Here is something that you may find highly relevant. It is a long read, part of a book that I am (re)writing.
It starts off with a thought experiment that will likely get you fuming. It is not only a parallel of how we, as society, often treat people with illnesses and disabilities but also of the way the UK government has been treating the British population for nearly ten years now.
“Life is a sexually transmitted incurable condition, fragile and tenacious at the same time.”
– Deepak Chopra
1.1. Let’s carry out a thought experiment
Imagine a western country that is the most openly misogynistic country in the world. (Misogyny means “hostility toward women”, which is what sexism often boils down to in practice.) If you’re a fetus in that western country, you currently have a greater-than-30% chance of being born into poverty and the level of poverty in that country is often pretty bad. No chickenshit. Significant. Substantial.
Every winter, tens of thousands of people die in that country because they can’t afford to heat their homes properly. (This is not the case in western countries with cold climates.)
If you’re one of those 30 or 40% of its poor children, your health is likely to suffer as a result, your lifespan will probably be shorter, the quality of the education you receive is bound to be lower and the education you receive tends to be of a much lower level as well. You are also more likely to become homeless as the (financial) support for young people in this country is highly limited and flawed.
Let’s assume that this western country is part of the EU. The country’s socioeconomic inequality is so immense that on its own, it drags down (in)equality for the entire EU. So it pulls down the combined values for the other 27 countries. Again, no chickenshit. There are also high levels of xenophobia, gerontophobia and general intolerance and distrust, not just with regard to persons from other countries (often called “insularity”) but also within the country itself, among its own citizens. Research has shown that this country’s citizens are also the loneliest people of the EU, and possibly of the entire world.
The level of education in this country isn’t necessarily very high, although it has a few elitist universities that consider themselves important and constantly beat themselves on the chest, while more and more of the country’s students prefer to do their degrees in the US. Many Chinese high-school students do better than that country’s best high-school students and they also have a better command of that western country’s language.
The country’s people are far from stupid, however; in fact, most are pretty clever. They wouldn’t survive otherwise. There is a high level of alcohol abuse (a major drain on the country’s health system), a significant level of crime and a high level of various forms of injustice (including several instances of mass child sex abuse of a nature that other countries don’t appear to have).
Still, the level of knowledge and training has been gradually sliding over the past 100 years or so, so that this country now requires foreigners to help keep its power plants and hospitals in operation.
As a country, it doesn’t cooperate particularly well with other countries. The nation’s leaders are often loud and obnoxious, which makes them come across as immature and rude to the leaders of many other nations. Its national manner of thinking is generally described as “muddled”, notably by people from that country with extensive experience abroad, such as high-level diplomats. (These diplomats sometimes even quit when they become too frustrated and are no longer willing to deal with this stupid shit. One in Brussels quit a few years ago and one in the US quit quite demonstratively recently, for example.)
The country also likes to wage wars. It has managed to have one of the longest armed conflicts in the history of humanity, fought a war against Argentina in which a little over 900 people were killed just a few decades ago and has announced that it won’t hesitate to begin a war against Spain either.
Now, if NATO and the UN got together, were to decide to bomb this country to smithereens and turn it into a nature reserve, everyone would clearly benefit. Nobody would suffer. (Except maybe that country’s representatives in NATO and the UN, but that’s all. If they were sent home in advance, they’d never even realize what was happening so that would be the humane thing to do.)
The country’s inhabitants would cease to suffer – they would be put out of their misery – and prevention of harm is a good thing, of course. Everyone else would clearly benefit as well because they would no longer have to endure the negative effects of this country’s bad habits and attitudes. Spain could sleep easier. On top of that, everyone would gain a wonderful nature reserve.
No problem, right?
(I hope you are fuming now.)
If this thought experiment about eliminating a country based on the argument that its destruction would increase the good in the world and decrease harm make you feel uneasy, upset or angry, then consider that elimination is a practice that is carried out with regard to individual humans – groups of humans – all the time. The composition of the world’s population is changing as a result.
Persons who are non-mainstream are often considered less desirable or assumed to be miserable. This can include people who are not financially wealthy, who have a different lifestyle or who speak a dialect. They are not only banned from shops and towns, but also still often banned from life as a matter of course.
How do you think the people feel whose kind is being eradicated? How do you think they feel about being considered undesirable? Not cool or sexy enough, not mainstream enough? How do you think they feel about their elimination supposedly being beneficial for everyone else?
I am referring to the new eugenics, the practice of creating designer babies at the expense of “less desirable” babies. This is not a new thing. It’s been happening for a while. A designer baby is any kind of baby that is considered more desirable than another kind of baby. It’s like choosing a handbag by Chanel over one by Marks & Spencer or a white one over a black one.
1.2. Utilitarian reasoning
The word “utilitarian” is often used as almost synonymous with “spartan” these days, but that is not what I am referring to when I use the terms “utilitarian” and “utilitarianism”.
The thought experiment about the country of which the annihilation supposedly would benefit everyone else, hence justifying the country’s destruction, is an example of utilitarian reasoning. It refers to a school of thought that had a huge impact on 19th-century Britain, where it sprung up and blossomed.
I believe that utilitarianism goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t accept ourselves and each other the way we are. It has seen a bit of a revival in recent decades.
The idea behind it was that the right thing to do was that which produced the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. A very simple example of what it can mean in practice is that if you are stuck in an elevator after an earthquake for a long time, it would be okay to start eating one of the people in the elevator as that person’s demise might ensure the survival of the others who are stuck in the elevator.
Unfortunately, utilitarianism also makes it possible to define for yourself what “good” is and hence claim that you are ethically justified to do something intrinsically bad and it can include attaching a higher value to certain people to arrive at a greater amount of good. You could even say that what happened in Nazi Germany was an example of utilitarian reasoning.
You can use a fishing pole to catch fish and you can use it to grab someone else’s bucket of fish. You might even be able to hit someone over the head with the heavy end of a fishing pole and take that person’s catch. It’s not the fishing pole’s fault. It can be used for good and it can be used for bad. Most people use it for good. The same with water. YouTube has plenty of videos of people giving water to parched wild animals, but water is also used as part of a torture method at Guantánamo Bay. It is not the water’s fault.
When you start talking about guns, the balance shifts because it is harder to do any kind of good with a gun. Utilitarianism is somewhere in between. It is not an innocent kind of reasoning. It is not intrinsically neutral but intrinsically biased, just like a gun is intrinsically positively biased toward the person holding the gun. A gun represents power and so does utilitarian reasoning; they both seem to create a power imbalance.
Utilitarianism seems to have created a tendency for callous excesses and the abandonment of morality or justice to make way for cold-hearted calculations. The idea of “what is the morally, ethically right thing to do” becomes sacrificed in favour of “what is the cheapest thing to do” or simply “what do I like best”.
I found out about utilitarianism after I relocated to Britain, when I often found myself shocked by displays of callousness around me.
I spoke with one landlord who considered it not sad but a great inconvenience to himself that one of his tenants had tried to commit suicide. It made him angry. He considered such tenants bad tenants. This also went for tenants who called him because the heating or the washing machine provided by him was not working. He confided in me that he felt that people who aren’t educated were objectionable to him. I was so shocked that I was unable to reply at the time. The same person also advises the courts in child custody cases. How on earth can he keep his personal bias out of the advice he offers the courts?
Maybe surprisingly, he is actually a good man, not a bad person at all. So how could a person like that say such horrible cruel things? Maybe Aldous Huxley gave the answer to that in Brave New World: “One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
Another landlord I talked with told me with some pride how he had tricked an older lady with beginning Alzheimer’s out of her home and got her to move into a bigger flat, with more rooms than she was able to use. He said to me about a new building he was constructing “It’s only for tenants, so it does not have to be (particularly) good.”
(That one, however, was not such a good man.)
Appalled, I have watched all sorts of people make fun of and enjoy other people’s hardships in Britain. Thankfully, there are still plenty of kind and compassionate people in Britain, in spite of that trend of unfettered greed at the expense of everything and everyone else.
There seems to be a general lack of conscience and accountability in the country, certainly also on the side of the government and among politicians, particularly on the side of the Conservatives (but also on the side of what used to be called UKIP), a generally accepted callousness and tendency to lie that I had not witnessed before. (No, it does not compare at all to what Donald Trump has been doing. The British lies are much worse, and much more deliberate.)
Where did all of this come from, I wondered? I set out to understand it. I started reading books about Britain’s history. I sometimes asked people questions, such as why they were much more sociable than others around them. Victorianism (Puritanism) provided half of the answer, but something was still missing. Eventually, I stumbled upon utilitarianism and saw that this was the missing link that I had been looking for.
By then, things had gotten much worse in the country and they have even gotten worse since. I am actually typing this on 11 December 2019 and I am very worried about tomorrow, when a national election will take place. There is so much hate in Britain and there have been so many developments here that bear such a strong resemblance to what went on in Germany a little under a century ago. I too have been a target of a lot of blind hate since I moved to the UK and it’s profoundly changed my expectations in life. Just about everybody despises just about everybody else in Britain, it often feels like. The Brits cannot allow this to continue because if it does, where is all of this going to end up?
The British government has developed the habit of trying to get away with as much illegality as it can unless someone challenges the government through the courts, usually successfully. In response, the UK government made fun about the courts and of judges, and sometimes simply ignored them. It also throws up as many hurdles as it can for people to benefit from the court judgments, and holds off on remedying the wrongs, often managing to drag out the process for years, seemingly hoping that most of the people affected will have passed away in the meantime.
To come back to utilitarianism, the word “utility” in relation to utilitarianism stands for something close to “pleasure” or “usefulness”.
Two privileged white men drove utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who invented it and his disciple John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who carried it forward. They did not set out to harm anyone, but their experience of the world seems to have been very limited.
Bentham was ahead of his times, surely, in his endeavours to make homosexuality a private matter instead of a crime. Unfortunately, he apparently overlooked that the way he phrased his ideas might also clear the way for considering child sex abuse merely a private matter.
Mill pushed feminism because he noticed the extent to which society and its customs had held back his wife. It is interesting that he appears to have used the phrase “social disability” to describe that phenomenon. It is interesting because it hints at the notion that many “disabilities” are not problematic by themselves, but because of hindrances that society creates for people who aren’t mainstream, who do not match the traditional ideal of the wealthy white male Olympian sports hero.
Utilitarianism’s massive impact on British society must have come from what trickled down to the public. Bentham and Mill weren’t academics tucked away in ivory towers. Bentham was a legal reformer and Mill was a civil servant and a national politician (MP), a public figure. Notably many of Mill’s general ideas were well known among the working class.
While utilitarianism isn’t the overall encouragement of spartan conditions but the application of calculations in decision-making and policy development, Bentham certainly envisaged spartan conditions for certain groups of people.
Bentham proposed to round up the beggars because their visible presence decreased the happiness of the more fortunate, according to him. He wanted them in workhouses, in an order that, also according to him, would reduce unhappiness. He wanted the deaf and dumb “next to raving lunatics, or persons of profligate conversation”, aged women next to “prostitutes and loose women”, the blind next to the “shockingly deformed”.
This is the opposite of accepting human diversity. This is avoidance of anyone who is not mainstream. This declares people who aren’t traditional sports heroes lesser beings. It also ignores and insults their intelligence.
Bentham’s disciple John Stuart Mill pushed utilitarianism further into inequality by distinguishing between lower and higher pleasures. Biological pleasures, such as the pleasure derived from enjoying a sheer necessity – food – or from enjoying sex were lower pleasures, in his view. Mill considered reading Shakespeare a higher pleasure. (I don’t, by the way. I prefer good food over Shakespeare, any time.)
Even today, it is still considered better to read Shakespeare than to enjoy the Simpsons, even though in practice, most people actually like the Simpsons more and therefore derive more pleasure from it, as Michael Sandel has often pointed out in his classes at Harvard and his books. Can’t we say that they’re both equally valuable and be done with it? Isn’t this the story of the emperor’s clothes all over again?
In this context, you can also see a string necklace of genuine pearls as more useful to a rich socialite than to the average Goth, even though the Goth might sell the necklace and get a year’s worth of food out of it as the Goth’s pleasure would rank lower than the socialite’s pleasure. It would even justify stealing the pearls from the Goth and giving them to the socialite.
Utilitarian reasoning is why so many UK politicians – and all of those who are currently in UK government – think that it is fine to have millions and millions of Brits – including children – live in deep poverty. It is also why they believe that it is fine to lie to the British public.
By the way, France had briefly seen similar ideas before Bentham came along in Britain. They were proposed by Claude-Adrien Helvétius who lived from 1715 to 1771. In the country that has “brotherhood, equality and freedom” (liberté, égalité, fraternité) as its national motto, however, these ideas were condemned so strongly – partly even banned – that they all soon disappeared from the scene.
The division in higher and lower pleasures was mainly Mill’s response to the criticisms on Bentham’s utilitarianism.
In Britain, many saw Bentham’s utilitarianism as a doctrine for swine (a doctrine that taught no more than the pursuit of pleasure), to which Mill retorted that it was better to have an unhappy human than a happy pig.
So he came up with his division into lower and higher pleasures.
He saw no point in trying to make a pig happy as that would only result in “lower” pleasures.
Of Mill, we know that he looked down on the British working class. He considered them nothing but liars.
But he wasn’t very fond of the British in general either. He considered them “parochial” and took pride in being able to read and communicate in French. Mill first visited France at age 14, where he enjoyed the “free and genial atmosphere of Continental life” very much, the same France that had previously rejected the ideas of Helvétius.
Yes, John Stuart Mill put great emphasis on intellectual pleasures at the expense of other pleasures.
He was home-schooled. His father started him on the Greek language at age 3. He began learning Latin soon after and read the Homer in its original Latin at age 7 or thereabouts.
I think it is fair to say that Mill’s views on life were probably somewhat distorted. He’d never experienced anything close to the needs of “lower” human beings, such as the need for food and shelter.
His mentor Bentham went to Oxford University at age 12, where he studied law.
As Bentham was well to do, he did not need a job and was free to pursue his own pleasures.
He was one of the founders of what later became University College London. He also founded a utilitarian newspaper called the Westminster Review.
I think we can also say of Bentham that he wrote from the exclusive perspective of a privileged man who never required any form of employment and who never experienced what it is like not to have a limitless supply of safety and security, let alone food and shelter.
I will let you draw your own conclusions.
Tomorrow is the day YOU get to decide what kind of society you want to live in. One that only supports the likes of Nigel Farage (who flees abroad every time things are not going well for him in the UK) and Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May and the right honourable Matt Hancock – or one that works for all Brits.
Do you want a government that sees YOU as expendable? As disposable? Or do you want something better for yourself?
Tactical voting can make a difference. Tactical voting is not – as some Tories have claimed – committing voter fraud by for example voting in two towns.
Tactical voting means that you vote for the non-Conservative non-Brexit Party (formerly UKIP) candidate who stands the best chance of getting elected in your constituency.
Because even marginally better candidates can still help make a real difference, even if you would actually prefer to vote for someone else.