Utilitarianism (the maximisation of aggregate utility) is the school of ethical thought that dictates the most moral course of action is that which brings most good or least harm to the most people. It falls into definition problems immediately because one must define good and harm but don’t worry utilitarians solve this by using simplistic ideals they can easily quantify like wealth, land, longevity of life, all good, and sickness, death, poverty all bad, these are changeable depending upon the mood of the times. For instance authoritarian societies see individual freedom as bad, in more liberal societies it is seen as good. It is a quantifiable method of top down morality. This system of morality compliments an economic system that believes in the maximisation of individual utility, and a political system that requires the votes of the majority of people in order to maintain power, utilitarianism is moral populism. It is very good at providing for middle of the road groups and lousy at helping or protecting those at the fringes. It also circumvents individual morality by overriding what an individual feels is the right thing to do with the quantifiable costs and benefits to a society. It’s the perfect system of morality for cold blooded accountants and isolated bureaucrats.
Here are a couple of examples of how utilitarianism encourages poor moral outcomes because it ignores the deeply human basis of morality, empathy, pity, and connectedness.
The current push by government and the medical establishment for pre-natal screening to detect Down Syndrome shows how those detached from the people being effected by their decisions can encourage acts that quantifiably seem moral but in a human sense reek of eugenics. In 2003 Australia claimed to be a world leader in Down Syndrome screening but said there was still room for improvement putting pressure on obstetricians, and GP’s and those at the front line of antenatal care to close the gaps in the testing. Other countries have followed this push for positive results Denmark proudly announced in the British Medical Journal in 2008 that it had only delivered to life thirty one Down Syndrome babies the previous year. Down Syndrome is a congenital disorder also known as Trisomy 21 because those afflicted have three copies of chromosome 21. They are what school children describe as the dummy Daryl’s or like my mum affectionately but naively called Mongol children. Those people with shortened stature and smiling round faces that are rarer and rarer these days but not at all dangerous and often remind us that a simple life is more pleasant, and for some reason they always make me smile.
The most common abnormality associated with Down Syndrome is intellectual disability, Down syndrome accounts for 25% of people with IQ’s below 50, and most have IQ’s between 35 and 70. They have a shorter life expectancy of around 60 due to other problems associated with the syndrome such as heart defects, gastro problems, increased frequency of epilepsy and decreased immune responses. They haven’t been blessed with the necessary tools for a successful life in a society that adores health, beauty and intelligent charm. The screening of pregnant mothers provides the pregnant woman with an indication of the likelihood their baby will be born with Down Syndrome, of course it is not absolutely accurate but invasive testing is more accurate than screening and this seems to be where the argument is now occurring. If you hadn’t realised, if it was likely that you were to give birth to a Down syndrome baby you would be offered termination as the solution. The purpose of the screening is to stop abnormal children being born and putting a financial burden on society, and the parents.
The medical profession and government are now arguing over the most cost effective screening process, as Obstetrician Dr Deidre Therese Little put it in her essay for Quadrant. ‘When the College of Obstetricians looks at screening for Down syndrome it looks at the “benefit to cost ratio”. This is an economic term in which the ratio should be greater than one. The benefit-to-cost ratio of terminating, or exterminating, Down syndrome using combined first trimester screening is 1.57. The benchmark method compares the cost of screening with the cost of raising a Down syndrome child. “For consideration of national policy [the] cost effective screening programs will be significantly compromised if the participation rate is low”. Estimates are based on the fact that 80 percent of screened positive women will accept a diagnostic test, and that 90 percent of pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome will be terminated.” She goes further. “For a national policy for Down syndrome screening to be effective… the costs of the screening program to detect a certain number of cases has to be balanced against the cost of managing missed or undetected cases in the population”. It then adds that the monetary costs of transporting these mothers to facilities where they can receive “appropriate care” and of “ongoing grief counselling” should be considered’. ( Dr Deidre Therese Little “The Return of Eugenics in Australia” Quadrant, May 2010 No. 466 (Volume LIV, number 5) This utilitarian decision making, treats the life of a human being and the emotional trauma of the parents as a quantifiable number of its cost or benefit to society as a whole. This reminds me of the arguments for massively high taxes on cigarettes, as part of the calculated cost to society a sum for the smoker’s early death, usually in the millions, is added to the costs of health care, a smoker’s lost labour is considered a cost to society which they should compensate it for. This is the only reason that 200% cigarette taxes can be justified quantifiably, a tax of 50% on cigarettes more than pays for any extra health costs incurred to society as a whole, after all a smoker dying of lung cancer costs no-more than a non-smoker dying of lung cancer, and may even cost less because of their unhealthy body they will die sooner. I only wish society valued smokers so much when they are alive and perhaps paid them the millions they are supposedly worth in their elder years. None of this is very moral me thinks.
Australian ethicist Peter Singer famously argued similarly for termination of new born babies (infanticide) who had been born with congenital spina bifida which in more severe cases leaves the child permanently paralysed from the waist down, and with a myriad of other problems leading to a rather short miserable life requiring constant care, not only was the child’s life horrid and meaningless but the parents and carers would also be completely consumed by the child’s needs, their lives would also be made miserable. This raised the ire of the right to life movement in the USA from which he has received numerous death threats. He however put a human caveat on the utilitarian approach, if the parents of the child for whatever reason wanted the child to survive it should be cared for, with the states help even though this cost to the parents and society to care for a child which relied upon others for the most basic human functions, eating, washing and going to the toilet could not possibly be repaid, should still be incurred. ( Peter Singer, “Writings on an Ethical Life” pg 188 Griffin Press Australia 2000) Although in arguing that it was morally correct to terminate he encourages the parents to make decisions based on rationality rather than emotion, he encourages them to follow what is deemed by the detached elite to be best for society and thus override their own moral feeling not to kill, this is dangerous territory for anyone with power for they can easily encourage an immoral society while trying to encourage the best overall outcomes, when we give up empathy the root of moral behaviour for what is decided as quantifiably most beneficial we head down a path leading away from human morality toward sterile bookeeping.
Pain, suffering, loss and heartache are difficult to quantify for an outsider, actually they are difficult feelings to accurately convey by the sufferer, as are their opposites, joy, love pleasure and happiness and therefore isolated decision makers either ignore or grossly undervalued them.
Utilitarianism on the surface seems moralistic but it ignores the most essential element of morals, the human desire to identify with another’s suffering, to understand that others are different from us and our deep feeling that we wish not to do unto others what we would not have them do unto us. Utilitarianism is a veneer of morality placed upon what is essentially a spreadsheet of quantifiable costs and benefits and is a sanction of accepted group theory that should be removed if we are to make a better society.