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utilitarianismI want my gadgets to work. I want the planes to fly on time. I want the electricity and internet to work. I want to use my useful things. I want to utilize my utilities, and who does not? Everyone values the efficient, effective, and economical solutions, and so it should be. For everyday problems we are all utilitarians.

However, when applied to social systems, utilitarianism is useless. The practical proposal of the utilitarian is to ask “what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number?” This motto was coined by the eccentric Englishman Jeremy Bentham (1748 -1832). Bentham also observed, “pain and pleasure are the sovereign masters governing man’s conduct.”

“The greatest good for the greatest number. Motivate with pain and pleasure.” It sounds like it should work. However, the problems with utilitarianism become clear once you begin to press it a little. The first problem with utilitarianism is personal opinion. We might agree that we want the greatest good for the greatest number, but we can not agree on what is good in the first place. Personal opinions vary.

Without some external and greater criteria, who is to say what is “good” and who gets to make the choice? We only have to look at Stalinist Russia to see a case history of certain people deciding what would be “the greatest good for the greatest number” and the result was a great good for a small number and a great evil for a greater number.

The second problem with utilitarianism is that of proportionality. What level of goodness are we seeking to attain? It is good that a citizen has food to eat, and it is better that he has an education. It is even better that he has good health care. But what if the true good of a person were more than that? It is good to have physical needs supplied, but it is better to live for some higher goal or purpose. What about love and beauty and truth? How about the achievement of moral perfection? Surely that is a great good.

Personal achievement and moral perfection (which are great goods) can only come about through hardship, self-discipline, and personal sacrifice. To accomplish this greater good one must go through difficulty—so to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number one might, for example, have to go to war or take a pay cut or work longer hours. We are now considering the proportionality of goodness. How “good” do we want the greatest number to be? Do we want them to be really, amazingly, astoundingly good, or just shall they settle for bread and circuses?

The third problem with utilitarianism is linked with the second. It is the problem of pain. If we are searching for the greatest good for the greatest number, then we are implying that we want the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, but real pleasure cannot be attained without pain. What I mean is that anything worth having is worth paying for. Anything that gives real, lasting pleasure costs something. It might cost time, money, self-discipline, or self-denial. Therefore, in order to give the most people the most pleasure they must go through some sort of pain. They must pay for their pleasure (or else it is not truly pleasurable)

Furthermore, what if the “good” that someone decides is necessary for the greatest number to have “goodness” is not good for me? What if I do not want the good that someone else has decided I must have? What if I do not want to participate in the state-mandated sterilization program or the state-mandated one child policy? What if I do not want to join the military and do my national service? Then the utilitarian ideologue must use force to impose this “greatest good for the greatest number”. He therefore causes not a great good, but a great evil in his naive attempt to establish a great good.

This brings us to the fourth problem of utilitarianism: power. For utilitarianism to work someone somewhere has to decide what is good for the greatest number, and then enforce it. This power may be a dictatorship, or it may be the tyranny of majority rule. Either way, great suffering can be imposed and great crimes can be committed because the powers that be have decided what brings the greatest good for the greatest number. Blinded by their dreams of utopia they will smugly eliminate all those who impede their progress to a brave new world.

This is why utilitarianism, on its own, brings not the greatest good for the greatest number, but the greatest evil to the greatest number. Utilitarianism can only work as a lower criteria of good. The laudable aim of the greatest good for the greatest number has to be balanced and checked by a higher moral code—one which humanity would not have invented—a moral code which springs from a higher authority and is given by revelation. We call this the ten commandments.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Wittingly or not, it seems that the materialists and utilitarians are working very hard to turn humanity into Homo sapiens; to turn people into animals. Everything that Bentham would abolish is essential to the soul, the development of which yields the transcendent aspects of mankind: culture, politics, work, and religion. One’s life has little meaning if every whim is readily satisfied and every problem, easily solved. And speaking of power, animals are much easier to control than men.

  2. “It is good that a citizen has food to eat, and it is better that he has an education. It is even better that he has good health care.” I would argue precisely the opposite. Good health care will be used, typically, once or twice a year. An education will be be used more frequently, so it is better. Without food the citizen will die, so it is best of all these. Air to breathe beats them all as it is both essential and immediate.

    I agree completely with the gist of your article, though.

  3. The problem with this particular essay two-fold. Firstly, it is largely a straw man. Secondly, it makes false analogies, both overtly and by implication.

    I am unaware that, with the exception of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence (“…pursuit of happiness”), any major political figure has seriously proposed that it is the proper function of government to provide citizens such personal attributes as love, beauty, truth, moral perfection, freedom from pain, and pleasure. Let’s keep it real, shall we? What is “real,” in the context of utilitarianism, are precisely your early examples of food (freedom from hunger), education, and health care.

    There is a long tradition of papal encyclicals which strongly support a measured role for government in providing a safety net regarding hunger and poverty and in taking an active role in making provisions to ensure universal education and health care. It is entirely legitimate to debate the precise means by which these “utilitarian” objectives may be achieved (as there is also room to debate the best means to provide additional utilitarian objectives, such as personal security (police and fire protections) and collective security (national defense). But it is not legitimate to draw a false equivalency between (1) health care and (2) freedom from pain to imply that health care is an illegitimate “utiliarian” intrusion of government.

    The US Constitution clearly states that it is a proper role of government to “promote the general welfare.” Your essay argues directly against this founding principle.

    – Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

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