Pragmatism is practical, but pragmatism also has problems.
What is pragmatism? It might be defined as the quality of being practical–of valuing usefulness and workability. A pragmatic person is interested in the practical solution of problems. They want a solution that is efficient, effective and economical. They want to get the job done in a nuts and bolts, down to earth, ordinary way. And who doesn’t? We want our gadgets to work. We want things to run on time. We want practical solutions to everyday problems.
When pragmatism becomes a philosophy it is called utilitarianism. Pragmatism is fine for everyday concerns, but when applied as a theory to social systems, utilitarianism seeks to solve problems by asking ‘what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number?”
“The greatest good for the greatest number.” sounds like a good theory. It sounds like it should work. However, the problems with utilitarianism become clear once you begin to press it a little.
The first problem with utilitarianism is personal opinion. We might agree that we want the greatest good for the greatest number, but who decides what is ‘good’? Personal opinions vary. Without some external and greater criteria who is to say who is good?
Classic utilitarianism developed in a society in the 17th and 18th century that was living on the Judeo Christian inheritance. Even though many of the philosophers of the time rejected Christianity, they still assumed that the moral values taught by Christianity were true. But those assumptions are not necessarily valid if one rejects the premise of a revealed religion with a moral code. We might want the greatest good for the greatest number, but what is “good” and who gets to make the choice? We only have to look at Stalinist Russia to see a case history of certain people deciding what would be “the greatest good for the greatest number” and the result was a great evil for a great number.
The second problem with utilitarianism is that of proportionality. At what level do we decide what is good is for a person? It is good that they have enough food to eat, and it is better that they have an education. It is also better that they have access to good health care. But what if the true good of a person were more than that? Isn’t it good that a person lives for some higher goal or purpose? What about love and beauty and truth? How about the achievement of moral perfection? Surely that is a great good, and most devoutly to be wished.
However, such a good can only come about through hardship, self discipline and personal sacrifice to a greater cause. To accomplish this greater good one must actually go through difficulty—so to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number on might–for example—have to go to war or take a pay cut or work longer hours. We are now considering the proportionality of goodness. How “good” do we want the greatest number to be? Really good—the highest good—or just sated with enough food, drink and entertainment to keep them quiet?
The third problem with utilitarianism is linked with the second. It is the problem of pain. If we are searching for the greatest good for the greatest number, then we are implying that we want the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, but real pleasure cannot be attained without pain.
Think it through. Anything worth having is worth paying for. Anything that gives real pleasure costs something. It might cost time, money, self discipline or self denial. In order to give the most people the most pleasure they must therefore go through some sort of pain. They must pay for their pleasure (or else it is not truly pleasurable)
Furthermore, what if the “good” that someone decides is necessary for the greatest number to have “goodness” is not good for me? What if I don’t want the good that someone else has decided I must have? What if I don’t want to participate in the state mandated sterilization program or the state mandated one child policy? What if I don’t want to join the military and do my national service? Then utilitarianism (which must somewhere along the line use force to impose this ‘greatest good for the greatest number) actually causes pain not pleasure and brings about a great evil while trying to establish a great good.
This brings us to the fourth problem of utilitarianism: power. For utilitarianism to work someone somewhere has to decide what is good for the greatest number, and then enforce it. This power may be a dictatorship, or it may be the tyranny of majority rule. Either way, great suffering can be imposed and great crimes can be committed because the powers that be have decided what brings the greatest good for the greatest number.
In our democratic society the majority has ruled through the elected powers that be, that the greatest good for the greatest number means that abortion on demand is permitted. The result is millions of deaths of innocent unborn children, women’s health endangered, families broken and untold negative consequences.
The fourth problem of utilitarianism therefore is that, for utilitarianism to work, someone has to decide what the greatest good is for the greatest number actually is, and that ‘good’ has to be enforced one way or another.
This is why utilitarianism, on its own, brings totalitarianism, and tyranny does not bring the greatest good for the greatest number, but the greatest evil to the greatest number. Utilitarianism can only work at a lower, practical level as a test of what is good.
The laudable aim of the greatest good for the greatest number has to be balanced and checked by a higher moral code—one which mankind would not have invented—a moral code which springs from a higher authority and is given by revelation.
We call this the Ten Commandments.
This is a condensed version of a longer article on utilitarianism available here.