Roger’s Rules

Is Utilitarianism Useful?

On a trip to London a few years ago, my wife and I were having dinner at the Garrick Club with an eminent political philosopher and his wife. We had walked out on some horrible West End play after the first act and, having quickly gotten outside a bottle of wine, were finally beginning to enjoy the evening. Our hosts felt badly about the awfulness of the play — it was their suggestion to us out-of-towners — and to make up for the lack of drama on the stage my friend posed the following dramatic thought experiment: Let’s pretend, he said, that some mad scientist has figured out a way to bring peace, prosperity, and general happiness to the whole world.

There was just one catch: this brave new world required the yearly sacrifice of one innocent person, chosen at random. Supposing this scheme were perfected: would it be moral to close with the offer and subscribe universal happiness at the cost of one innocent life per annum?

Well, why not?

Think of all the billions of people there are in the world. Scads of innocent people die all the time. Why not spread happiness and reduce the death toll at the same time? Hard cheese on the appointed victim, of course. But he (or she) would at least have the consolation of dying for the good of society.

This is the sort of argument you might get from the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism defines the good as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism, especially in its undoctrinaire forms, has a lot of appeal. Most of us are at least intermittent utilitarians. At least, we expect those running society to act on broadly utilitarian principles, to “maximize” goods and services (read “happiness”) for as many people as possible.

It is interesting, then, that everyone to whom I have presented my friend’s thought-experiment has recoiled. Some people say, “That’s just silly,” and change the subject. Some say, “What a horrible idea,” and change the subject. Hardly anyone says, “That would be wrong because . . .” and then supplies a reason.

I think that the uneasiness that most people feel about this utilitarian fantasy is a good thing. I also think that the reluctance on the part of most people to provide a reason for their uneasiness is troubling. For one thing, it suggests that for many people, moral intuitions are unsupported by articulate moral principles. It also suggests that, acting more or less like utilitarians in our daily lives, we are poorly equipped to challenge utilitarian proposals when they go too far.

What’s wrong with the utilitarian philosophy?

As its name implies, utilitarianism aims to be a useful, a practical philosophy. But the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), musing about utilitarianism, was on to something important when he asked, “What is the use of use?” That was not just word play. Lessing understood that the idea of usefulness ultimately makes sense only when it is underwritten by some definite idea of the good. X is useful for the project of doing Y. If it is Z you are after, X may be a complete wash-out.

When we set about the practical tasks of everyday life, this question generally does not have much urgency because we know pretty well what good we are aiming at. We want a cup of coffee and a roll and we set about doing the things to realize that aim. But when we step back to ponder larger moral issues, the question of the good for human life (as Aristotle might put it) suddenly snaps into the foreground.

Grammar may be of some help in clarifying what Lessing had in mind. There is much that we do in life that takes place under the aegis of “in order to.” We exercise in order to stay healthy, we go to the bank in order to withdraw money, we go to the airport in order to travel somewhere. But there is also much in life that we do not in order to achieve a specific end but for the sake of some good.

The distinction between the “in order to” and the “for the sake of” is a distinction between the calculation of means and the acknowledgment of an ideal. One important human ideal is freedom. A central reason that the utilitarian fantasy with which we began is morally repugnant is because it requires the violation of freedom.

It therefore builds a fatal weakness into its very foundation. The utilitarian promise works to the extent that we understand ourselves as creatures who behave in order to achieve certain ends. To the extent that we see our selves as moral creatures — creatures, that is to say, whose lives are bounded by an ideal of freedom — utilitarianism presents itself as a version of nihilism: a philosophy, a Nietzsche put it, for which the the question “Why?” has no answer. “What is the use of use?” That is one question the thoroughgoing utilitarian refuses to ask himself. Entertained in earnest, that question reveals the limits of utilitarianism. The limit is reached where morality begins, which is why a utilitarian faced with our thought experiment can only endorse what it proposes or wring his hands in mute uneasiness.

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