The Act Utilitarians

The worst of officials, even in a fair society, look like a parody of utilitarians: as though they were the crudest act utilitarians, justifying any action merely by whether it produces a presumed, aggregate benefit of happiness.

(Motivated only consideration of aggregate human enjoyment, for example, a perverse society of dog-haters might commit acts of cruelty against animals. Needless to say, a well-ordered society does not tolerate animal cruelty, let alone revel in it.)

Even among the many kinds of utilitarianism (itself a kind of consquentialism), there aren’t many who would take so crude an act utilitarian position. 

The majority of utilitarians recoil from a simple act utilitarianism. (Most utilitarians are, I’d imagine, rule utilitarians, adhering to rules derived from their reflections on what produces happiness among many people living in well-ordered societies.) 

But among the thoughtless, or among the selfish, there’s little more justification beyond a simple-minded act utilitarianism – ‘we did what we did for the greater good’ (where that greater good is a supposed net satisfaction among members of a community). 

At best, this ilk is thoughtless because it ignores individuals and denies individual right and liberties; at worst it is selfish because the professed community good is, at bottom, merely the reputational interest of a few leaders, not the welfare of their communities. 

Yet, however extreme these views seem, do they not lie at the heart of countless institutional scandals?  In so many of those cases, is not one official or his minion liable to whisper, ‘Do you think that publicizing the injury to one or a few justifies tarnishing an entire organization’s reputation? Don’t you think that you should think of the greater good, and stay silent?’

The greater good in these cases isn’t the good of the institution, but merely the wrongful preservation of bad leaders’ reputations.  They shamelessly, selfishly wrap themselves in the garb of a large institution or great number of people, only to conceal their self-preservation. 

(One can guess that I’m no utilitarian, although I see some versions of utilitarianism as less objectionable – as less odious – than others.  That’s a subject for another time.  For now, my point is that poor policy often looks like the least persuasive, least palatable form of utilitarianism – it looks like utilitarianism as farce & tragedy.

Among the truly vile beliefs into which people may fall – racism, bigotry, unjustified aggression, and collectivism being notable examples – a severe act utilitarianism is surely also one. 

One will find it where officials neglect or otherwise injure the few, and then insist that such neglect or those injuries were justified for the sake of the many.