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The Problems with Pragmatism

Jeremy Bentham

Pragmatism is practical, but pragmatism also has problems. What is pragmatism? It might be defined as the quality of being practical–of valuing usefulness and workability. A pragmatic person is interested in the practical solution of problems. They want a solution that is efficient, effective and economical. They want to get the job done in a nuts and bolts, down to earth, ordinary way. And who doesn’t? Most people value pragmatism, and so it should be. We want our gadgets to work. We want things to run on time. We want practical solutions to everyday problems.

However, when applied to social systems, utilitarianism seeks to solve the problem of inequality and injustice by asking ‘what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number?” This motto was coined by the father of utilitarianism, the eccentric Englishman Jeremy Bentham. (1748 -1832) He also observed, “pain and pleasure are the sovereign masters governing man’s conduct.” Bentham’s  ideas were expounded and expanded by a young man who was schooled by his father in Bentham’s thought: the philosopher J.S.Mill. (1806-1873) Trivia: Bentham’s dressed up skeleton and mummified head are on public display at Kings College, London. Here’s a pic.

“The greatest good for the greatest number.” 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 who decides what is ‘good’? Personal opinions vary. Without some external and greater criteria who is to say who is good? Classic utilitarianism developed in a society in the 17th and 18th century that was living on the Judeo Christian inheritance. Even though many of the philosophers of the time rejected Christianity, they still assumed that the moral values taught by Christianity were true. But those assumptions are not necessarily valid if one rejects the premise of a revealed religion with a moral code as in the Judeo Christian religion, then the game is wide open. We might want the greatest good for the greatest number, but 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 evil for a great number. Read More.

 This is a condensed version of a longer article on utilitarianism available here.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • jose

    Pretty standard critique of utilitarianism except for the rather dim Stalin comment. The “good” question remains open despite the utilitarians’ best efforts to redefine the word.

  • veritas

    No! The Stalin comment is anything but “dim”.
    It cuts to the heart of matter, perhaps that is why you don’t like it.
    You want to know what a society ordered without God looks like – study Soviet Russia.

    • jose

      You have to critique the merits of systems by themselves. It wouldn’t be smart to condemn catholicism because the catholic church was best friends forever with our local dictator Francisco Franco, for example. You can find good examples and bad examples for every idea. Think about it for a minute.

      The heart of the matter is that utilitarianism redefines the word “good”. The other thing is a tangential issue with no relevance to the system’s conceptual merit.

      • MarieS

        You don’t even have to argue that utilitarianism redefines good, and you don’t have to go very far to find examples. Utilitarianism justifies all kinds of evil if the calculation is that more people will benefit. The obvious example where everyone agrees that the benefit really is good, but it’s the cost that is evil: murdering or experimenting on ‘useless’ people in order to save ‘useful’ people’s lives. One person dead can save many people through organ donation, so is it OK to murder them to get the organs, as is done in China with prisoners? A baby infected in the womb with Rubella may have serious complications, so is it OK to abort babies that might be infected, in order to develop a Rubella vaccine, as was done in Sweden in the 60s? Syphilis is a horrible disease, but is it OK to tell poor uneducated men you’re treating them for ‘bad blood’, but not tell them they have Syphilis, or give them any treatment for 40 years even though a cure was available for most of that time, so you can study how the disease progresses, as was done right here in the U.S. until 1972?

  • Keith Fraser

    Trivia Correction: Actually it’s University College London (UCL) where you will find Bentham’s autoicon. Bentham still has voting rights on UCLs governing body and would vote in favour of the Provost where there to be a deadlock (where his auticon would be wheeled into the room, glass case and all). I’m not sure if this is ever done, but the case containing his autoicon is opened every morning in the South Cloister of College.

    I’m a twice alumni of UCL (I also teach there as a peripetetic lecturer). We look down on Kings College (founded by the Anglican bishops in response to the “Godless institution of Gower Street) because every other institution required you to be a member of the CofE to enroll and UCL was founded in spite of those principles, to the horror of the CofE.

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