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Friday, July 26, 2013

Social utilitarianism

In extending utilitarianism from the personal to the social, Bentham and his followers incorporated all the fallacies of the former, and added many more besides. If each man tries to maximize pleasure (and minimize pain), then the social ethical rule, for the Benthamites, is to seek always ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, in a social felicific calculus in which each man counts for one, no more and no less.
The first question is the powerful one of self-refutation: for if each man is necessarily governed by the rule of maximizing pleasure, then why in the world are these utilitarian philosophers doing something very different – that is, calling for an abstract social principle (‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’)?7 And why is their abstract moral principle – for that is what it is – legitimate while all others, such as natural rights, are to be brusquely dismissed as nonsense? What justification is there for the greatest happiness formula? The answer is none whatever; it is simply assumed as axiomatic, above and beyond challenge.
In addition to the self-refuting nature of the utilitarians clinging to an overriding – and unanalysed – abstract moral principle, the principle itself is shaky at best. For what is so good about the ‘greatest number’? Suppose that the vast majority of people in a society hate and revile redheads, and greatly desire to murder them. Suppose further, that there are only a few redheads extant at any time, so that their loss would entail no discernible drop in general production or in the real incomes of the non redheads remaining. Must we then say that it is ‘good’, after making our social felicific calculus, for the vast majority to cheerfully slaughter redheads, and thereby maximize their pleasure or happiness? And if not, why not? As Felix Adler wryly put it, utilitarians ‘pronounce the greatest happiness of the greatest number to be the social end, although they fail to make it intelligible why the happiness of the greater number should be cogent as an end upon those who happen to belong to the lesser number’.8
Furthermore, the egalitarian presumption of each person counting precisely for one is hardly self-evident. Why not some system of weighting? Again, we have an unexamined and unscientific article of faith at the heart of utilitarianism.
Finally, while utilitarianism falsely assumes that the moral or the ethical is a purely subjective given to each individual, it on the contrary assumes that these subjective desires can be added, subtracted, and weighed across the various individuals in society so as to result in a calculation of maximum social happiness. But how in the world can an objective or calculable ‘social utility’ or ‘social cost’ emerge out of purely subjective desires, especially since subjective desires or utilities are strictly ordinal, and cannot be compared or added or subtracted among more than one person? The truth, then, is the opposite of the core assumptions of utilitarianism. Moral principles, which utilitarianism claims to reject as mere subjective emotion, are intersubjective and can be used to persuade various persons; whereas utilities and costs are purely subjective to each individual and therefore cannot be compared or weighed between persons.
Perhaps the reason why Bentham quietly shifts from ‘maximum pleasure’ in personal utilitarianism to ‘happiness’ in the social realm is that talking about the ‘greatest pleasure of the greatest number’ would be too openly ludicrous, since the emotion or sensation of pleasure is quite clearly not addable or subtractable between persons. Substituting the vaguer and looser ‘happiness’ enabled Bentham to fuzz over such problems.9
Bentham's utilitarianism led him to an increasingly numerous ‘agenda’ for government intervention in the economy. Some of this agenda we have seen above. Others items include: a welfare state; taxation for at least a partial egalitarian redistribution of wealth; government boards, institutes and universities; public works to cure unemployment as well as to encourage private investment; government insurance; regulation of banks and stockbrokers; guarantee of quantity and quality of goods.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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