The Dylann Roof Burger & Utilitarian Ethics

In 2015, when Dylann Roof was arrested, he was controversially given a Burger King burger to eat when he complained about his hunger. I saw nothing wrong with this, it seemed asinine and even slightly cruel. Burger King is not Chick-fil-a or Starbucks, it royally sucks. Yet, the world erupted in indignation. The question, however, is philosophically, can feeding him the burger be seen as wrong? Well, no. If one of our ethical aims is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering then I don’t think that act of kindness can be seen as immoral.

The reason there was indignation was public rage and they wanted to blame authority. The government is the face of all social problems and the public wanted to blame them for something. While the government is racist in structural and dogwhistle ways, there was not much sympathy for Dylann Roof among anyone. That included the most hard right Republicans in the Deep South. The Daily Stormer was even against him. Dylann Roof managed to be too racist for The Daily Stormer.

The reason law enforcement elected to buy him a burger was to abate the potential disqualifying of anything begotten during an interrogation by a challenge by his lawyers of duress via hunger. It was to ensure Dylann’s statements were admissible in court. It is remotely possible that without that burger, Dylann would have walked out free because nothing he said would be admissible.

In any case, the chief charge the public made regarding how Dylann Roof was handled was that he was treated more softly than other offenders. He wasn’t treated more gently beyond the exceptional circumstances of an exceptional case and, even then, not by much. However, according to my, in large part, utilitarian ethics, I would consider that everyone be treated with the maximum humanity possible. If Dylann Roof were treated more gently then, insofar as he was treated gently, that was morally right and the morally wrong thing would be others treated with less kindness.

It is not that the public was enraged with him and emotionally wished ill on him that was the most concerning but their normative position that someone be made to suffer any more than necessary. From a philosophical perspective, I am curious as to where they would draw that seemingly arbitrary line of who should be treated with cruelty, how much, for how long, and who should be treated with kindness. I am not a pure utilitarian and believe suffering, usually on a small scale, may be justified to create art, to learn, to otherwise better oneself for the aim of eudemonia and, of course, sacrifice out of love for some noble cause. (although, if that cause is utilitarian it is, usually, justified within utilitarianism). Yet, any line drawn about who should suffer for punitive reasons with no regard to any deterent or geniunely therapudic effect based on real psychological science but just to cause suffering is completely irrational and, of course, immoral. Giving him the burger when he said he was hungry was, of course, the kind and morally correct course of action.

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