Commentary Magazine


No, Utilitarians Are Not Nice

The Economist reports two researchers from Columbia and Cornell have been studying the personalities of individuals who, in surveys, express a willingness to personally kill one human in the hope of saving more. Their conclusion is there is “a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas . . . and personalities that were psychopathic.”  The Economist’s conclusion, in its usual slightly tongue-in-cheek style, is utilitarianism is a “plausible framework” for producing legislation, and the best legislators are therefore psychopathic misanthropes.

But we don’t need Ivy League researchers to conclude utilitarianism is a morally flawed framework for life as well as legislation. In her classic 1987 collection of essays on Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians, Gertrude Himmelfarb explored “Bentham’s Utopia,” or the scheme for “pauper management” the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, set forward in 1798. The plan, in brief, was for all of England’s paupers to be housed in purpose-built facilities, specified by Bentham in elaborate detail, and run on a strongly coercive basis, with all paupers held to work until they had paid off their accounts.

In many cases, that day would never have come, as children born in the pauper house would be held there until they had children in their turn, all of whom would be educated so as to eliminate desire – not by the normal mechanism of satiating it, but by the more cunning approach of ensuring the children were so totally ignorant of the outside world they would be happy in their prison. This was what Bentham was pleased to call his “Utopia,” and it was one from which he would personally have profited, since he proposed to serve as the owner, manager, and jailer of the entire system (“the spider in the web,” as Burke remarked when he saw the plan).

Today, Bentham’s scheme retains only an academic interest. Or perhaps not. As Himmelfarb notes in her crushing conclusion, explaining Bentham’s continued respectability in publications like the Economist “would require nothing less than an analysis of utilitarianism in the largest sense: as a philosophy that professes to be eminently rational and pragmatic. . . . How can one quarrel with such a sensible philosophy? . . . One may perhaps start by taking seriously Bentham’s own proposals for reform . . . which he regarded as the very embodiment of that philosophy.”

It is all very well to suggest legislation should seek to do more good than harm. But the problem with applying utilitarianism to legislation, in Bentham’s day or ours, is someone has to decide which ends serve the greater good, just as the Ivy League experiments require someone to decide who lives and who dies, and just as top-down legislation in the progressive tradition requires wisdom that no single person possesses. This vision presumes the goal of legislation is control and direction, not the promotion of freedom under law.

What is missing in Bentham’s plan, and in the Economist’s praise of law-making as expressing the will of the psychopath, is the point from Friedrich Hayek that Steve Hayward has been making on Power Line recently: “Central planning cannot work because it is trying to substitute an individual all-knowing intelligence for a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.” And that is not, today, a point of academic interest.