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David Cowles

Mar 1, 2024

“Some folks are ‘happy’ living their lives on a beach; others need a boardroom; some need a bar.”

In the Yule 2023 Issue of Aletheia Today Magazine (ATM), we pointed out some issues with the doctrine known as Utilitarianism, popularized in modern Western philosophy by the liberal John Stuart Mill and the socialist Jeremy Bentham.  

Classically, philosophical Utilitarianism has been based on an ethical imperative, usually formulated as ‘the greatest Good for the greatest number’. In our earlier article, we avoided the temptation to weigh in on the nature of the Good itself. Instead, we discussed issues related to the generation and distribution of that Good according to the utilitarian formula.

According to Mill, happiness is ‘the Good’, the Summum Bonum; we know this because no one would ever choose to be unhappy rather than happy. Some people choose chocolate over vanilla (no idea why), but no one ever chooses to be unhappy rather than happy, do they?

Of course they do! They enter monasteries, they go on fasts, and in extreme cases, they even self-flagellate (figuratively…or literally). The problem with this counterargument is that these apparently unpleasant practices do, in fact, make their practitioners ‘happy’. In rare cases, we’re talking masochism; in most cases, we’re talking about a willingness to endure ‘superficial’ unhappiness (pain) in service of some ‘deeper’ happiness, ‘beyond the Pleasure Principle’.

This semantic ‘trick’ makes it impossible for me, or anyone, to refute Mill…but it also robs Utilitarianism of its heuristic power.  If I do X, then by definition, doing X must be calculated to make me happier than not doing X. Therefore, every time I do anything, I substantiate utilitarian theory: I always choose the option calculated to make me happiest. Otherwise, why would I choose it? And so in reality, I substantiate nothing.

If that makes you uncomfortable, as it does me, you may ‘phone a friend’ for assistance. Patched into a gathering of Logical Positivists, in Vienna (1925–1935), you will hear that no proposition is meaningful unless it can be falsified. 

The basic premise of Utilitarianism, GGG#, cannot be falsified: it is impossible to imagine any objective, empirical data that would disprove it. How would I go about proving that some people choose to be unhappy rather than happy? What sort of instrument would I need to measure the quantity (not to mention the quality) of someone’s happiness? Let’s test this hypothesis with two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum:

First, when I was barely yet a tween, I recall my grandmother going on about all the ‘sacrifices’ she made each day for the good of our family. She did a lot, no doubt! But cheekily, I countered, “You do what you do because doing it makes you happy.” Unwittingly, I was channeling Mill…at 10. No big deal: an even younger Mill channeled Plato…in the original Greek!

The things she did, admittedly often repetitive and strenuous for a person her age, nevertheless gave her purpose and her life meaning. Watching TV game shows, hanging out in bars, or engaging in prostitution would probably not have made her happy. She would have been much less happy had she chosen not to do the things she did. None of which makes her any less virtuous!

My second example requires us to travel back a bit in time. You may not remember it, but I was once burned at the stake, by John Calvin, no less (not to drop a name). Make no mistake, it hurt…a lot, but it came with the satisfaction of knowing that I had been true to my beliefs. Had I recanted and been spared, I would have had to endure a lifetime of shame, self-doubt, and regret. I chose the option that made me less unhappy…no matter how painful.

All of which begs the question: “What is happiness anyway?” Is it a positive state that one can aspire to and even work to bring about? Or is it merely the absence of unhappiness? Consider the example above: “Recant or burn!” Neither will make me happy ‘happy’ but, I suppose, one might make me ‘less unhappy’ than the other.

Reading Mill, you get the immediate sense that you are measuring unhappiness (e.g., poverty) rather than the much more elusive quantity known as ‘happiness’. It is the avoidance of penury that makes one happy, not a surfeit of riches. We are often reminded, correctly, that money does not buy happiness, but the myth of the ‘happy hobo’ is just that…a myth.

As human beings, we are much better at defining what makes us unhappy than what makes us happy. We know what we don’t want; we have a harder time deciding what we prefer instead. But rest assured, whatever we choose to do, we will have chosen the option intended to make us happiest…always, every time, 100%.

In the earlier article, we argued that the utilitarian formula for the distribution of Good was vacuous; now we’re arguing that the utilitarian definition of Good is itself meaningless, and beyond even that, that the concept of happiness itself has no meaning. 

It is as if we added the words, “…and it makes me happy,” to the end of every declarative sentence. Because we add this meme to every available utterance, it is utterly meaningless. It is impossible to devise a set of circumstances in which it doesn’t apply.

Some folks are ‘happy’ living their lives on a beach; others need a boardroom; some need a bar. What makes each person happy is not the venue; what makes them happy is the conviction that they are doing ‘what they ought to be doing’ at the time.

Don’t let that ‘ought’ scare you! I’m not talking the 613 mitzvahs of Torah here. At any point in time, you have a sense of what you ought to be doing, or at least what you ought not to be doing. 

We are not here proposing any objective criteria for ‘ought’. In fact, this is where the concept of happiness becomes relevant after all. We are happy at those times when we’re doing what we feel we ought to be doing. But BYOO – Bring our own ‘ought’! It won’t be my ought…but so what? Be an Old Testament judge: Do what is right in your own eyes (Judges 21:25).

But laying such analysis aside, Mill still faces insuperable hurdles. How does one define ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’? Is it a simple matter of arithmetic? Ʃ A+B+C…Z. In that case, a solution in which one person monopolizes 100% of the Good is at least conceivable. 

Of course, that is not what the liberal Mill or the socialist Bentham had in mind. They assumed some sort of distributive calculus – which is all well and good, but not part of Utilitarianism per se.

Sidebar: If the meaning of life is ‘42’, then perhaps we can say the sum of all possible Good is ‘10’.  Our job as philosopher-monarchs is to determine the distribution of that Good among, say, 10 beneficiaries. Turns out, the Utilitarian test, greatest good for the greatest number, can be satisfied using any distribution formula whatsoever, provided that 10 units of Good are distributed over 10 potential beneficiaries. 

Literally no one thinks this! And that fact alone demonstrates the absolute vacuity of Utilitarianism. Every practical version of Utilitarianism conceals another value (or set of values) which is the real driver. For Bentham, that value might have been ‘equality’, for Mill it might have been ‘liberty’ (including opportunity and the pursuit of happiness); for someone else, it might be ‘monopoly’, and for yet another, ‘productivity’ (whatever distribution of goods will generate the most total value).

These are real driving values. The utilitarian formula is the veneer that attempts to clothe these values with invisibility, to hide them under the transparent mask of irrefutability. 

Mill and Bentham did not appreciate the full significance of the Industrial Revolution. Quantities are not fixed. They can grow (or diminish). A workable economic system needs to be concerned with the aggregate quantity of ‘goods’ as well as the just distribution of those ‘goods’.    

A professor of mine, John Rawls (A Theory of Justice), made a valiant attempt to reconcile Mill and Bentham and rescue Utilitarianism in the process. He proposed a system under which everyone would be guaranteed a certain minimal quantum of ‘happiness’ (goods), with the balance allocated among the beneficiaries in the way most likely to generate the greatest aggregate quantity of goods.

The effort is valiant and no doubt correct, as far as it goes, but does it have any real content? Basically, Rawls states that there are three ‘goods’: (1) liberty (personal, civic); (2) prosperity (economic sufficiency); and (3) opportunity (economic freedom, the pursuit of happiness). I didn’t need to spend $250,000 on an Ivy League education to know this much. 

In fact, I can fit it on a bumper sticker for my next presidential run: “Liberty, Prosperity, Opportunity”. Curious to see what my opponents come up with! Would “Slavery, Poverty, Despair” be too much to hope for?


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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