Dec 1, 2023
“How new wealth is to be distributed is just as important as how old wealth has been distributed.”
The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number – who could possibly argue that this is not the proper metric for measuring the ethical value of any act? I mean, what else could it be? Could an act that produces less good for fewer people possibly be preferable to one that produces more good for more people?
In practice, when we’re not being totally selfish, most of us are guided by some version of Utilitarianism in our daily lives. It’s not a terrible way to live; it certainly speaks of good intentions (whatever they’re worth). But beyond that, what does it mean?
Like most self-evident memes, when we try to untangle this one, it falls apart in our hands. Take ‘Good’ for instance. I won’t even get into the general problem of defining ‘Good’; that’s not necessary for this purpose. Instead, whatever ‘Good’ is, I’ll just ask:
How do we know what’s good for another person or group?
Do we assume that what’s good for one is good for all?
Is what’s good, good in every circumstance? Or is good ‘context dependent’?
Is what’s good today, automatically good tomorrow? Or does that evolve over time?
But even if we could know what’s good for every person at every time in every circumstance, how do we quantify various goods so we can compare them? Otherwise, how could we determine ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’?
Plus, when we talk about what’s good, are we talking about immediate, short term, or long term good? Do we discount ‘future goods’ by calculating their ‘present value’ or do we just add them all up? How many ‘goods in the bush’ does it take to equal one ‘good in the hand’? Finally and most importantly, are we prepared to reduce ethics to arithmetic?
Suppose we have 100 ‘units’ of good; how do we best spread those 100 units across 20 potential beneficiaries? Of course, it doesn’t matter. Whatever we do, we’ll end up with 20 people sharing 100 units of good; everyone benefits. We are assuming, of course, that the quantity of good does not change, no matter how we ‘share the wealth’. (Below we’ll consider scenarios in which this may not be the case.)
So, what are my options? I could give 1 unit of good to each of 19 beneficiaries and 81 units of good to one beneficiary; or I could give 5 units of good to every beneficiary; or I could do anything in between. The doctrine of Utilitarianism per se does not offer any obvious solution to this dilemma.
Are we to conclude then that every distribution model is morally equivalent? Or do we need to start adding conditions to modify our original meme? And if we do, will we end up with something like Ptolemaic cosmology, Rube Goldberg economics, and Justinian law?
So the famous meme, for all its high sound, is hollow. It’s denotatively vacuous (that’s ‘meaningless’ for those of you sent down). But unfortunately, it’s not connotatively vacuous. Since it can be perverted to justify almost any distribution scheme, it effectively blesses our worst instincts. It allows both robber-baron capitalists and Stalinist economic planners to sleep soundly while you and I toss and turn.
The Peter and Paul of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, did not fully understand the impact that distribution has on productivity. The store of goods is not only not fixed, it’s highly volatile. It is subject to amazing growth spurts, and contractions, that turn out to be surprisingly sensitive to the way goods are distributed.
The distribution of goods fuels demand, which in turn stimulates supply. To the extent that total supply increases the additional goods need to be distributed – but not necessarily according to the same formula as before. In this, economics is a bit like Quantum Mechanics: the future (measurement) influences the past (data). How new wealth is to be distributed is just as important as how old wealth has been distributed.
Can we redeem the Utilitarian impulse? Sure, just create a computer model, plug in the various distribution options, press enter and see which strategy produces the most goodies, weighted as you will, over the next 20 years. That’s surely the distribution option that generates the most good for the most people. But are we willing to bless such an outcome? Is it morally acceptable? Worse, is it an ethical imperative?
We have unmasked Utilitarianism as the naked Pragmatism it is. Kids, get ready to head back to the sweat shops, J. S. Mill is coming for you! Who’d have thought that a kid who read ancient Greek at the age of 3 would turn into such a bully?
The British Utilitarians put lip stick on Machiavelli’s pig…and they did a first rate job of it. How many school kids have been taught that Machiavelli’s ‘ends justify means’ is wrong while Mill’s ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ is right? Even though they mean exactly the same thing!
But what’s the alternative? Ethical nihilism? On the contrary, Utilitarianism is ethical nihilism, all dressed up with nowhere to go. So what’s the solution? We need to reject all ‘results based’ ethics and turn instead to an ‘acts based’ morality.
Causality is a useful concept…in engineering, but not in ethics. It’s useful when you’re building a skyscraper or landing an astronaut on Mars because the universe of discourse is rigidly defined. It is useless when you need to measure what’s good over an indefinitely large population, over an indefinitely long period of time, in an indefinite variety of circumstances.
In that case, there is no well-defined universe of discourse. So, we need to divorce ethics from pragmatics. In fact, true ethics is often anti-pragmatic: sometimes we have to make hard choices, even die to defend our beliefs or to rescue a child or to save a friend! When we make such a choice, we don’t first calculate the pragmatics.
It’s easy to calculate ‘the greatest good’ and then devise and execute a strategy to achieve it. Before ‘political alienation’, politicians used to campaign on slogans like “Progress & Prosperity” or “A Chicken in every Pot”. To advocate against such a strategy on ethical grounds is difficult, so it’s no wonder that the corrupt kings of Israel hated the prophets.
A successful anti-utilitarian ethics must be based on the act itself, not on its distant consequences. In fact, according to Chaos Theory, the very idea of ‘long term consequences’ is an oxymoron.
‘A then B’. In so far as A and B are poles of a single act, they are properly co-dependent. But once Act A reaches its conclusion (‘satisfaction’), any subsequent B is indeterminable. B may be partially predictable based on the laws of probability, but no B is ever determined by any A.
That doesn’t mean ‘everything is permitted’ (Dostoyevsky). Acts-based ethics can be very, very strict. Consider the 10 Commandments, the 611 specific mitzvahs of Torah, or the ‘House Rules’ our moms used to post on the refrigerator door. The history of Western ethics consists of oscillation between nihilism (aka pragmatism) and legalism: everything is permitted…or nothing is permitted. Neither is correct!
Every act begins by executing judgment on the world as it is, guided by divine values such as Beauty, Truth, and Justice. In today’s secular terminology, every act aims to make the world a better place. Emoji! Emoji! Emoji!
Every act unfolds as a process of accepting or rejecting, amplifying or dampening, influences from the world it inherits. Guided by its evaluation of its actual world and by its interpretation of the divine values, every act forms a novel ‘subjective aim’. Of course, it never gets where it’s going! Nobody gets to be God expect God.
Still, every process reaches an endpoint, having achieved its measure of ‘satisfaction’ which becomes the act’s ‘objective immortality’, projected forward (‘superject’) into the actual world of every subsequent act.
Every act is completely responsible for itself. From its initial valuation of its actual world through its satisfaction – it lives in the ‘no excuse zone’. But once that act is complete, ‘satisfied’ and objectively immortal, that responsibility ends; novel acts are responsible for what happens going forward. My act compels nothing; it just gives the future material to work on and, hopefully, redeem.
The only ‘effect’ an act should be concerned with is its effect upon itself (and its subject I suppose). I am my own cause and my own effect. But make no mistake: I am totally responsible for both. I’m just not responsible for what the world does with ‘me’ after that.
It is no surprise that Utilitarianism became the dominant ethical ideology just as Leibniz and Newton were inventing Calculus. Utilitarianism represents the subcontracting of ethics to mathematics: irreducible qualities are treated as mere quantities. According to Utilitarianism, Pragmatics is now the measure of all things. Unless we intervene!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.