Fr Peter Bristow
Philosophy is not the pursuit of most men and women, who, inevitably and understandably, are occupied with the more practical concerns of life. Yet not only does it go on inexorably in its hidden way, but eventually the major varieties of it tend to come to the surface and influence the daily life and outlook of many people and, indeed, whole societies. It is a process which may take several generations, as is the case with utilitarianism which today holds us in its grip. This philosophy, which argues that freedom consists in doing what one desires, restrained only by the needs and happiness of the rest of society, is today everywhere the foundation of public policy.
The Warnock Report displays its credentials perfectly when it acknowledges that the constraints it does recommend arise from 'the need to allay public anxiety' . This is the mentality which is recommending egg donation and even trans-species fertilization in experiments, but drawing the line at surrogate motherhood. It is basing itself firmly, as has so much past legislation and morality, on Jeremy Bentham's famous dictum: 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation'.
What is Utilitarianism?
Utilitarianism is a version of moral philosophy, initiated by Jeremy Bentham and refined and popularized by John Stuart Mill, which, true to its etymology, is concerned above all with the usefulness of human activity. The reference, however, is more specifically to the utility and usefulness of human actions to produce happiness, which comes to be equated with pleasure or the satisfaction of desires. Though typical of modern man's mentality, such a philosophy is not unique to modern times. Epicureanism had something similar to say in ancient Greece.
However, in our own times, it has become a much repeated and sophisticated philosophical position, with an influence as wide as society itself. Incidentally, there is a good deal of sophistry. about it and many an admirer of the great Greek philosophers would say that Plato and Aristotle had dealt a mortal blow to sophistical reasoning and, in particular, to the idea that pleasure can be the sold end of human action. It is intriguing the way the history of thought as well as action is prepared to go round in circles.
Based on these presuppositions, the utilitarians make the guiding principle of ethics the maximization of happiness. Therefore, the actions which will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number are the right ones to be done. And those which produce pain are to be avoided. Almost from the start, many obvious difficulties were encountered by its adherents, which have led to continuous revisions. These different versions of the theory have resulted in other names being given to it, such as 'consequentialism' and 'proportionalism', but the continual revisions can still be grouped under the heading of utilitarianism.
This is so because in this system of thought, rightness and wrongness depend on the benefits and consequences an action produces. The notion that actions can be intrinsically good or bad and that the principles of such goodness or badness are self-evident in man has been discarded. This is surely contrary to experience, to the traditions of the ages, not to speak of Revelation! Vatican II says of conscience: 'In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged' .
Furthermore, utilitarianism provides no grounds for preferring altruism to selfishness, or, for example, whether one should maximize the happiness of one's own family, party or church as opposed to everyone else's. Bentham hesitated for a lifetime over whether the maximization of his own happiness came before that of others, and thus his moral theory was unable to justify even the golden rule.
But the area where utilitarianism has been most influential and where it is equally untenable for a Catholic is in its notion that pleasure or the satisfaction of desires can be the end of human activity. Modern permissiveness derives from this hedonism. We see the fruits of this mentality, assisted by Freud and others en route, in the reaction to the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, which upheld the union of sex and procreation. Many of its opponents, realizing it or not, were and are arguing for a separation of the pleasures of sex from the responsibility of child-bearing. The use of contraceptives will, in the light of this, and as the Encyclical predicted, increase licentiousness and undermine the stability of marriage, which is just what we have seen happen.
As Catholics we have long been convinced that pleasure alone is not a worthy end of human action, though most assuredly there is nothing wrong with it in itself and it may well accompany other worthy ends. This can be decisively shown, I think, by the thought experiment, based on the hypothesis of the 'experience machine'. According to this, one has to imagine being plugged into a machine so that, while floating in a tank, one can be given all the pleasures and thrills imaginable. The only condition is that one has to be plugged in for a lifetime, or not at all. How many people would choose it? Very few. And why? Because man is interested in fulfilment through activity, not simply the satisfying pleasure of fulfilment.
A Catholic Response
There is lacking in utilitarianism, as there is absent in Warnock, a true and clear notion of man; of his rights and his dignity. This latter does not recognize the right of the embryo as a human being from conception, nor, indeed, in an unequivocal way 'the right to be born the true child of a married couple,...(and thus) to have an unimpaired sense of identity' . The door is open for children to be born into one-parent families and, indeed, to two people living in a homosexual relationship. Such occurrences can only further undermine family life. The 'right' of an infertile couple or individual is allowed to obliterate many other basic rights.
These self-evident notions and principles, on which the general agreement of mankind can be obtained, are the foundations of the natural law which is written on the heart of man. This moral law (as it may also be called) has often been presented as flowing from the eternal law, and from the being of a God. And so it does. But this is not necessarily the way of knowing it. Precisely because they are written on our being, the basic goods and principles of ethical reasoning are self-evident to us. They lead back to an eternal law as a consequence rather than starting with it as a premise. In a pluralistic society where, as Warnock dramatically demonstrates, there is little agreement on moral conclusions, there is an evident need to find common ground in self-evident values and generally agreed principles. In other words, there is a need for a fresh presentation of the natural moral law which will attract and convince at least some of those who do not share all our other beliefs.
1. Warnock Report. Foreword; para.4;
2. Bishops' Bio-ethical Committee, Comments on the Warnock Report. para 11;
3. Warnock Report. para. 11.19;
4. Vatican Council II. Gaudium et spes. 16;
5. Bishops' Bio-ethical Committee. op.cit., para. 13;
Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000
This version: 26th December 2004