Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Utilitarianism Part IIa

August 16th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

Continued from Part 1.

Sorry for the long delay between chapters; if you’d rather read it all at once, then use the links I’m working into these articles to go between them with ease. The structure of this chapter is simple. Mill defines utilitarianism as he sees it, he raises and then refutes several objections to this notion, and then he  concludes that utilitarianism is implicit in every other mode of moral reasoning. My approach to it is also simple. I will begin by outlining Mill’s definition of utilitarianism, move to tenets that can be drawn from his objections to his opponents, and then raise several new objections to his theory. This will fill three  posts due to the length of the chapter and my responses.

Mill defines his theory of utilitarianism by citing what he calls the “greatest happiness principle.” This principle states that what one ought to do in every  given situation, is that which allows for the greatest happiness (pleasure) to the greatest number of individuals while causing the least pain to the smallest possible number of individuals. This, of course, rules out the notion that utility is opposed to pleasure, rather it is pleasure. At its core, a morality based in  the maximization of pleasure is the whole of utilitarianism.

For Mill, this has several implications which come up in his rebuttals to those who object to his theory. The first, and most important, is that utilitarianism values the intellect and higher pleasures in life. Second, utilitarianism is not centered on the individual; the good utilitarian thinker will place the good (pleasure) of all before his own. Third, since the optimization of pleasure and minimization of pain are the only desirable outcomes in life, the ends justify the means. Finally, Mill claims that utilitarianism is not contrary to religion and that the deity wants good for mankind.

Mill’s first big point is that not all pleasures are equal and that man is better than the beasts because he is capable of higher pleasures. It is Mill’s belief that man, who is capable of appreciating beauty and is in possession of higher intellectual and spiritual faculties, is therefore capable of experiencing better quality pleasures than the beasts. No man in his right mind, therefore, would ever sacrifice these higher pleasures to gain contentment if that contentment meant that he was capable only of enjoying what an animal might. This leads to the conclusion that we can determine what is most pleasurable by the consensus of those who  have experienced it and prefer it to other things thus creating a sort of democratic hierarchy of goods.

The second tenet of utilitarianism is that utilitarianism is meant not as a type of self-centered quest for pleasure, but as a means to increase the pleasure  experienced by all of humanity. In other words, if by my death I am able to increase the total happiness of society and minimize its pain, then I am obligated to  die. However, this only works in an imperfect world in which science has not yet eliminated suffering and in which great evil (pain) remains possible. By this view, a martyr only does good if by his death he either increases the pleasure of the world and reduces its pain more than he could by his life.

Third, the ends justify the means. According to Mill, the only absolute standard of morality is that of utility. If today you can increase happiness by sleeping  around, then you ought to do so, but if tomorrow the risk of disease renders this a more painful experience then pleasurable, you ought not to. If an individual is a greater burden on society than he is a joy, he ought to kill himself or be killed. If a woman produces sickly children who are judged to reduce the pleasure of society, then she ought to be sterilized. A further implication of this greatest good principle is that motives don’t matter to morality. If the action leads to greater pleasure, then it was good and if it lead to pain, then it was bad. Utility comes first.

Fourth, and finally, Mill objects to the idea that utilitarianism is a godless doctrine. Mill addresses this briefly and I can conceive of no better way to summarize his assertions than to quote them. “If it be necessary to say anything at all about so mere an assumption, we may say that the question depends on the moral character of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other.” He then goes on to assert that whatever God has seen fit to reveal to man concerning morals must fulfill the requirements of utility to the supreme degree. Mill also claims that a utilitarian is free to make use of the Christian religion and revelation to form an idea of morality.

So there, in a nutshell, is Mill’s definition of utilitarianism with a few examples of how it might be implemented. In my next post on the subject, I aim to explore the difficulties in implementing utilitarianism and why they don’t discredit it as Mill sees them and in my third post on what utilitarianism is I will raise my own objections to Mill’s utilitarianism. Enjoy the reading and God bless!

(P.S. Apparently, Utilitarianism was never on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, so we’re all completely free to read it!)

Liars, and Tyrants, and Bores, Oh My! – UPDATE

July 15th, 2010, Promulgated by Nerina

There are three very “hot” Catholic issues on the blogs today.  One I posted on a few days ago outlining the firing of Dr. Kenneth Howell for teaching Natural Law morality at the University of Illinois, another has to do with abortion funding in Obamacare (a.k.a. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and the last one has to do with Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Under the “Liars” category,  we have this story about abortion coverage approval by the HHS under “high risk” insurance pools in Pennsylvania (other states have asked for similar approval).  Remember President Obama’s pledge to find “common ground” on the abortion issue?  The NRLC is on the case and has released this statement. For review, here’s an list of some of President Obama’s “common ground” measures.

Under the “Tyrants” category, we revisit the recent firing of Dr. Kenneth Howell (see here for background).  Apprently, many groups are outraged at the firing of Dr. Howell (and not all Catholics, either).  You can find detailed information over at the CatholicVoteAction blog here or join the “Save Dr. Ken” page on Facebook.  Al Kresta, from “Kresta in the Afternoon” (heard on our local Catholic radio station) interviewed Dr. Howell.  The video/audio is available here.

And finally, under the “Bores” category we have the potential disqualification of Elena Kagan as a nominee for the Supreme Court (this is actually a very exciting story, but I had to find some heading to fit with my ode to the “Wizard of Oz”).  Jill Stanek (an ardent and tireless pro-life voice) gives the details here. In short, Elena Kagan likely committed perjury when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on her role with the ACOG partial-birth abortion scandal.  I wrote about this situation before.  I will update information as it becomes available.

UPDATE: A press conference originally scheduled for today at 2:30 to propose an investigation into Elena Kagan’s role in the ACOG scandal was postponed due to a Senate Floor vote.  See the Americans United for Life website for more details.

In His peace,


Teaching Sexual Ethics Can Get You Fired

July 12th, 2010, Promulgated by Nerina

Given Ben’s recent posts on Sr. Schoelles’ “Sexual Ethics” presentation at a recent “Theology on Tap,”  I found the following situation concerning.  It appears that a professor was fired, according to the Alliance Defense Fund, for teaching the position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sexual behavior to students in an “Introduction to Catholicism” class.  You read that right.

The ADF states:

Dr. Kenneth Howell, who had been teaching at the university since 2001, was relieved of his duties based in part on an anonymous complaint sent via e-mail to university officials. The e-mail was sent by the friend of an anonymous student who claimed to be “offended” by a May 4 email Howell sent to students elaborating on a class discussion on Catholic beliefs about sexual behavior. The May 4 e-mail from Howell addressed a May 3 lecture in which he explained how the Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between same-sex attraction and homosexual conduct. He properly stated the church’s teaching that homosexual conduct is morally wrong, framing the issue in the context of natural moral law.

The name Kenneth Howell rang a bell, so I Googled him.  He is a convert to Catholicism and a former Presbyterian minister.  He is also the author of numerous books about the Catholic faith.  One of the “hits” from my Google search lead me here (warning: I believe this paper is oriented to the homosexual lifestyle), which presents a more complete picture of the situation.  While this article deserves a fisking all its own, it was interesting to note that the e-mail that prompted Mr. Howell’s firing was from a person who was not even in the class.  This person’s complaint said, “The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.”  In other words, don’t say anything against gay people or as Catholic blog writer Mark Shea is fond of saying regarding the homosexual agenda, “tolerance is not enough, YOU MUST ACCEPT!”

This type of complaint is common place now and tiresome.  Dr. Howell presented Church teaching which apparently offended some sensitive person and now he is accused of “ostracizing people of  a certain sexual orientation.”  And that is the rub for so many people.  It appears that Dr. Howell went to great pains to say that the orientation, in an of itself, is not sinful, but, according to Natural Law,  the ACTS associated with a gay orientation ARE.

The attitude toward this professor and what he said is deeply ingrained in our own diocese (see Ben’s previous posts).  When a professor who is teaching an introductory course to Catholicism can’t articulate authentic Catholic teaching without being accused of “ostracizing” or discouraging “public discourse,” we are in serious trouble.

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!