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Utilitarianism and Irish Left
national | anti-capitalism | opinion/analysis Friday January 22, 2016 12:58 by Paddy Hackett
Utilitarianism is the hidden basis for the moral and philosophical basis of much of the Irish Left
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You obviously need some basic study. It is painful to have to see things like this.
"Utilitarianism is a reductionist moral philosophy. For it the unit of society is the individual. Consequently it ignores class division ...."
HUH? You want to argue about the properties of "utilitarianism" when you obviously haven't a clue what that term refers to.
Look, "ethics" is that part of philosophy that deals with questions like "what is good" (how do we determine that) and upon what should our moral decisions be based.
"Utilitarianism" is that school of thought where the basis is "good is what is best for the greatest number" and "we should do what is best for the greatest number". That is perhaps a naive description, but should get us started.
Utilitarianism might say things like "we should be doing what is in the interests of the workers because there are clearly more of them than there are capitalists".
So yes, the left reformers could be using utilitarianism, but so could revolutionary leftists. Utilitarianism is telling us WHAT to do (and why) but not HOW to do it (by reform or by revolution).
WHAT to do is a proper question for a system of morality. HOW to do it isn't, except in so far as consequences of this or that how have to be considered. So let's look at that.
Consider the following ---- revolution might be faster but it might be a negative sum game (many wars are, the winner has all that is left, but what is left after the war might be less than getting 80% instead of 100% if that was 80% of what there was before). So we could ask "utilitarianism" which is better. But note that the "inputs" we would be using to make that decision would be estimates of FACT, not moral questions.
In other words, if we start with 1000 units of value in the society, and X% of that would be destroyed in a revolution, is X% of 1000 greater or less than 80% of 1000? Utilitarianism might tell us to "take the bigger" (more good to the greatest number) but isn't supplying the X >
BTW -- Please do NOT assume that I am a utilitarian, just that I know what the term means
Yot are merely a Bullshitter Mike Novak.
Like everybody else on Indymedia.
But utilitarians seeks the greater good from within a particular social system called capitalism or even perhap semi-feudalism. It is a reductionism that supports incremental changes based on individuals as opposed to social revolution based on class relations –the opposite to the individual unit. Benthamism ignores the social form such as social relations of production –value, money and capital. No amount of incremental increases in individual pleasure entail the elimination of these reified social relations. Benthamism cannot, by definition, support social revolution since this involves class struggle as opposed to individual struggle. It's reductionism precludes class forms and their institutions. Consequently the utilitarianism of much of the radical Left means that it does not support social revolution. This helps explain why it seeks piecemeal changes within capitalism. My argument is that much of the radical Left is not even reformist and certainly not revolutionary. It is euphemistic to label it as reformist. You misrepresent my very brief piece.
For Bentham society is constituted atomically. It is the sum total of individuals. For Marx society consists of a system of social relations
"But utilitarians seeks the greater good from within a particular social system called capitalism or even perhap semi-feudalism. It is a reductionism that supports incremental changes based on individuals as opposed to social revolution based on class relations –the opposite to the individual unit."
No, utilitarianism is a BASIS of ethics (one school of thought in ethics). Not a "program". That basis (greatest hapiness for the greatest number" (its definition of "good") nowhere made a reference "to within any particular socio-political system". Remember where this started. I gave utilitarianism as an example of a "school" of ethics which:
a) COULD be used as a basis for revolutionaries
b) And claimed that historically, it had been
" Benthamism ignores the social form such as social relations of production –value, money and capital. "
As well he should, since a MUCH MORE general definition of "good" is being discussed
"No amount of incremental increases in individual pleasure entail the elimination of these reified social relations"
That is PROGRAM, haven't gotten there yet. Utilitarians cold well discuss whether an incremental (gradual) approach to the greatest good was better or worse than a more sudden getting to the greatest good and disagree about that. Precisely because they would need to consider pain and suffering (anti-hapiness) of the process.
But let's jump ahead
."For Bentham society is constituted atomically. It is the sum total of individuals. For Marx society consists of a system of social relations"
Social relations between WHAT? First of all, we have not yet even mentioned other schools of thought, some of which ARE based on the individual (but I will still claim that some of these could ALSO be a basis for revolutionaries. Are you so doctrinaire that you can;t believe in the existence of revolutionary anarchists? But useless to begin going there if you can't understand utilitarianism. Society is the sum total of the individuals in it (some modern utilitarians would be adding non-human individuals to the realm of "worthy of moral consideration"). But I will repeat, as a Marxist, are you saying that "the working class" has a moral status INDEPENDENT OF the collective interests of (human, individual) workers? Might come as a shock to you, but in most discussion within Ethics, the claim that a "collective entity" has rights, moral consideration, etc. INDEPENDENT OF (not derived from) the sum total of the interests of the individuals of which it is composed gets labeled "fascist" Thus something that is contention between "environmentalists" (species, ecosystems, have value OF THEIR OWN) vs the "animal rights/welfare people" (only individual living organisms can have value, rights, etc. You will sometimes see the animal rights/welfare side when at the theoretical level" call somebody like Aldo Leopold "fascist" >
Perhaps I could make a suggestion that would help you see what is problematic about your project (develop Marxist ethics). It is generally accepted that to be useful/valid a "school of ethics" has to be prepared to tackle, give answers for, ANY moral question put before it. In other words, NOT ENOUGH for your moral system to be able to answer just questions about "the revolution" but fail to give guidance for other questions of conduct. How do you propose to proceed there? In other words, how do you expect "class consciousness" and "class interests" to give results for these other questions?
There is a runaway passenger car full of railroad workers headed for a curve where if reached, will derail killing most of them. But before there is a switch to a siding where the car would come safely to a stop, but there is a work crew there who will probably get killed. Discuss the question "throwing the switch is right/wrong.
Bentham confined his discussion to the current society under which he lived. He never advanced the need for the replacement that system with communism. He did not base his ethics on the need for revolution. Revolution involves the existence of actors in the form of collective forces (classes). They are not grounded in players in the form of individuals. His ethics was reductionist and not holistic. A worker or a capitalist implies class. It is class that determines the nature of the individual. These are social not individual forms. Consequently to privilege the individual is to abstract from class. It is a Robinsonian view. It is social forms that determine the role of the individual --not the reverse. The transformation of social forms changes the character of the individual --not the reverse. The specific social relations of production are the drivers --not the individual. Benthamism, on the other hand, offers the individual as the driver which is why society is presented as constituted from the sum of individuals.
Should workers realise communism through social revolution they realise this project not as individuals but as workers --in the form of the working class --a social form. Nor is class consciousness the sum of the individual consciousnesses of workers. The latter is a contradiction. Class consciousness is exclusively a form of social (public) consciousness. The basic historical forms are class forms and social relations. Individuals cannot exist outside the social relations that connect them together. Individuals cannot exist independently of social relations or social forms. Bentham believed that individuals exist independently of social forms.
Under capitalism social relations of production are reified. It is this reification that imposes inherent limits on the working class. In other words the relations between producers, in the form of workers, assumes the form of relations between things. It is this reification that must be abolished if workers are to be emancipated.
Under reification it is not possible for workers to achieve "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." The latter is an ethical illusion presented by the ideology of utilitarianism. The latter misrepresents the character of capitalism. It suggests that capitalism is a natural, thereby eternal, system. Much of the radical Left misleadingly prescribe the greatest happiness principle under capitalism. They fail to acknowledge the limits of capitalism. This the ethical basis for its claim that the interest of the working class is achievable under capitalism.
Much of the radical Left is imprisoned by the Enlightenment tradition. In other words it has not transcended the limits of the Great French Revolution. This is partly because the programme of The Great French Revolution has not been realised by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie were so threatened by the modern working class that it feared it's own Enlightenment programme.
Much of the radical left seeks to complete the programme of the Enlightenment programme. It fails to comprehend that this programme is no longer realisable under capitalism. It is now an unrealisable Utopian programme -- an idealistic programme. Only under communism can the needs of the working class be met.
Utilitarianism, because of its individualist reductionism, precludes the necessity for social revolution. It is inherently anti-revolution. Since its slogan of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" is based on the individual utilitarianism precludes the role of social forms. Without social forms (as opposed to the individual) as driver revolution is impossible. Social revolution necessarily implies social forms as actors.
Clearly utilitarianism is an ideology that distorts the character of society thereby misrepresenting the way forward. It is a consequentialist ethics that denies the working class its historic role.