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.

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