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May 27, 2011 Leave a comment

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Categories: about

Welcome to Mill’s Revenge

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill — Monty Python (NSFW video | Wiki explanation)

I’m a philosophy student, though not a particularly good one. The Monty Python philosophers’ song stuck in my head far better than anything Hegel wrote.

What has stuck in my head, though, is the concept of utilitarianism that John Stuart Mill didn’t invent but articulated well. The basic idea: Society’s goal should be to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

That’s not communism, which is designed to give everyone an equal share of everything. Utilitarians are too pragmatic to think such a system would be possible. Also, communism sets limits on high achievers, as eloquently stated by Rush (the band, not Limbaugh) lyricist Neil Peart in his allegory of The Trees: “They passed a noble law / And the trees are all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw.”

Nor is it libertarianism, which shares the utilitarians’ love of free will (Mill’s best-known book: On Liberty) but doesn’t do enough to inhibit pure greed.

Utilitarianism has always seemed like common sense to me. I’d argue, admittedly from a gut feeling rather than hard evidence, that most human beings would choose utilitarianism if they kept an open mind and were presented with several options.

But utilitarianism seems to have died out in today’s American political landscape. The Tea Party may claim the banner of individual liberty but reeks of selfishness and intellectual dishonesty. Backlash against Islam and immigrants is certainly an ill fit with the principle of greatest happiness, both in tone and in principle. Christians may be (should be) utilitarians, but mixing church and state shows a lack of respect for others.

The Democrats may be closest to fulfilling the utilitarian ideal, but they often fall short by favoring one special interest over another or by looking too quickly at government as the solution. Mill himself saw a big role for government, and it’s hard to argue against the government stepping in when Wall Street and the banks fail (something the Tea Party apparently forgot), but government need not always be the solution. (Case in point from The Washington Post: Small businesses feel squeezed by Obama policies)

Utilitarians don’t care whether the solution comes from government or from elsewhere. Whatever’s most practical is best. We’re fortunate to be living in an era in which businesses and nongovernmental organizations have offered much to society. But utilitarians also would not have a knee-jerk reaction against government help when it’s the best or the only solution.

And so this blog will not be purely political. Where we talk about politics, the idea will be to go beyond the rigid two-party system and look at guiding principles. And we’ll talk a good bit about society as a whole and whether we’re following the principle of greatest happiness in our lives — our manners, our music, our driving, etc.