I dislike utilitarianism for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, in its pure form, without a number of caveats, it permits the sacrifice of one for the good of the many (“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and, my father tells me, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” are prime examples of what I am talking about). Utilitarianism’s tagline is that the moral action is the action that provides the greatest good for the greatest number. There’s been a lot of haggling over the years in philosophy about what exactly constitutes the greatest good and how you’re supposed to calculate such a thing, but what makes me uncomfortable is that it tends to allow the equivocation of different types of human suffering, or human happiness. Death is not the same for everyone; and everybody sees something different behind the door of room 101; how can you take this into consideration when deciding on your own actions, without full knowledge of other people’s perception? Some utilitarian thinkers have tried to account for this objection, however; and there are many ways in which utilitarianism is much more palatable than a moral system based on individualistic principles.
But there was a particular moment when I decided that utilitarianism was something I could never accept: I was reading a book for a global studies class—I believe it was One World, by Peter Singer (a very intelligent, careful utilitarian philosopher with a good heart) –and the book raised the question of whether it was necessary that everyone be a utilitarian in order for utilitarianism to function properly. An answer was posed that it might, in fact, be best that some people were not utilitarian, not for the sake of variety or raising questions, but so that a uniform utilitarian code could be developed and implemented by utilitarian leaders.
It’s taken me years to figure out exactly why this bothers me so very much, and exactly what principle it is that I hold so dear that this seems to violate. The answer stems from a number of different areas including my political beliefs and my religious inclinations; forgive me if my ability to form the argument is still lagging a bit behind my emotional response.
I’ve always been very uncomfortable with John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The country, to me, is not an entity in itself that requires the service of its people; it is there to serve the people, to unite them under a set of governing laws and an infrastructure in order to make life pleasant and simple and safe for every single person. I believe it is the individual people of this country who need the protections that a government can offer them; the country itself is simply an idea that does not need to be defended. The country exists for the benefit of the people and not the other way around.
I also believe that morality exists for the benefit of individuals. Morality itself is not an institution that needs to be protected or supported; whatever moral system a person chooses, it is a rational tool to use in order to make decisions that benefit people. One does not do things for the sake of a hammer.
One should perform an action because one thinks it is the right thing to do; not because of the outcome. Similarly, one should choose a moral system because one thinks it is the right way to behave towards others, and not for any particular outcome of adopting that system. “The greatest good for the greatest number” in and of itself is a system concerned with outcomes, and this was made clearest to me when someone was able to envision a world where people were actually discouraged from believing in a moral system so that other people could implement that moral system for them: a moral dictatorship, of sorts.
More on why action for action's sake is important later this weekend.