The Problems with Pragmatism

The second problem with utilitarianism is that of proportionality. At what level do we decide what good is for a person? It is good that they have enough food to eat, and it is better that they have an education. It is also better that they have access to good health care. But what if the true good of a person were more than that? Isn’t it good that a person lives for some higher goal or purpose? What about love and beauty and truth? How about the achievement of moral perfection. Surely that is a great good, and most devoutly to be wished. Such a good can only come about through hardship, self discipline and personal sacrifice to a greater cause. To accomplish this greater good one must actually go through difficulty–so to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number on might–for example–have to go to war or take a pay cut or work longer hours. We are now considering the proportionality of goodness. How “good” do we want the greatest number to be? Really good, or just sated with enough food, drink and entertainment to keep them quiet?

The third problem with utilitarianism is linked with the second. It is the problem of pain. If we are searching for the greatest good for the greatest number, then we are implying that we want the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, but real pleasure cannot be attained without pain. What I mean is that anything worth having is worth paying for. Anything that gives real pleasure costs something. It might cost time, money, self discipline or self denial. In order to give the most people the most pleasure they must therefore go through some sort of pain. They must pay for their pleasure (or else it is not truly pleasurable) Furthermore, what if the “good” that someone decides is necessary for the greatest number to have “goodness” is not good for me? What if I don’t want the good that someone else has decided I must have? What if I don’t want to participate in the state mandated sterilization program or the state mandated one child policy? What if I don’t want to join the military and do my national service? Then utilitarianism (which must somewhere along the line use force to impose this ‘greatest good for the greatest number) actually causes pain not pleasure and brings about a great evil while trying to establish a great good.

This brings us to the fourth problem of utilitarianism: power. For utilitarianism to work someone somewhere has to decide what is good for the greatest number, and then enforce it. This power may be a dictatorship, or it may be the tyranny of majority rule. Either way, great suffering can be imposed and great crimes can be committed because the powers that be have decided what brings the greatest good for the greatest number. So, for example, in our democratic society the majority has ruled through the elected powers that be, that the greatest good for the greatest number means that abortion on demand is permitted. The result is millions of deaths of innocent unborn children, women’s health endangered, families broken and untold negative consequences. The fourth problem of utilitarianism therefore is that, for utilitarianism to work, someone has to decide what the greatest good is for the greatest number actually is, and that ‘good’ has to be enforced one way or another.

This is why utilitarianism, on it’s own, brings not the greatest good for the greatest number, but the greatest evil to the greatest number. Utilitarianism can only work as a lower criteria of good. The laudable aim of the greatest good for the greatest number has to be balanced and checked by a higher moral code–one which mankind would not have invented– a moral code which springs from a higher authority and is given by revelation. We call this the ten commandments.


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