The next idea that we will examine on our journey down the road of ideas that has led to our current “God is Dead” morality was once described as “Pig Philosophy” by the Scottish philosopher and satirical writer, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881).
First a story.
Imagine that you are a small town sheriff in the Southern United States in the early 1800s, just prior to the Civil War. A young white girl is sexually assaulted and when questioned she blames a young black boy who is a slave on a nearby plantation. As sheriff, you head over to the plantation and arrest the lad, bringing him back to town. You place him in jail until he can stand trial, which will be whenever the travelling judge makes his way back to town.
Later on that evening the young girl comes to you secretly and reveals that the real assailant was the young, white son of the mayor, who also happens to own a large plantation and was well connected with State authorities that benefited the town immensely. Shortly after the girl left a large crowd of angry townsmen, led by the mayor and his son, come to the jail seeking to lynch the young black boy and hang him then and there. As sheriff, realizing that the town would be ripped apart if the truth actually got out (not to mention that you’d probably lose your position), you decide to turn the boy over to the mob. Better that one man suffer than the many be destroyed. Of course, Caiaphas said the same thing about Jesus, 2000 years ago.
Now many of us would immediately recognize the injustice of condemning an innocent man, but two individuals actually put forward an idea that, at its core, would actually justify this decision and call it moral.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) were both British and were the proponents of a moral system based on utility. Both being atheists, and having rejected any dogmatic or objective claims of right and wrong, they tried to devise a moral philosophy that was based on something that was common to all human beings: the aversion to pain and the desire for pleasure. In essence, utilitarianism was a modernization of first century B.C. Epicurian philosophy.
Jeremy Bentham started the ball rolling when he rejected Christian morality and put forth the idea that the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain was the basis for all morality. The key to a good action was that it maximized pleasure for the greatest number of people. Based on this premise Bentham proceeded to construct a scale, or calculus, which measured pleasure and pain. All pleasure was of equal value and the only criteria were intensity and duration. Shakespeare, then, was as good as soap operas, Bach was equal to the Beatles and Tolstoy’s War and Peace was on par with the Twilight trilogy. Bentham argued that:
“…the utility of all these arts and sciences, …the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciencesof music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either.”[i]
This reduction of ethics to simply the calculation of pleasure over pain for the greater number caused Thomas Carlyle to describe Utilitarianism as “Pig Philosophy” for it based the goal of ethics on the swinish pleasures of the majority. John Stuart Mill restated Carlyle’s objection as such: “To suppose that life has no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine.”[ii]
John Stuart Mill took up the Utilitarian torch from Bentham and tried to address the criticisms against Utilitarianism.
The Philosophy of Men and the Men of Philosophy
Before we go any further with our examination of Utilitarianism we need to examine the men who are responsible for it. I don’t wish to turn this into an “ad hominem” attack but rather an examination of the nature of the men who presented such a philosophy.
J.S. Mill’s father, James, was an atheist and agreed with Bentham’s idea of utility. From a young age he forced his son, John, to avoid other children, especially boys. John Stuart learned Greek at the age of three, Latin by the age of eight. He describes his family life by writing, “My father’s older children neither loved him nor with any warmth of affection anyone else.” He lacked “a really warm-hearted mother,” and thus “grew up in the absence of love and in the presence of fear; and many and indelible are the effects of this upbringing on my moral growth.”[iii]
As for Jeremy Bentham, Mill describes him this way:
“Bentham’s contempt, then, of all other schools of thinkers; his determination to create a philosophy wholly out of the materials furnished by his own mind, and by minds like his own; was his first disqualification as a philosopher. His second, was the incompleteness of his own mind as a representative of human nature. In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature he had no sympathy; from many of its graver experiences he was altogether cut off; and the faculty by which one mind understand a mind different from itself, and throws itself into the feelings of that other mind, was denied him by his deficiency of Imagination.”[iv]
Yet in spite of such a poor mentor, John Stuart picked up the torch of Utilitarianism because “From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.”[v] The object in question was “Utility, of the Greatest Happiness Principle.”[vi]
So what do we have? Two individuals who are seriously lacking in empathy and compassion, the former was driven by an oversized ego[vii] and the other for a desire to reform the world.
J.S. Mill tried to improve on Bentham’s ideas by addressing some of the criticisms. First off, he made a distinction between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. The “higher” would be those of the mind such as pleasures of the intellect, appreciation of beauty, exercise of the imagination and others.[viii] Mill wanted to make this distinction so that Carlyle’s “pig philosophy” criticism would be answered. As a result of this distinction between both the quality and the quantity of pleasure Mill could write that “It is better (happier) to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”[ix] Unfortunately, this distinction made it so that Bentham’s calculus of pleasure was rendered useless.
Another thing that Mill adds is a “test of quality.” This was in response to the criticism centered on the question of, given two options, which would be the better cause of happiness. Mill responds that, after having tried both, whichever gave the greater happiness would be deemed as possessing the greater value. If we put this into practice it would run something like this: Given the two options of a Shakespeare play or the cartoon TV show, The Simpsons, I would have to have experience of both so as to decide which is of greater value in giving greater pleasure or happiness.In his own words:
“On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures … the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acuter of two pains, or the intenser of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? … What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced.”[x]
Now, let this sink in for a minute. Since nothing is right or wrong in itself, and the only criteria is the greater happiness for the greater number, then given two contrary options, not only I, but also many others, have to experience both before a value assessment can be made. That means that before I can judge which would bring the greater happiness—marital fidelity or adultery—I would first have to experience both, or else I would have to defer to the majority decision of those who have knowledge of both. (I can tell you right now that Mrs. B. would NOT BE HAPPY with THIS experiment!!!!)
According to Benjamin Wiker, Mill hoped that his criteria would keep morality out of the pig sty…
“…because he reserves to himself the right to a latent authoritarianism. Mill assumes that those who revel in sexual pleasure can judge moral matters if and only if they are also capable of experiencing, and indeed have experienced, the distinct pleasure of reading Plato in the original Greek. Something like this: as I, John Stuart Mill, and those like me, can read Greek and are capable of experiencing sexual excess, and you grubby fellows are not capable of reading Greek, then I and those like me must be the moral judges. The addition of quality, Mill thought, allowed utilitarianism to remain the morality of gentlemen rather than of pigs. It allows the pleasures of a refined human being to trump the animal pleasures of food, sex, and physical comfort.”[xi]
Wiker continues that Mill undid this criteria by adding “another perfectly logical but entirely contradictory element.” He extends the principle of utility “so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.”[xii]
Mill had to do this because “if morality is reduced to pleasure and pain, anything that experiences pleasure and pain must be included in the moral calculation.”[xiii] So, we have to add everything that creeps, crawls, slithers, swims, flips, flops and flies. Now we have to balance the eagle, who cannot read Greek, with Mill, who cannot experience natural flight. With that criteria the sum of human pleasure and pain is negligible.
Ideas Have Consequences
Utilitarians over the years have tried to refine the theory of utility by differentiating Act Utilitarianism (where each individual act is judged on its own merits) and Rule Utilitarianism (where rules are judged as producing greater happiness for the greater number) and they have tried to incorporate basic notions of justice (to address the scenario of the wrongly accused young black man above).
Regardless, the consequences of this calculating approach to morality has led to a great deal of actual and potential suffering.
Pope Benedict spoke against Utilitarianism (or Utility) often:
- In his State Visit to Germany, then Pope Benedict said: “As you mentioned, Mr President, we are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society, which considers the issue of truth as something of an obstacle in its decision-making, and instead gives priority to utilitarian considerations.”[xiv]
- In his Encyclical Caritas in veritate: “The sharing of goods and resources, from which authentic development proceeds, is not guaranteed by merely technical progress and relationships of utility, but by the potential of love that overcomes evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21), opening up the path towards reciprocity of consciences and liberties.”[xv]
- When speaking to the International Conference on stem cells: “If these limits are transgressed, there is a serious risk that the unique dignity and inviolability of human life could be subordinated to purely utilitarian considerations. But if instead these limits are duly respected, science can make a truly remarkable contribution to promoting and safeguarding the dignity of man.”[xvi]
- And most near and dear to my heart, “As you know, the task of a teacher is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian. It is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full – in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator, for “both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts” (Wis 7:16).[xvii]
Perhaps most saddening is the now very common approach to life issues that has people weighing, not the sanctity of life, but rather the cost/benefit. Individuals who are pregnant often weigh the cost of giving birth, both in financial terms and in terms of the loss of personal plans and desires. Those who are at the end of their lives or who are suffering speak not of the intrinsic value of human life or of the importance of compassion. Instead they talk about “quality of life” or “pain over pleasure.” The modern prophet of Utilitarianism, Peter Singer, advocates for infanticide while at the same time advocating for the rights of animals over humans.[xviii]
Institutions, governments, corporations and even Catholic theologians have bought into the idea of utility and now make decisions based on monetary considerations and not the safety of individuals. Take for instance the Ford Pinto Case where, knowing there was a design flaw, the company deemed it more cost beneficial to not fix the problem and instead pay out any litigation costs that arose.[xix] The offspring of Utilitarianism, known as Consequentialism, has even seeped into certain theological circles within the Catholic Church, leading those who should know better to espouse the possibility of abortion or euthanasia as morally justifiable.[xx]
Utilitarianism is an “end justifies the means” type of morality. The greatest pleasure for the greatest number: the benefit to shareholders vs the rights of workers or the environment, the less pain and inconvenience possible vs suffering with those who are ill or old, the “quality of life” vs the cost of medical care, the good of the ideology vs the number of people murdered.
All this without recognizing two fundamental truths: human beings, left to their own devices, are not objectively impartial observers nor are they omniscient calculators. My pleasure will always outweigh someone else’s pain and I cannot know all the consequences of my actions down through the generations.
Utilitarianism is an atheistic philosophy, with no God and no objective morality. It is cold and calculating. It is the morality of those addicted to pleasure, who are cowards in the face of the slightest pain and of those who have no concept of the Divine or the Divine Image embedded in the human person. It is the philosophy of pigs.
[i] Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward (Nabu Press, 2012) …. Push-pin is a children’s game played at the time, somewhat comparable to tiddlywinks.
[iii] From Max Lerner’s introduction to John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, in Essential Works of John Stuart Mill (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), 185 (as quoted in Wiker, 10 Books That Screwed Up The World, (Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, 2008), 75
[iv] This assessment of Bentham by Mill occurred in the London and Westminster Review (August 1838) and is contained in John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Essay on Bentham, Mary Warnock, ed. (New York: Meridian, 1962), 95-96 (as quoted in Wiker, 10 Books That Screwed Up The World, (Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, 2008), 75
[v] Mill, Autobiography, in Lerner, 83
[vi] Mill, Utilitarianism, in Lerner, 194
[vii] When he died Bentham left instructions for his corpse to be preserved in a glass-fronted wooden cabinet at University College in London. To this day, 178 years later, he is still wheeled out to attend university meetings where he is recorded as present but not voting. Source: http://qi.com/infocloud/jeremy-bentham
[x] Mill, Utilitarianism, in Lerner, 199
[xi] Wiker, 10 Books That Screwed Up The World, 82
[xii] Ibid, 82
[xiii] Ibid, 82