Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Utilitarianism – Part 1

July 11th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

It’s a topic that’s been covered a number of times in the Catholic blogosphere, but, given how prevalent it is, I believe it is worth another look. Utilitarianism is a popular philosphy with roots dating at least to classical times. It takes multiplicitous forms, but most often can be boiled down to some principle of optimizing “utility,” or happiness. The goal of the utilitarian then, is to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. For the sake of simplicity and in an effort to focus on a primary source for the philosophy of utilitarianism, I will be focusing on John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism for this series of posts. Also, I must warn you that I will be posting as I read it so I may be correcting certain statements or restating things should it prove that I misunderstand Mill’s work mid-way through.

At a superficial level the notion that providing the greatest level of happiness to the greatest number of people as an optimal moral worldview strikes many as reasonable and even meritorious. Unfortunately, such a theory is behind a great many of the moral ills in contemporary society. For example, many people who favor euthanasia, especially for the elderly and feeble, cite utilitarian moral thinking. Suppose that grandma is in the hospital and very ill. She is suffering greatly and it pains her friends and relations to see her suffer so. Additionally, her medical bills present a significant burden on her children. Her illness, though grave, is not necessarily terminal. The utilitarian says that she ought to be put down (euthanized) to spare herself and her children worldly suffering. Obviously this represents grave moral evil to any Catholic. After all, life is a gift of God and to take it willingly is to commit an act of mortal sin and hence, to deprive oneself of eternity with God in the absence of true repentance.

Such reasoning also serves the abortion lobby. After all, why should a child grow up in poverty and suffering and why should a woman with child be put through the sufferings of childbirth and rearing if she doesn’t want them? Is not aborting the pregnancy more expedient than forcing a woman to carry the child to birth against her will and raise or give up the unwanted child for adoption? Then again, what if that child would have cured cancer or plugged the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or achieved some other great deed for the benefit of humanity? Utilitarianism seems to lack an answer to this moral quandary since we just can’t know what yields the greatest utility.

Perhaps utilitarianism can be given a spiritual dimension in which eternal happiness and true, Catholic, morality is given pride of place before all other considerations? It may be that it would hold some real water if the salvation of souls were held to be the highest happiness and a trump card to be played over all manifestations of worldly happiness. This is a question that I intend to address later after I have obtained a deeper comprehension of utilitarianism as Mill presents it.

Moving to Mill’s utilitarianism, I’d like to summarize section 1 of his work which concerns general remarks about utilitarianism. Mill introduces his work by asserting that, in his day, the state of man’s assessment of the criterion for what is right and wrong was positively dismal. He contends that no “sense” as of sight or touch can help us to discern right from wrong in particular cases, but rather that any such a thing must be restricted to general principles of morality. Mill’s argument is that there is a single standard of morality and that that standard is the highest utility, or happiness that can come of a given moral decision. In other words, he takes happiness to be the source of moral obligation. Interestingly, Mill also believes that his theory cannot be proven logically since one cannot guage just what makes pleasure a good thing (or suffering so bad, for that matter). He does, however, affirm that reason can lead one to utilitarianism. Finally, Mill outlines the remainder of his book by explaining that he will next tackle what utilitarianism is and then seek to justify it on rational grounds.

Throughout Mill’s exposition, I aim to comment on his premises and conclusions from a Catholic perspective. At the end of it all, I’d like to assess his overall theory for its merits and faults. This should be a fun project for me and I hope that you all gain something from it too.

God bless!

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