What is Utilitarianism
The Theory of Utility applied to politics
Happiness is not all Utilitarian's would like it to be
Utilitarianism is a philosophy about usefulness. The premise of Utilitarianism is that an action is good or beneficial if it benefits a majority. This was originally expressed as the maximization of utility.
However, this maximization of utility as defined by the majority seemed to justify the tyranny of the majority. Utilitarianism suggested the majority are deemed to be the source of all legitimate authority.
The object of moral theory was to produce the most happiness for the most people. Actions were the determining factor. For it is the action that determines the outcome.
But does this justify one person being killed to save 5 people needing organ transplants? The focus on action makes moral choices an issue of the here and now. It would be right to kill one person to save 19 in the short term, but what does this do to our soul and to the fabric of society, if by killing the odd transgressor we solve a short-term problem?
Rule utilitarianism attempted to give utilitarianism a longer perspective suggesting we needed to make rules that gave the most people the most happiness over the long term. But happiness is itself an ephemeral term and how to quantify it becomes problematical considering there are different forms of happiness. The happiness a person’s life was not lost is of a different quality than the happiness of being chosen to play the lead in a school play.
Are we to assume missing a person whom one intended to kill, is a moral act, because missing the shot made more people happy than having hit what one aimed at?
There is a logical fact we have to recognize before we can even begin to understand the nature of Utilitarianism. If an action is good there has to be the possibility of non-good actions, meaning there needs to be a sharp and definable line between these two kinds of actions. Counting heads is not only a dubious way of determining what is good it is technically impossible. No one is going to be able to determine what would make the most people happy except in the most ridiculously extreme kinds of situations.
Abandoning the concept of intent may appear to simplify the problem but only by increasing the invalidity of whatever solution one might suggest.
Morality is not a theory of hapstance. A bee that stings a sharpshooter’s hand at the moment he shoots causing him to miss his mark is not a moral creature and the sting is not a moral act. There is no intent in the missing of the target nor in the sting of the bee.
There is also a problem with tying morality to what happens to a majority, as if one group of people were more valuable than another. The fortuitousness of being of a like-mind with the mass of people hardly means one is moral. Nazi Germany springs to mind as it so often does when speaking about morality and populism.
If morality is to have meaning it must hold out the possibility of there being the moral individual who stands along among his peers. Otherwise we seem to have condemned Jesus himself to an accusation of immorality. He did not, it seem, in his lifetime make a majority of his peers happy. If we are to think of Pilate, a traditional utilitarian if ever there was one. It was Pilate who asked the crowd if they would be happier if a known murderer was set free or a man in whom he saw no guile. As a traditional Utilitarian he was able to wash his hands of the affair because the people had spoken. No standing his ground and doing what he knew would have been the right thing. There was no moral individual in his eyes. Morality was relative to the happiness the action produced, regardless of the intent behind the action anticipated.
No Christian can tolerate this trial as anything other than what it was, the greatest travesty of justice ever committed.
For an action or outcome to be seen as being useful we need to comprehend what useful means. It cannot be supposed that we exist just to make others or ourselves happy. There is no way to proof humans deserve happiness or have a right to happiness or even that happiness is a First Order Principle. The mistake was trying to link utility with happiness. It was a project doomed to failure.
To be useful an action has to create value. Value is scalable according to the context in which it is created.
Humans can and do create value on the global scale but a more appropriate scale is the local level, the cell or social network level, the level at which most people function and the level on which most value is created.
Value can be given an economic value. We can ascertain the value of a business or community or nation and determine if the Balance Sheet for that entity has been added to or reduced in value.
The purpose of an ethical organization is to add value to our communities. An action has utility if and when it adds value to the Balance Sheet of the group of which it is part.
Ethics requires this level of accountability. Our economics must be reconfigured to permit this level of accountability. Unless we know what costs and benefits we are producing we cannot ascertain whether or not an account is growing or shrinking.
Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy was never deemed useful in the sense of being applicable, in an ironic twist of fate. Politicians are especially torn between the idea of doing what is best for the electorate and what needs to be done in order to be elected. If they have a sizable majority the two ends often coincide but there are other times when one has to realize the line between supporter and opponent is not sharp. Even if the supporter is in most respects a supporter of lean governments when it comes to his elderly parents getting health care his affiliations may take a sharp detour to the left. Most socialists regardless of their support for government intervention when and where needed rarely find they are sympathetic to bail outs of multinational corporations.
Political affiliations can change depending on the context and the state of the economy. Most people are sensitive to injustices regardless of which side of the political divide it is on. Ad hoc responses may get some parties so far but the constant shift of allegiances back and forth between parties suggests no one has mastered the art of gauging the political position of the electorate. Of course, if one party has so alienated the electorate that they have shifted their allegiance far to the other side there is little the incumbent can do to win them back. Their position on the political scale entraps them in a set of responses that may not do justice to the needs of the moment.
Utilitarianism by its nature is able to take a more expedient view of immediate needs and a more constant response to long term strategies.
The thread that flows through Utilitarian policy is the need to be of use, to create value. This is the only truly rational political stance to adopt. If one is in war one has to respond to the needs of war and if in a time of peace, one must work to maintain the peace, so long as the peace is not more destructive than war.
However, the key to creating value is jobs. Its not just full employment that is needed it is that the jobs created must be high end, the jobs produced by the Creative Economy.
Conventional parties have the same tired responses. One response is to use tax cuts or public spending to create jobs the other is to actually borrow money and spend it into the economy generally to create jobs in infrastructure projects. There is good and bad in all of these responses and most people are well aware of this though as natural with people they will support one initiative and decry others.
Ethical organizations believe jobs are created out of people being useful. We are not useful if we are all doing the same thing. Utility is a result of specialization. The greater the specialization the more jobs created.
The hurdle to civilization and the adoption of technology is people finding a way to specialize. So long as we do not trust one another and try to distance ourselves from one another and not become dependent on one another no progress will be made.
Accountability gives people a reason to trust one another enough to help one another in specialized ways.
The vehicle through which this trust becomes manifest is a social model referred to as an Exchange. Exchanges motivate people to specialize. This specialization is the way people bear fruit and create value.
For more on this subject explore the section on Exchanges.
Utilitarianism has focused on the central value of happiness. The importance of happiness appears to be a self-evident axiom yet no one can argue we have a right to be happy, nor is it possible to even argue that people invariably seek happiness, especially directly or in the short term. It is difficult to equate the idea that happiness is a universal value with the readiness with which young men go to war, If anything was less likely to produce happiness one might say it is war.
Happiness does not constitute a First Order Principle. If happiness is not a First Order Principle then to tie Utilitarianism with the amount of happiness an act produces is bound to produce some anomalies.
But even where happiness a universal good in its working Utilitarianism has no true universal conception of happiness. What would make a group of aborigines happy is not what would make a group of academics happy, so happiness is at best a relative concept.
The problem is of course that a group of persons who are subsistence farmers will not understand the value of education. A philanthropist who asked a group of peasant farmers what would make them happy would not likely be informed they wanted universal education. People tend to think what they know will make them happy.
There is another problem faced here. Utilitarianism is a Consequentialism philosophy of morality. Broadly speaking Consequentialist philosophies posit that ends justify the means. If the desire is to make people happy then ought we not to supply everyone with drugs and other stuporforics so everyone is happy?
Motive and means ought to enter into the equation and often they do but, in the end, if the objective is the produce happiness and the thing that will make the person happy is profit then motive and means must take a back seat to the need to make the profits that will lead to the greatest happiness.
The possibility exists that extreme conditions will be excused on the basis that the end justifies short term discomfort, even when the discomfort is extreme, as in a war or even genocide committed against a group considered to be the source of great discomfort for the majority.
The Ethical Prime Directive (each person must pay all costs created by them and avoid all transfers of costs onto society and future generations) avoids these abnormalities.
Ethical organizations avoid consequentialism because the end is dependent on the means used to achieve that end. We only increase the value of the system if and only if the means used generate value.
A conventional business is able to externalize costs. This results in an increase in profits. Ethical organizations will not and cannot externalize costs. For this reason, unemployment produces no benefits to an ethical organization.
Unemployment is a perfect example of ends justifying the means. Happiness Utilitarian’s might argue that the majority is happier with some unemployed and even though the unemployed are not happy this is a small price to pay for the ends achieved. What matters is the results, the consequence of having a small number of persons making do without a job is more than compensated by the stability of the economy that the layoffs produce.
Exchanges eliminate unemployment because unemployed people produce costs for the Exchange and no benefits. Unemployed people do not create value, employed people do, it is that simple.
Unfortunately, the Utilitarian paradigm almost begs costs to be externalized onto society and future generations. Pollution for example may harm a lot of people but the actual unhappiness pollution creates is minimal compared to all the joys of owning a new phone or having the convenience of water in handy bottles. Let’s be honest, if we are talking about the happiness of the greatest number of people, what is more pleasurable than passing costs into the future. What is less likely to cause discomfort than the spreading of some discomfort over all present persons and those not yet born?
Christians have a problem with Consequentialist moral theories because for a Christian a wrong action is wrong regardless of how many people agree to it.
Slavery was not defeated because the greatest number of people opposed it or found it unpleasant. It was opposed on its own lack of merit. Christians could not justify allowing it to continue.
The same dilemma faces Christians faced with prostitution and the drug trade. These are considered victimless crimes. Perhaps they are but to a Christian they seem wrong. But Utilitarianism specifically and Consequentialist moral theories generally are unable to fault activities that generate happiness with little or no downside.
Christianity is actually predicated on Utilitarianism. Jesus was in fact a Utilitarian in that while he expected us to have faith in him this faith was tantamount to bearing fruit or being useful. The church is a Utilitarian organization despite the many Christians who say the church is built on faith in Jesus it is not a sterile organization but a vibrant body in which without works one loses their place in the body.
Saying this, it is also true to say being a Christian is not about creating happiness for the body. We are to be of use, we are to bear fruit, we are to create value as demonstrated in the parable about the three servants. Those who do not create value lose what they have been given.
The interesting thing is that the secular equivalent of bearing fruit is being employed. It is at the juncture where employment meets fruitfulness that the church meets the secular world and Utilitarianism provides a meeting point for church and apostate.
We need to be employed to create value. The church sees no value in people not bearing fruit.
How employment is generated is explained in the section on Exchanges.