Peruse the Catechism of the Catholic Church or a collection of papal encyclicals from the last century or so and it won’t be long before you find a denunciation of utilitarianism, the philosophical position that’s often summed up as being about the pursuit of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.
Utilitarianism deserves its bad rap: it’s a fundamentally misconceived ethical system that if consistently followed leads to monstrous actions, but in the popular imagination utilitarianism sometimes gets the wrong bad rap.
So, what exactly is utilitarianism? Contrary to how the term is sometimes used, it is not about calculating pragmatism or seeing people as tools. It doesn’t have any necessary connection with collectivist politics either: many utilitarians are free-market libertarians.
Utilitarianism is a combination of two claims. The first is ‘maximising consequentialism’: the belief that there is some measurable ‘currency of morality’, and that the morally right action is always the one that leads to there being as much of that currency as possible.
That currency could in theory be anything at all. You would be a maximising consequentialist if you held that the morally best action was the one that maximised the number of duck-billed platypuses in the world, or the total amount of boredom. Usually, though, the currency is something more plausible, something that it intuitively seems good to maximise.
Utilitarians are maximising consequentialists whose second claim is that the currency is welfare or well-being. Utilitarians differ on how to understand welfare, but most think about it in terms of the happiness or pleasure of sentient beings.
It’s worth noting that the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ is actually a bit confusing: it’s not the happiness of the majority that matters but the total amount of happiness, full stop. And the the fact that many versions of utilitarianism take pleasure as the thing to be maximised doesn’t mean utilitarians have to be hedonists in the way we usually understand that word. Almost nobody smart actually believes that a life of hedonistic excess is the most pleasurable life, never mind the happiest one.
Nevertheless, I could easily fill the rest of this column just listing justified objections to utilitarianism. To pick just three: Is welfare really all that morality is about? (No). Can you measure happiness in a way that allows you to talk about a ‘total amount’ of it? (No). Does utilitarianism allow even the most terrible of means to be justified by a sufficiently good end? (Yes).
Now, utilitarians and other maximising consequentialists think they have answers to these objections, and there’s a vast back-and-forth in the philosophical literature about them. But the last problem, about ends and means, plagues even the most sophisticated forms of utilitarianism and consequentialism. For utilitarians there is no action – not torture, not execution of the innocent, not infanticide – that is intrinsically off-limits, that can never be rightfully taken.
Utilitarians don’t even see this as a problem – for them, it’s we anti-utilitarians who have things backwards. They ask: If you really wouldn’t kill one innocent person to save ten, do you really care about innocent life? Are you really against torture if you aren’t willing to do everything possible to ensure that there’s less of it? This is utilitarianism’s Compelling Idea: that it’s always better to have more of the good and less of the bad.
The most powerful answer I’ve come across to this line of argument is the late Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The story’s titular city is an enchanted earthly paradise where happiness and flourishing abound. Poverty is nonexistent, people do meaningful work and have lots of leisure time, and there is art, creativity and religion.
But the magic that ensures the city’s happiness only works because a child is kept alone in squalor and misery in a room deep beneath the city. Everyone knows about this, and anyone could release the child: but to do so would break the spell.
From a utilitarian point of view, Omelas looks like a good trade: there are after all many more children suffering in the average earthly city than there are in Omelas. But Le Guin’s story makes vivid the idea that there are some things that cannot be justly done: some paths to widespread happiness that cannot in good conscience be travelled.
But just as it’s possible to care too much about the general happiness, it’s also possible to care too little. Anti-utilitarianism can sometimes be an excuse for indifference and complacency.
Next time, I will argue that in opposing utilitarianism, Catholics need to make sure that we don’t end up opposing what’s demanded of us by the virtue of benevolence and the parable of the good Samaritan: a willingness to make often demanding sacrifices for the sake of our neighbour.