Utilitarianism – What is Good Works?

Good Works or What Works is Good?

by Fr Dwight Longenecker

I love my iPhone. I want it to work. I want my laptop not just to work, but to work every day in a whizz bang way. I want it quick. I want it reliable. I want it smooth. I want the useful things in my life to be dependable. I want the trash collected on Thursdays and the mail delivered every day. I want my flights to come and go on time and I want my luggage on the carousel when I land. I want to use the air conditioning for the temperature I choose. I want the electric, the cable, the gas and the phones all to work. In other words, I want to utilize the utilities, and in that sense, like everyone else I am utilitarian.

But that’s where my utilitarianism ends. To understand why my utilitarianism ends there, I first have to explain where it begins, and before I explain where it begins I had better explain what it is. Utilitarianism is a very simple philosophy which believes not in good works, but that what works is good. In other words, if it does the job; if it is efficient; if solves a problem it is good. In fact this philosophy is so simple that it could be the philosophy of beasts. It is a sort of animalistic instinctive response: “I am hungry, so eating is good.” “I am frightened so I must eliminate what I fear.” “I desire pleasure, so pleasure is good.”

Indeed, when the individual principle that what is good is what solves a problem or gives me pleasure, is applied to society we have Utilitarianism, which has been summed up as “The greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people.”  To re-phrase the catch phrase, “If it feels good do it”; the utilitarian says, “If it feels good for most people do it.” Therefore in a society that derives pleasure from efficiency and economy it is concluded that the effective and most economical solution is always the best one.

While the vast majority of people in our Western civilization may not consciously call themselves utilitarians, they are utilitarians by default because of several different assumptions at the foundation of our society. Individualism, which says “If it feels good do it” sits happily with utilitarianism which applies the pleasure principle to the whole population. Democracy is a foundational world view in our culture. It assumes that the majority not only wins elections, but also that in all things the majority is right. Such an understanding of the world therefore happily complements the view that what is good is what works or gives pleasure to the majority. A culture that values science is conditioned to assume that what can be tested is to be preferred; therefore if something is proven to give many people pleasure it must be good. Modern Westerners who like to solve problems will assume that any easy and effective solution to a problem must be a good thing, and those who assume that there is no reality but the material reality will conclude that what is best is that which gives the largest number of people material pleasure.

As a result, the majority first assume that the majority is right, they then go on to assume that what is good for the majority is best, and they assume that what they call ‘good’ is what brings them the most happiness, and because they are materialists, they assume that what brings the most happiness for most people is to experience pleasure not discomfort, and therefore whatever does this most efficiently and effectively is best for all.

The Problems with the Pleasure Principle

If a toddler is screaming it seems obvious that mother could make the child happy by giving him a lollipop. The problem is that too many lollipops rot baby’s teeth and he soon has more pain than pleasure. Furthermore, by rewarding his screaming Mother may be spoiling baby and producing an adult who will never be happy unless he has a constant supply of sweet pleasures. Baby might assert his bellowing belligerence and win. Mother may give in and give him the lollipop. Alternatively, Mother will decide that in the long run it would be better (and more pleasurable) for baby to not receive his lollipop, learn self control through self denial and become a better and therefore happier person.

This simple illustration reveals the underlying problems with the utilitarian pleasure principle. There are four basic problems that begin with the letter ‘P’. The first problem with the pleasure principle is ‘personal taste’.  In other words, what is one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain. I like grand operas. You like soap operas. I like hot dogs. You like hors d’oeuvres. Baby liked yelling and lollipops. Mother liked silence and self discipline. Who is to say which pleasure is more pleasant? If this is true of individuals, who is to say what really brings pleasure to the most number of people? Would it be possible to construct some sort of scale of pleasures? Would base physical pleasures be ‘lower’ while intellectual pleasures would be ‘higher’? Who would make these judgements, how would they do so, and why should their decisions be final?

This brings us to the second problem with the pleasure principle, and it is ’proportionality’. Shall we judge on pleasure alone, and if so, how do we judge what is most pleasant? Do we judge by the intensity of the pleasure, the duration of the pleasure or simply by the number of people who are pleasured? The quality and the quantity of both the pleasure and those receiving pleasure is impossible first to assess and then to qualify. Is a long-lasting, mild pleasure better than a sublime, but fleeing pleasure? Are the pleasures of the masses really more important than the pleasures of the elite? Shall we cater for the high falutin’ or the hoi polloi? If we are seeking the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, then we must decide for the base vulgarities, not the beatific vision. But are the crude pleasures truly better than the sublime? Surely not. Furthermore, why should the pleasures of the people necessarily be better than the pleasures of the elite? Or for that matter, let us wonder why the pleasures of the elite must necessarily be superior to the pleasures of the people. The problem of the proportionality of pleasure suddenly makes the whole process far more complex than we first imagined.

The third problem with the pleasure principle is the problem of pain. Ironically, the pursuit of pleasure invariably brings pain, and there is a universal wisdom that the greatest pleasures actually involve the greatest pains. I must practice for years and sacrifice all if I wish to play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. If I desire the exhilarating  pleasure of standing on the top of Mount Everest I must first go through the exhausting pain of climbing the mountain. Furthermore, if I attempt to avoid all pain and pursue nothing but base pleasure the psychologists tell me I will end up finding nothing but pain. When Baby eats too many lollipops he gets a tummy ache and tooth decay and has to go the dentist and endure great pain. Therefore, the person who pursues nothing but pleasure either endures great pain to get that pleasure or ends up with great pain because he has chosen nothing but easy pleasure. This is a mysterious and profound problem: that pleasure and pain are always mixed, and you cannot have one without the other anymore than you can have light without shadow.

The fourth problem with the pleasure principle is that of power. If one thing is more pleasurable than another should it be imposed on a person who does not think it will be pleasurable, and if were imposed would it still be a be pleasurable? Shall we have someone who ‘knows best’? Shall we create a Ministry of Pleasure in which scientists and educated bureaucrats research human pleasure and decide what gives us the most pleasure and then force this ‘pleasure’ on us? Not much pleasure there I think. Mother has power over Baby and will deny Baby the lollipop because she believes Baby’s final and greater happiness will include self discipline. What I mean to say is that if ‘the greatest pleasure for the greatest number’ is the guiding principle, then someone must decide what gives the most people pleasure, and that person must impose their idea of pleasure on everyone else. This involves an exercise of power.

We might even say there is no pleasure for anyone without the exercise of power over another. This happens in two ways: the person grabbing the pleasure exercises power in grabbing the pleasure before another person or from another person. Secondly. the person wishing to impose their version of the greatest pleasure for the greatest number must exercise power over others to do so. The Nazi party wanted the great pleasure of a master race and regarded this such a good thing that they were willing to inflict torture and death on millions to achieve it. Read More.