Saturday, August 20, 2005



Was it right to bomb Dresden and Hiroshima?

Or, were the bombers forgetting about justice? Was it wrong to kill innocent children?

What if it was your child that was killed by British and American bombs?

What if it was your child killed by certain people on the London tube train?

What if the people behind the recent terror think that they are doing the right thing?

The 'Utilitarians' believe that governments should try to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But, are the Utilitarians forgetting about justice?

Bentham and Mill, the philosophers who advocated 'Utilitarianism', no doubt had good intentions. They were thinking about the happiness of all the world's citizens.

But, what about the planners in the Pentagon? Are they thinking only about the greatest happiness of the greatest number of rich and powerful Americans?

Was Hitler only thinking about healthy, fair-haired Germans? Did Truman have no concern for the women of Hiroshima?

Sociologist Alan Wolfe asks: "Why do capitalism and liberal democracy, both of which justify themselves on the grounds that they produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, leave so much dissatisfaction in their wake?"

Could it be that western governments forget about justice?

Sir Ian Blair has urged the public not to let the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes overshadow the deaths of 52 victims of the London bombers.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner told BBC Radio 4: "We can't let that one tragic death outweigh all others."

Below are some thoughts from Roger Kimball:

Let's pretend, he said, that some mad scientist has figured out a way to bring peace, prosperity, and general happiness to the whole world.

There was just one catch: this brave new world required the yearly sacrifice of one innocent person, chosen at random. Supposing this scheme were perfected: would it be moral to close with the offer and subscribe universal happiness at the cost of one innocent life per annum?

Well, why not?

Think of all the billions of people there are in the world. Scads of innocent people die all the time. Why not spread happiness and reduce the death toll at the same time? Hard cheese on the appointed victim, of course. But he (or she) would at least have the consolation of dying for the good of society.

This is the sort of argument you might get from Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism defines the good as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarianism, especially in its undoctrinaire forms, has a lot of appeal. Most of us are at least intermittent utilitarians. At least, we expect those running society to act on broadly utilitarian principles, to "maximize" goods and services (read "happiness") for as many people as possible.

It is interesting, then, that everyone to whom I have presented my friend's thought-experiment has recoiled. Some people say, "That's just silly," and change the subject. Some say, "What a horrible idea," and change the subject. Hardly anyone says "That would be wrong because . . ." and then supplies a reason.

I think that the uneasiness that most people feel about this utilitarian fantasy is a good thing. I also think that the reluctance on the part of most people to provide a reason for their uneasiness is troubling. For one thing, it suggests that for many people, moral intuitions are unsupported by articulate moral principles. It also suggests that, acting more or less like utilitarians in our daily lives, we are poorly equipped to challenge utilitarian proposals when they go too far.

What's wrong with the utilitarian philosophy?

As its name implies, utilitarianism aims to be a useful, a practical philosophy. But the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), musing about utilitarianism, was on to something important when he asked "What is the use of use?" Lessing understood that the idea of usefulness ultimately makes sense only when it is underwritten by some definite idea of the good.

When we set about the practical tasks of everyday, this question generally does not have much urgency because we know pretty well what good we are aiming at. But when we step back to ponder larger moral issues, the question of the ultimate good for human life suddenly snaps into the foreground.

Grammar may be of some help in clarifying what Lessing had in mind. There is much that we do in life that takes place under the aegis of "the in order to." We exercise in order to stay healthy, we go to the bank in order to withdraw money, we go to the airport in order to travel somewhere. But there is also much in life that we do not do in order to achieve a specific end but for the sake of some good.

The distinction between the "in order to" and the "for the sake of" is a distinction between the calculation of means and the acknowledgment of an ideal. One important human ideal is freedom. A central reason that the utilitarian fantasy with which we began is morally repugnant is because it requires the violation of freedom.

It therefore builds a fatal weakness into its very foundation. The utilitarian promise works to the extent that we understand ourselves as creatures who behave in order to achieve certain ends. To the extent that we see our selves as moral creatures - creatures, that is to say, whose lives are bounded by an ideal of freedom - utilitarianism presents itself as a version of nihilism. "What is the use of use?" That is one question the thoroughgoing utilitarian refuses to ask himself. Entertained in earnest, that question reveals the limits of utilitarianism. The limit is reached where morality begins, which is why a utilitarian faced with our thought experiment can only endorse what it proposes or wring his hands in mute uneasiness.Posted by Roger Kimball at March 29, 2005


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