CathBlog - The scourge of utilitarianism

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"Protestantism and Popery are real religions ..... but the Via Media scarcely has existence except on paper  ....  it still remains to be tried whether .. [it] can be professed and maintained in a large sphere of action." (Newman, The Prophetical Office.)

Newman (pictured) wrote these words early in his career, while still an Anglican. They show how clearly he understood that moral and religious argument cannot stop at mere words.

It is not like logic or maths, it is not enough to win the argument in the classroom, moral and religious theory must be put into practice. He therefore devoted all his energy into making the Via Media a real religion.

Newman's insight can be applied today to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism has an increasing and disquieting influence on Australian Government.

Utilitarianism was explicitly used at times during the Senate enquiry into embryonic stem cell research. It has also been used at times by the Greens, especially in regard to euthanasia, where the influence of Peter Singer is obvious.

Apart from any philosophical or religious reasons, there is something fundamentally wrong with the influence of utilitarianism.

I am convinced that utilitarianism is a mere "paper theory" and is open to the objection raised by Newman.  In the real world it does not exist. Utilitarianism has advocates but no practitioners.

A favourite example of one of my former teachers was "if a utilitarian reasons that the moral course of action is to boil his grandmother in oil, then that is what he should do."

Of course no one in their right mind would do such a thing and utilitarians are no exception. But if that's true then it seems utilitarianism can't be put into practice.

Another less extreme example is the raising of children. I often wonder how Peter Singer raises his children.

Suppose Singer had a son named Johnny. If little Johnny passes the blame to another child for something he has done at school, how does Singer react? Does he let Johnny explain his utilitarian conviction that he was doing the right thing and maximising preference satisfaction. Or is he like the rest of us, and marches Johnny back to school to confess, knowing full well that there is not a single thing that can be said that justifies such behaviour?

I believe Singer would do the same as me, even though his moral theory says otherwise. Why? Because raising children is too important to risk using doubtful theories. No one wants to risk producing ungrateful, mean or corrupt children. Our children deserve the best we have to give. And our love for them turns this from obligation into a kind of instinct.

This is why the world is full of churches, schools and families trying to use virtue ethics to produce people of good character; likewise for people trying to teach gospel values and a commitment to the ten commandments. What level of existential commitment could be greater than to use a theory on one's own children? We can honestly say that virtue ethics and divine command ethics are real moralities.

But where in the world can I find utilitarianism?  Where are it's schools and where are its families? Where are the things that would make utilitarianism real?

Utilitarianism produces books and journal articles. It can be found in political parties and university departments but it has no existential commitment.  It doesn't have a purchase in the everyday family life of people. Until it does, it cannot be seen as an authentic rival morality. Until then it is mere political spin.


Simon RowneySimon Rowney is a CathNews reader who blogs from Corrimal, NSW.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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