Monday, October 24, 2005

Feel Good Morality - With or Without God

Feel Good Morality – With or Without God
John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

This blog will be my attempt at the reconciliation of utilitarianism and Christianity.  Mill defines utilitarianism as “the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”  When I first read that I thought oh yeah, what kind of crack pot society will you have if everyone is looking out for their own happiness (oops, capitalism =) ).  But, as I read on I discovered that there was a lot more to it than that.  
The next quote got my attention: “The comparison of the Epicurean*(emphasis on the pleasure of the mind and body in moderation) life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness.”   Mill goes on to say that the higher pleasure is the mental instead of the bodily pleasure.  
This brings up a little side note, I have a prof that is of the opinion that the mind/body split is absurd.  I can see this, look at depression and mental illness, it is a deficiency in a chemical in the body that effects the mind.  The split has also been the basis of misogyny, because the man is more of the mind and the woman is more of the body.  Also look at the favouring of rational over the intuitive.  I read an article earlier this year by Flyvbjerg (Rationality, body, and intuition in human learning), he showed that a beginner level was characterized by rationality and slow thoughtfulness.  The expert on the other hand is characterized by intuition.  Just a side note for thought, but maybe the mind/body divide is as artificial as country borders.    
Back to utilitarianism…The point that stuck in my head was this, “the utilitarian standard… is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier.”  This creates morality as the goal of utilitarianism; the idea that the good of other people is above the good of the individual.  
Mill was writing to fill the abyss that God left in the secularization of society.  My argument is that maybe the argument is a repackaging of the first and second greatest commandments, to love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and to love your neighbour as yourself.  In both I find a focus on the other.  A critique that I need to hear of my own life.  

1 comment:

malachijones said...

I agree with your reading the Mill views utilitarianism as the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, but I am a bit more partial to Trudeau's view that a society just society is judged by the quality of life afforded to the least of it constituents...and Trudeau was arguably the greatest political proponent of John Stuart Mill to ever hold office.

Utilitarianism is so subjective and elusive to pin down because you end up attempting to quantify and qualify "happiness" - a task that I believe is truly impossible to pin down. In the book, "In the Spirit of Happiness", the monks of New Skete tear down the false idol of happiness and replace it with a spiritual basis of contentment in the presence and security of God. A powerful book that helps curb the modern believer in their insatiable thirst for "greater happiness".

I agree with your prof. that the division of mind/body is detrimental to our understanding of humanity, and also of spirituality. The bible speaks of a faith where mind/body/spirit are intertwined, exemplified in the persons of the Trinity. So many of the manipulations that man impose on each other find its root in this separation of mind/body/spirit. You see it the lives of Christians who minimize our responsibility to the environment (because it is earthly) but over emphasis our need for heaven (spirit) or the "truth and knowledge of God" through study (mind). The wholistic believer recognizes that each of these strands have value and need action throughout ones life.

Finally, the danger of utilitarianism is that ultimately it is a minority group that dictates what the culture's morality becomes. The quote that "the utilitarian standard… is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether" is true based on the 'agent's' estimation of what the populations desire happiness should be. There are always "wise guides" and "philosopher kings" who position themselves as the great prophets and readers of society; for society's sake...but more often then not they are found wanting.