The Consequences of Consequentialism
Utilitarianism is sometimes called ‘consequentialism’ because the morality of the action is based on its’ consequences. This raises the question, “What are the consequences of consequentialism?” It might be a simple equation to say that what is good is what brings the most pleasure to the most people, but it doesn’t require much thought to see that the consequences of consequentialism are actually self defeating. The utilitarian cuts off the branch he is sitting on.
Because of the four problems of utilitarianism (personal taste, proportionality, pain and power) it becomes clear that seeking the most pleasure for the most people is actually more likely to bring about the least pleasure for the most people. This must be the case since, (in the absence of any criteria for deciding what is truly pleasurable) for utilitarianism to work, some authority somewhere must decide what it is that brings the most pleasure. They must decide how much of that benefit is desirable. They must inflict pain as a side effect of introducing that pleasure (either the pain of self discipline to obtain the pleasure or the pain of imposing the ‘pleasure’ on people who do not wish it.) Finally, they must impose the pleasure using forceful means of some sort, and this exercise of power must (since the achievement of that pleasure is the highest goal) necessarily be efficient and therefore ruthless.
Furthermore, utilitarianism thought out must become a theory and a method, and that theory and method must become an ideology, and that ideology will manifest as utopianism. This is the misguided ambition that one can create a paradise on earth. History has shown that utopianism eventually leads to tyranny. For a utopia to be created an old, corrupt order must be overthrown. Eggs must be broken for the utopian omelette to be made. The revolutionaries may have the dream of bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number, but in the process they will usually bring about the greatest torture for the greatest number. Those who want to stand the world on its head end up making heads roll, and every utopia becomes a dystopia.
Once utilitarianism morphs into utopianism and the blood is shed and the revolution is accomplished, the misery for the masses increases. This is because the members of this new paradise on earth have very high expectations, and since our disappointment is directly proportional to our expectations, the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when the great expectations prove to be the dickens to implement. How bitter the disappointment when the glorious leader of the glorious revolution proves to be an inglorious tyrant! How terrible the grief when the revolutionaries turn out to be more violent, corrupt and ruthless than the rulers they overthrew! What misery for the masses dream is dashed and the paradise is controlled by the politburo.
Consequently, utopianism, which is the spawn of utilitarianism, leads to colossal disappointment for the vast number of people who invested and believed in the great utopia they were going to be part of. This magnifies the unhappiness caused to the masses, showing again that any philosophy which promises the greatest good to the greatest number winds up bringing about the greatest misery to the greatest number.
Granny Must Go
Nevertheless, can we not argue that in personal choices, at least, what brings happiness for the largest number must be the best choice? When Granny is in a nursing home, having lost her marbles, and lies in bed drooling all day, what shall we say? The utilitarian argues that Granny has no real quality of life. She demands constant care. Constant care is expensive. Is it not more merciful (and cheaper) to simply assist her to her final journey home? She will die soon anyway. Is it not better for all the rest of the family, indeed for all the rest of society for Granny to go?
When utilitarian solutions are seen at the personal level, the ultimate cruelty of the philosophy is understood. More chillingly, what is also understood is that the utilitarian does not regard himself as being cruel. According to his philosophy he is being efficient in order to bring a greater good for a greater number. He judges his actions quantitatively. For him what is large is always better than what is small. The large number of people is more important than the small number of people. Is it possible that any intelligent philosopher could possibly argue that the herd is more important than the individual? Hasn’t he stopped to consider that the herd is made up of individuals, and if you have no respect for the individual than it is logically impossible to have any respect for the herd?
The utilitarian has no respect for the individual because beneath his ideology is built on a foundation of materialism. The reason he does not mind dispatching Granny (or millions of those resistant to his revolution) is because he does not believe in that precious, invisible treasure– the human soul. The utilitarian does not believe in the reality of any realm other than the material world of sensation. Put bluntly, the utilitarian will kill because he does not believe in an afterlife. He is sending his victims to oblivion. Eliminating them is no worse than pulling weeds. Furthermore, since there is no afterlife, the utilitarian also has no fear about his own destiny. When his time comes he too will simply cease to exist. That being the case he will never have to answer for his crimes, and if he does not have to answer for them can they be called crimes?
Finally, because this philosophy is rooted in materialism it is also, necessarily atheistic. If there is nothing but the material world of sensation, then there can be no God. If there is no God, then there cannot be any objective moral imperative. Goodness, we must understand, is not something God does. It is something God is. Therefore, if we believe in God we must believe in Good. Conversely, if there is no God there is no Good for God is himself the source of what is Good. Therefore utilitarianism, which is a materialistic philosophy must also be both atheistic and relativistic. In other words, it cannot possibly propose that there is any real, objective Good. Instead ‘Good’ is what seems most pleasurable for the most people at any given time. This, we shall see, is Utilitarianism’s final failing.
The Roots of the Rot
First let us examine the background of this philosophy to see if it is materialistic, atheistic and relativistic. Utilitarianism was first propounded by the eccentric Englishman Jeremy Bentham. (1748 -1832) His mottos were “The greatest good for the greatest number” and “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) However, as with most concepts in philosophy, Bentham’s and Mill’s utilitarianism is the outgrowth of another, previous train of thought. Bentham’s ideas were the product (among other influences) of the philosophy of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, and when we dig deeper we discover the true roots of utilitarianism.
David Hume (1711-1776) was an Empiricist. Trusting only in the knowledge gained from human reason and the sensations of the physical world, he was skeptical about the spiritual aspect of existence–especially the miraculous. Bentham could only have come up with utilitarianism because of the Empiricist’s underlying disbelief in anything other than this physical realm, for given their foundation assumptions, the utilitarian’s conclusions make sense: If there is nothing but this world; no afterlife; no heaven or hell or final judgement, then let us build a paradise on earth. Furthermore, let us build that paradise quickly for building a paradise is long, hard work and we haven’t much time before our final oblivion.
The utilitarian seeks to build a heaven on earth, but that heaven will never be more than a conglomeration of good ideas. Each new ideologue has another batch of bright ideas and brutal policies to bring them about, and this new batch of bright ideas cannot be anything more than a matter of opinion because of the relativism that underlies the whole belief system. Because of this relativism utilitarianism must be ultimately ephemeral and fall.
Here’s why: utilitarianism, like every form of relativism, essentially denies that there is any such thing as Truth. Instead of Truth the utilitarian opts for what works, or what brings the most pleasure to the most people. But if there is no truth, then why should the pleasure principle be true? Because it is practical or efficient or economical or desirable? But if it ceases to be practical, efficient, economical or desirable does it cease to be true? How can that be? If there is no such thing as truth than why is the pleasure principle true? It might be just as true that what is good is what brings pleasure to only a certain group of people, or it might be just as true to say that what is good is that which brings pleasure to only one person. For that matter it might just as well be argued that bringing pain to millions is good.Without a sound basis for what is true or false, anything (or nothing) could be true.
Therefore we must conclude that the proposition that ‘what is good is what brings the most pleasure to the most people’ is not necessarily true. The Utilitarian might reply that it may not be eternally true, but at it does make more people happy so it is good. But goodness and truth are two sides of the same coin, and if a thing is not true, then it is not good either. If there is no such thing as truth, then there can be no real test for goodness. The Utilitarian is above all a practical man so he will wave his hand at such philosophical nit picking and say, “Well it may not be true or good philosophically, but least it is practical and possible program for human happiness, and that is the most we can hope for. But because of the four problems that begin with ‘P’ in the first section we see that the pleasure principle is impractical and impossible and therefore not even true according to its own inner principles.
To conclude, it is easy enough to see how a utilitarian and utopian ideology has brought about the world’s greatest and most terrible tyrannies, but lest we become too smug, it is this same easy materialist philosophy which drives most everything we do as capitalistic, democracy-loving Westerners. Do we not, most often, act according to ‘the bottom line’? In our own quest for pleasure, do we not make moral choices based on economy and efficiency alone? Time and again, do we not choose according to what seems an efficient and easy solution–only taking thought for the here and now and disregarding the There and Then?
Rather than the easy utilitarianism that teaches that “what works is good” we need to re-examine the idea that “what is Good works.” This will lead us to an exploration of what is really Good, and that must lead us to ask what is really True, and that must lead us to consider what is really Beautiful, and in contemplation of that Holy Trinity we will be led to a life that is powerful and pure even if does not provide pleasure for all.