually agrees to make this person his enemy, given five conditions.

One of the conditions is that the deal might be off if the killing were a revenge killing. That is, if Narcissa did something awful. Why?

Because then it was still wrong for them to burn her, they still should've just killed her without pain; but it wasn't evil the same way as if she was just Lucius's love who never did anything herself, like you said.

I agree, but my ethics are sloppy and largely deontological. How does it make sense for a utilitarian to decide whether or not to administer justice based on the flavour of evil in the motive?

Somewhat annoyingly, a Google search for "mens rea utilitarian" reveals the answer on a criminal law mid-term flash card.

A person who commits the actus reus [guilty act] of an offense without a mens rea [guilty mind] is not dangerous, could not have been deterred, and is not in need of reform, therefore, their punishment would be counterutilitarian.

Perhaps this is what Harry is thinking of. I'm sceptical though. The language that Harry uses in his negotiations with Draco are clearly not consequentialist, but primarily concerned with doing what is right, and throughout the Methods of Rationality, Yudkowsky freeloads off deontological sentiment while espousing a consequentialist worldview.

Even so, it's a much more difficult opinion to skewer than I had imagined, which rather sabotages my plans to end this with a glib note about how truly just punishment must be at least partly retributive, per C. S. Lewis's essay on the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

Clearly I'm going to have to go back to my books and figure out just what I actually think. What a bother.

This post is part of the Alphabet Supremacy project, a collaboration between myself and Bice Dibley. Next week's word is "key".