Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Utilitarians in a Time of Crisis

Are we more likely to accept the idea of utilitarianism in a time of crisis? If so, does that make the theory acceptable ? Explain.

Mill responds: “defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this — that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if anyone were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments.” He goes on to say that experience will let us to know what is right or wrong without having to do a lengthy calculation. Experience will have taught us what we need to know ahead of time. Only the very rarest of incidents could possibly be a problem.

To which I reply, baloney. Actually, I would reply something else but I'm trying to be at least a little polite. Mill sincerely thinks that everything will magically fall into the place if we just adopt his system. Actually, he is ignoring the complications of real life, once again.

One of the worst problems here is that Mill and his fellow utilitarians are dangerously close to becoming absolute utopians. Remember that utopians always think that if only everyone would be exactly like them and agree with everything they say, the world would be perfect. What Mill and his fellow utilitarians fail to realize is that no one will ever agree on the exact details of their calculus.

Mill, for example, says that all Christians know exactly how to behave in any situation without having to reread the entire Bible. Somehow he seems to lose sight of the fact that Christians have absolutely, positively, never agreed to anything during the entire history of Christianity! Throughout almost all of Christian history, Christians of been busy hanging, torturing, burning, and variously mutilating each other. And usually they're doing so because they can't agree on what the Bible means.

In spite of this, Mill somehow manages to believe that his entirely new concept of utilitarianism will be adopted by everyone, and everyone will know exactly what it means in every possible situation, and we will always agree with each other.

It is hard to even call such an attitude naïve. It is absolutely ridiculous. To reconsider the whole Christian issue, just look at America today. Fundamentalist evangelical Christians have a very hard time even referring to Catholics as Christian. Catholics were shocked when the Pope said that members of other Christian sects, that is to say, those who are not Catholic but are Christian, can be saved. Do I really need to go any further?

Okay, I will. Christians can't even agree on what the Bible says, much less what it means. Just pick up any two translations of the Bible and see the incredible differences in meaning the passages take on. And there are dozens of different translations of the Bible.

If people feel free to rewrite and manipulate the Bible, what will they do with felicific calculus?

So, even if in a time of crisis there were time to run through all the calculations, I think we can pretty well guarantee that if we have 1,892 people running the calculus, each on his own, we will have 1,892 different answers. Perhaps the crisis will sit by and wait while we all battle it out to see which one of our many answers is the correct one. Somehow I doubt that.

Okay, a non-satirical comment. It is a true joy to see that people with good hearts really do want to find solutions to our problems. The difficulty enters when, like all utopians, the utilitarians assume that everyone will always think exactly the same way that they do, without any doubts or questions. It is charming, even adorable. The fact remains, however, that their pretty dreams will never survive first contact with reality.

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