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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

More Thoughts About Utilitarianism

In my original post on Mill and Utilitarianism, "Catquas" left a comment. I'll address the latter portion first:

Very basic logic here means that utilitarians will not support people who say they are promoting happiness, while in fact they are doing the opposite. Communist elites who, as you aptly put it, "consume a nation's population for their own enrichment", are not promoting happiness. They know this and we know this.

People may claim that the state should be the cornerstone of culture in the name of utilitarianism, but since we know that their policies will not promote general happiness, we know their arguments are wrong. Totalitarian states are not just oppressive to the individuals who are sacrificed for the supposed common good, they are bad for the common good as well.

Robert Scruton's article pointed at Communism (and other isms) in this passage:

Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his "Utilitarianism" is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia.

In reflection, Mafiosi may not be the best example: they seek to maximize the welfare of the Mafia, not society as a whole; the Mafiosi are simply pragmatists.

Utilitarianism comes in two forms: national (the most common) and universal. Nazism is an example of the former; it sought to maximize the common good for "Aryan" Germans. To Hitler, WWII was all about getting revenge for the aftermath of WWI, all about making the German people great again. Fascism in general targets the supposed tyranny of unregulated commerce, by nationalizing not industry itself, as the Communists do, but the power to decide what gets produced. It also micromanages society in order to maximize "good" culture. A much more benign example of national Utilitarianism is trade protectionism, which through faulty economics seeks to contribute to maximizing domestic employment with little thought about foreign firms.

Communism is the prime example of universal Utilitarianism. Its vision is global, seeking to end the purported tyranny of capitalism and religion. Lenin, Stalin and Mao really believed that they were maximizing the happiness of humanity. They believed that they were fighting a war against oppressors; the concentration camps and purges were to them the moral equivalent to defending against an aggressor nation. They believed that Marxism could bring prosperity to their respective nations. Mao instituted the Great Leap Forward because he believed that Chinese agriculture would boom. Human nature being what it is, near-absolute power corrupts; the Maximum Leaders do their share of looting (the Ceaucescus being notorious examples), but they really do believe that in the long run they are bringing about Utopia.

These leaders really believed that the people would eventually be happy with the world they were building. That's what all the totalitarian indoctrination was for - to get the people to recognize and accept the Marxist view of happiness. They believed that the masses would be unhappy as long as they held to "wrongful" notions that contradict Marxism; the masses must be instructed on the meaning of life.

Now for the first part of Catquas' comment:

It is important to recognize that utilitarianism is a moral philosophy, and therefore is a moral guide for an individual. Utilitarians do not suggest that the Constitution read, "Make whatever law creates the most happiness", and then let the government decide what that is. The utilitarian wants a constitution with checks and balances constrains the government enough so it doesn't make laws which lower aggregate happiness. A utilitarian voter will vote for the person whose policies he believes will create the most happiness.

Many Utilitarians believe that government accountability is unnecessary or even harmful to utilitarian aims. A belief shared by Voltaire and several other Enlightenment thinkers was enlightened absolutism. Essentially Utilitarian in nature, it proposes an enlightened monarch as the means for maximizing citizen welfare. Modern socialism, the predominant form of Utilitarian thought in the Western world, seeks to remove large segments of the checks and balances offered by free markets.

Utilitarianism in and of itself does not define "happiness" and "common good." Utilitarian Peter Singer proposes that infanticide for newborns with certain severe disabilities maximizes happiness by minimizing "needless" suffering. Is he right? Utilitarianism is neutral on the subject.

There is a problem in valuing "happiness" as an ultimate end goal: people often find happiness in things that are harmful to the greater good. Stuff like drinking to excess, watching movies that lie about history (it's a wonder that Dan Brown didn't sell the Da Vinci Code film rights to experienced revisionist Oliver Stone), cheating on one's spouse, etc. Utilitarianism does not offer a method for prioritizing happiness.

A political philosophy should maximize one thing: justice. Protect individual rights, and punish those who infringe upon them. That sort of thing makes a lot of people unhappy.

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