|The Tall Man|
Halloween is coming, and that means it’s time to consider frightening things. And what over the past two centuries has been more horrific than the idea of utilitarianism? Because of it, parts of the Twentieth Century were as bloody as a John Carpenter movie. Thus, can be it be a mere coincidence that Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism resembles the Tall Man from the horror flick Phantasm? Stick with me here; it’s Friday, the day when regular rules of logic are relaxed.
In the Phantasm movies, the Tall Man’s mission, as far as anyone understands its bizarre plot, was to enslave the human race, to turn them into squat, mindless laborers, as dead as they were alive. Now, if that doesn’t sound like socialism—which requires for its existence the philosophy of utilitarianism—I don’t know what does.
There are many refutations of utilitarianism. As far as I know, its resemblance to a 1970’s horror film is entirely new. But this criticism is so novel, that I fear it will be misunderstood. So, here is a (crude, Friday-style) example of a well known objection.
Suppose you and I, and our compatriots, like the Tall Man, decide to make a certain beautiful woman our slave. “Slave” has to be defined: we can be somewhat loose here, but let’s say in the sense of a Roman household slave.
Now, Sally, our slave girl, won’t be happy about her new career trajectory, but she might gradually come to accept—never like, merely accept for the sake of mere survival—her role. But you, I, and our compatriots who have use of Sally’s services will be supremely happy by the turn of events. Oh, sure: some of us might have the occasional qualm, but these will pass in time as we are all convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs.
Is our making Sally a slave wrong? Depends on what you mean by “wrong.” A utilitarian must look at the act and see how it plays out in terms of the happiness of “all” humans. All is a lot: does is mean all living humans, and all those to come, too? How many is that? Does it include infants, the senile, and Sean Penn? Just the people that know us or Sally, or will come into contact with us or Sally?
And just how do we measure the “happiness” of these people? Can we extract from a person their exact and current level of happiness, measure it without error or ambiguity, and also predict how it will evolve in the future? It doesn’t have to be “happiness” whose utility we seek to maximize. It might be “well being” or some other measure of satisfaction. Whatever it is, the problem of satisfactorily gauging it across “all” humans remains.
It is not entirely clear whether this is even logically possible (I say it is not). Clearly, it is not practically possible. However, socialist theory takes this as a premise. A strict Benthamite would say that it is possible to define “all” and “happiness” (or whatever) and to measure it, too. Perhaps not precisely, but well enough to input the figures into a hedonistic calculus, a formula the output of which will tell him the “right thing to do.”
Back to Sally. Her slave-girl status will make her unhappy, but our slave-owning rights will make us happy. How many of us will it take so that our happiness outweighs Sally’s sadness? Human sadness is not infinite; nor is human happiness. This means that there must come a point at which as we add bodies to the slave-holder list, the happiness of owners will sum to a number greater than Sally’s sadness. It probably won’t take too many slave holders, either.
It can be argued that Sally’s slave status will negatively affect the happiness of the non-owners, but that is beside the point. We can always fix up the scenario so that others do not know of Sally.
And we don’t have to settle for just one slave girl: we can work the calculus so that we have many. Especially when we consider that we, the slave owners, are more valuable to humanity than are the slaves; thus, our happiness or well-being counts for more. History reinforces this idea: have you ever met a socialist who did not feel that they were more equal than others?
Well, you get the idea. All sorts of evils can be committed in the name of utilitarianism, as long as you can make the numbers work out “proving” everybody will be better off.
That is why this Halloween, I will dressing up as Jeremy Bentham. To the trick-or-treators, instead of candy, I’ll be handing out copies of his The Influence of Natural Religion upon the Temporal Happiness of Mankind. And if anybody mistakes me for the Tall Man, I’ll set them straight with a lecture on the greatest happiness principle.