A Letter to Utilitarianism

Dear Jeremy Bentham,

Hey! So, I was wondering, did you know that your philosophy would get so big when you made it? Like Utilitarianism is one of the leading philosophies that govern thought now, and has gone on to influence much more the personal ethics, but even governmental and societal structures as well.

I’m going to relate this specifically to my home country, which I ain’t gonna name, but…yeah. In my city, we really do judge things based on how ‘useful’ they are, and then hold that to be its intrinsic worth. For example, can painting put food on the table? No?

Then it isn’t important.

(Note that this attitude does not extend to Sports, but hey I’m not about to judge.)

This relates to many things, be it our hobbies, jobs, relationships with others, and the natural world around us. We almost exclusively judge them on an arbitrary scale of ‘usefulness’ that seems ranked on material gain. The more intangible that gain is, the less it is respected. This means that things like ‘wonder’, ‘awe’, ‘kindness’, hell even ‘appreciation’ are increasingly rare in society, because of the ephemeral nature of their benefit.

This is a pretty extreme version of Act Utilitarianism, and one that doesn’t necessarily even conform to the original principles of the idea. Nonetheless, I find this pattern of thought to be very damaging on principle.

For example, in 2017, Trump allegedly advocated for the deportation of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and Africa, calling them ‘shithole countries’. Conversely, he mentioned bringing in more Asians and/or other countries such as Norway. The implication is that he wants to bring in citizens that are ‘useful’ to America by way of their inherent resources – people from the mentioned countries might have better standards of education and living, and thus are more qualitatively suited to an obvious benefit to America.

This, on a surface level, seems rational, if crudely worded. Why shouldn’t America bring in people that can help itself? After all, every citizen should generate some kind of worth in order to be included within a nation…right?

See, that’s classic Utilitarianism, and many people hold this argument as iron wrought but…it’s not. First question, how do we define usefulness? Bolstering the workforce? Increasing overall quality of living for present civilians? Those are decent criteria, but that’s an extremely limited scope. What if an immigrant could contribute via community work? Perhaps they become linchpins of their neighbourhoods? Are we to say that that’s less useful than entering the workforce?

Furthermore, basing such huge decisions on such an idea is very risky, because we don’t know the future. Bolster the workforce? For which industry? Will it still need bolstering within two years? What if the person suffers a debilitating injury while they’re at work? There are too many variables to consider, and that’s not even counting different ethical philosophies.

Going even further, even if all the above questions line up, should we base our entire life on such terms? Entire systems of government? There is an erroneous belief that efficiency is somehow better, and that it contributes to a completely arbitrary social scale of worth; we judge intelligence to be the most efficient marker of usefulness to a nation, and proceed to degrade anything that doesn’t actively improve society on a quantifiable scale as ‘worthless’.

This is obviously problematic, because by logical extension these people, the invisible persons, as Carol Delaney terms them, simply die. They are not given resources, or any way to create an essential standard of living for themselves – better yet, some radicals advocate for nothing short of genocide as a solution. Furthering this, Utilitarianism imposes a completely binary set of criteria by which we might judge the human experience, which is frankly ridiculous.

I understand pragmatism, because it allows for the most efficient means of survival, but allow me to explain in detail how completely and utterly ridiculous this mode of thought is, and how blindingly dumb people for buying into it.

Let’s begin.

Okay, first of all, let me be honest. I’ve been railing on Utilitarianism, but most people don’t even strictly follow it. See, the scale Utilitarianism is supposed to be judged by is societal – what creates a net gain for macro-communities, or even micro-communities. It was never meant to be limited to singular households or peoples, so far as I can tell. To quote Jeremy Bentham-

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.

-Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

Upon any kind of professional inquiry however, the modern interpretation takes a heavy bent towards individual pleasure, which is not strictly speaking contradicting Utilitarianism, but creates a series of conflicting methodologies with no common ground or interests. It borders dangerously close to anarchy, and is inherently self-destructive. See, if every action I take is geared only towards my own personal pleasure, when I am no longer capable of pursuing such, say if my resources to do so dwindle or perhaps if I am rendered immobile by a terrible accident, then by that point I would have alienated not just my peers, but society at large.

Furthermore, even if I am not quite so extreme, even I must recognise the complete double standards I would be exhibiting. That I can deny the worth of others because they are “not useful”, when I myself in time could become completely worthless to society. It’s ridiculous not just due to the miracles of aging and ill fortune, but by designating the worth of a person based on this set of criteria, I limit the breadth of my human experience, and deny the fact that my very success and stature is due to a combination of luck, good social upbringing, and another variety of factors.

The only reason you are not worthless isn’t because of anything you yourself have done. It’s because of everyone that came before you, and people that love and care for and finance you to have the resources you used to climb to where you are. The ridiculous standards deny developmental psychology, standard philosophy, economy, and logic by completely ignoring the fact that people are extremely complex social mechanisms that are substantially prone to external influence. So, through minimal fault of their own, should these people just be allowed to die? Is that what we advocate? Because caring for them and providing them opportunities for growth, rehabilitation, or even simply basic standards of living imposes a minor inconvenience upon you?  

It’s the height of selfishness.

Furthermore, this blatant double standard encourages and incites conflict because the measure by which you gain happiness almost always builds off of someone else’s suffering. Be it directly or indirectly, someone worked to develop your phone. Someone worked to build the house you live in, and by god it wasn’t you. Be it for pay, or for pleasure, or simple goodness, you owe people. That’s the truth, because you do not exist in isolation.

It’s brilliant, because this completely arbitrary set of personal criteria by which you choose to define everything in your life isn’t even objective – you don’t know everything, and thus your criteria must be flawed! It can’t. Be. Accurate.

At least, not entirely.

So riddle me this, if things like ‘empathy’, ‘wonder’, and ‘kindness’ aren’t considered important, then go be a hermit. Exist outside of a society that has been principally built on those values. If not, then you’re a shameless hypocrite that borders on scum. Acknowledge that you do not deserve anything you have received in life because you do not appreciate it, and by the Utilitarian standpoint, the resources you received should go to someone that would spend the resources in a more efficient manner.

In of itself, the philosophy of assigning merit via value is not bad. It’s just that the way people…creatively select and reinterpret these criteria to suit themselves is just baseline wrong, and I honestly feel like we need to reexamine this philosophy from the ground up so some wannabe Humanities major that thinks he’s hot shit won’t quote it in a desperate attempt to explain why he wouldn’t give money to the poor.

But hey, wait till karma kicks in I guess.


One thought on “A Letter to Utilitarianism

  1. Pingback: Moral Patterns and Moral Decisions | From guestwriters

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