Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Last semester we read Mill's Utilitarianism and his On Liberty, and they seemed to be very problematic in their utilitarian views. I've also recently been looking into Adam Smith and David Hume and their utilitarian views. My problem with utilitarianism is that there's no way that it can prove a fundamental moral code, and degenerates into something entirely relative. Truth is in the intellect of the perceiver. It sounds far too much like the materialism of Protagoras and some of the other pre-socratics. What I was wondering is doesn't this seem to pose a problem for America, because this was the major line of thinking at the time, and I know these thinkers influenced the founders of our nation. And if these are the principles that our nation was founded upon, then wouldn't it make sense that we have a very strong tendency towards relative morals with the removal of religion from the state? Also, utilitarianism seems to be supposed upon the idea of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Mill seems to try to reconcile this idea with an absolute good by being very careful in how he says things, but it seems that he fails. If this were true, it would seem to explain the ideas behind capitalism and America's tendency towards, although not entirely, greed and selfishness. I was wondering what you would have to say about this, because it seems that these ideas somewhat undermine the notion we have of our own country. I'm not sure what I think about it, and I was curious to see what you would have to say.
Let's not be too hasty (as the ents would say). Sure John Stuart Mill of his own free will after half a pint of whiskey was particularly ill; he did influence the framers of the Constitution who saw, clearly I think, that the majority of people are in fact utilitarian. Most people operate in terms of the cost/benefit analysis (how much will this cost me? What will I get out of it?). Most human beings weigh their lives in terms of the credits and debits and how much pain they will have to suffer. That's a fact. But that fact doesn't negate the fact that there is a greater reason for doing things. Nor does it negate the goodness of a system of government that takes into consideration this fact of human nature. The founding fathers did read Mill, and Hobbes, and Locke and many others (they were quite well read; fortunately for us. Imagine a nation being formed today by the Kanye Wests and Barbara Streisands among us). So our system of government does account for the utilitarian aspect of human nature; "if men were angels no government would be necessary" and attempts to incorporate that profit analysis as a motivating factor for doing the good. People will do the good when they perceive some benefit from doing so. Create a system of government that accounts for that and you've got a good thing.
Similarly Adam Smith with his economic views had something when he claimed that wealth promoted virtue. He was, of course wrong, b/c the wealthy and powerful can be just as dastardly as the poor and squalid, and they have more ablty to do so. But wealth and prosperity can be great motivating factors for achievement, production and self-analysis. Moreover, as most every philosopher has noted, it is easier to be good when you don't have to worry about grinding poverty (think Cephalus at the beginning of the Republic). Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but absolute poverty is a bitch. Capitalism, therefore, keeps people happy b/c they have access to the basic needs that support life and allow for pursuits that are conducive to happiness. As Michael Medved pointed out yesterday, those in poverty in America are in poverty b/c they have made certain choices about their lives, not b/c jobs and wealth are unattainable. That's a remarkable observation about the capitalist system; that it allows the individual to choose poverty or wealth rather than having poverty or wealth thrust upon 'em. The Founding Fathers recognized that the ablty to attain wealth and position in the world was an essential of freedom, and thus a staple of democracy. They made a point not to disenfranchise the children of criminals and traitors, they broke up the laws of primogeniture (wherein the first born gets all the inheritance), they secured the ownership of patents, property, and trade, they allowed communities to set taxes and fees for themselves. Radical stuff, that! And all based on the idea that wealth nourishes freedom which allows happiness.
The Hobbesian effect on the Constitution is that "oceans of blood" have been spilled. They did not discount that there are among us violent, mercenary, savage men who will use everything at their disposal for self-promotion and domination of others. Considering this, though, they created a governmental system very unHobbesian; no king, no terror police, allowing popular vote. What they did incorporate was a strong nod to law and a system of law that could best reduce the violence of which men are capable.
The Lockean influence is that they saw rights as inherent, or inalienable in men due to their mutual creation by a Being superior to them. They also held that those rights are forfeited by the depriving others of their rights. Thus a system of law was needed. But more importantly a system of government was needed whose purpose was not to increase cost/benefit security (like Mill) or decrease human nastybrutishshortishness (like Hobbes) but to secure the rights of individuals. I think that's a pretty radical turn considering the way they could have gone (rampant atheistic materialism or totalitarian authoritativism). Furthermore, Locke, being the practical thinker he was, saw rights of individuals as tied up most closely with the access to property. Thus the government that secured property beyond the grip of even the ruler of the country was the best form of government and the most free (which is why I hate this new business of eminent domain).
In sum, the founding of the United States is based on Mill, but also on Hobbes, Hume, Smith, Locke, the Bible, English Law, Roman precedent, and Greek philosophy. In some ways, it is the product of a philosophical system distinctly American; the melting pot of ideas. Mostly, though, we as humans have always had a tendency to consumerism, relativistic thought, atheism, self-indulgence, violence, and vice. That's just how we are. We are also capable of great good, generosity, happiness, thought, art, politics, creation, and fructification of joy. The Europeans , the Asians, the Native Americans, and the Africans are no less (and perhaps more) guilty of this than we are. The American system of government is great, not b/c it makes men into angels, but because it minimizes our destructive tendencies as much as possible and appeals "to the higher angels of our spirit" as Lincoln would say.