Monday, April 27, 2009

Utilitarianism and the Puritan/Protestant middle class work ethic

This is mostly speculative. I think that these tendencies are implicit in Utilitarianism, and suspect that they may have been brought out in 19th century Britain, but I can't prove that they were, although someone familiar with 19th century popular history there could prove or disprove it. Basically, criticisms of Utilitarianism, the idea that pleasure is good and pain bad and that we should set up society to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain, stemming from the "greatest good for the greatest numbers" doctrine, seem to miss the point because they don't examine how the general philosophy worked on an individual level. If you do that, the meaning of "the greatest good for the greatest number" takes on a different cast.

One of the first things that people usually point out as a flaw in Utilitarianism on the face of it is that life is about more than just basic pleasure and basic pain. There are lots of things that give pleasure but that we don't see as being the most important things in our lives, and the same goes for pain: there are certain types of pain that we don't mind and others that we really do. The usual response is to point out that what gives you the most pleasure may not be just total hedonism, but achieving objectives that are important to you in life. So far so good. We also may not mind pain if it ultimately leads to a goal that gives us pleasure, things like mountain climbing, for instance.

But although this is an advancement over just pure pleasure and pain, the hierarchy of pleasures and pains that's established if you examine your life and sort things into different levels of importance can be configured by yourself or others in different ways, and some of those ways can serve the purposes of particular ideologies.

You could say that drinking gives you pleasure, but if you drink all the time you'll sabotage other areas of your life that you depend on to give you the means, the money, to pursue all sorts of pleasures generally. Therefore, it could be said to be better to be less hedonistic in the present so that you can enjoy the fruits of your labors in the future. You can also say that running around and having affairs with lots of girls is maximizing pleasure in the immediate timeframe whereas if you delayed that by looking for someone to marry you'd ultimately get more pleasure because of the deeper relationship of married life. It may seem nice to drop out of society and wander around pursuing your ideals, but in the end working hard and building for a stable future may be a surer thing, something that would give true pleasure. Masturbation and watching pornography may seem fun in the immediate, but this sort of sexual gratification poisons your relationship to women and to the finer things of life, things that you would appreciate if you weren't whacking off so much.

Buying loud clothes may give you pleasure right now, but is ultimately folly because fads come and go: a straight brown or black suit, or formal clothes--a white shirt, khaki slacks, and an interesting tie, are things that never go out of style and that give you more pleasure in the long run.

Being irreligious in the short run may seem attractive, but even within this life, irrespective of what comes after, the sound moral principles of religion as applied to conduct have been proven to ensure a lasting pleasure that will endure after your irreligious fun making have lead you to be drunk, in the gutter, and suffering from venereal disease you wastrel!

I know. And so the doctrine of Utilitarianism, the hedonic "maximizing pleasure, minimizing pain" can be hitched to traditional middle class values. So also, you could say that the "greatest good for the greatest number" would likely come if everyone adopted the Protestant work ethic and lead upright, moral, and godly lives.

It matters, then, how you arrange the hierarchical list of priorities, and these priorities could not only differ from person to person but can be produced by historical forces as well.

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