Thursday, January 07, 2010

Brooks & Mill (Nerd Pron #2)

I have explained before my position that Utilitarianism is in fact the progenitor of modern Progressivism, rather than Socialism as most seem to believe.

I am seeing more evidence of this lately, as in David Brooks's recent column with his whining about populist rejection of things valued by the "educated class":

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

Of course, the elitist attitude has been ripped apart quite thoroughly already by other bloggers. I'm just here to provide, shall we say, a bit of historical perspective.

Generally speaking, Utilitarianism as we know it today was codified and popularized by Jeremy Bentham. A close associate of Bentham's was John Mill; it is his son John Stuart Mill with whom I am currently most concerned.

Utilitarianism is an hedonistic philosophy--what is good is what is desirable. (Be certain to check out Moore's slap-down of that fallacy in my first link.) As a political philosophy, Utilitarianism dictates that social policies should be instituted according to the principle of the greatest happiness--the greatest number of people possible should be made happy, within reason. For Bentham, this was a simple equation. If you had, say, 100 people, and a particular thing--say, shooting the hell out of a piece of paper, given my audience--made 75 of them happy, then this was a worthwhile pursuit, and society should allocate resources toward it.

Mill did not hold with this. His main contribution to Utilitarianism was the belief that all pleasures are not created equal, and therefore not all pleasures are equally desirable. He said, in fact, that "[i]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."

Thus we begin to see the parallels between Brooks's "intellectualism" and Mill's theory of "competent judges". This is what Mill has to say about the ranking of pleasures:

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.
(Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is)

Granted, what Mill is discussing here is, specifically, that pleasures of intellect are to be ranked above merely sensual pleasures--he is saying that, for instance, a good book is better than a plateful of bacon. Make no mistake, though, there is still the worst sort of elitism at play here:

It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect.
Got that?

Now, here's the bit on competent judges:

From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both? Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous with pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced? When, therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the higher faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to those of which the animal nature, disjoined from the higher faculties, is suspectible, they are entitled on this subject to the same regard.
Of course, it would be erroneous to assume that those of us who prefer the bacon have no acquaintance with the books, but this is the sort of thing Mill would expect to be the case. He would not blame us, of course, for not knowing what's best for us, because "in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise," which is to say we just haven't had the opportunity to develop the correct opinions, and certainly if we had had that opportunity, we would have developed them.

David Brooks's outlook suddenly makes a great deal more sense when viewed through this lens. He and other intellectuals are the competent judges. We, the uneducated, are to accept their rankings and positions on these social issues. That the bourgeoisie are rejecting--vociferously--the conclusions of Brooks and other competent judges causes him a great deal of consternation. We must, therefore, be the swine and he Socrates.

As further exhibit of my belief that Utilitarianism is the most proper forebear of modern Progressivism, I present you this:

According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.
I will link to the online text of Mill's work on Utilitarianism, as well as to a couple of articles about him. If you've got the time to kill, read 'em. It's quite intriguing to me just how far what now passes as liberalism has come from the classical version thereof. Even given his bizarre belief that despotism can (in some cases) be a legitimate form of government, can you imagine Maureen Dowd writing a treatise on liberty and the importance of the individual?

Utilitarianism by John Stewart Mill
John Stewart Mill at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
John Stewart Mill at Wikipedia (This repeats much of what is at Stanford's site, but is written in a more accessible fashion.)

1 comment:

reflectoscope said...

Hi Sabra, I followed a link from Borepatch to your post.

I reckon any group of people who think they know better than everyone else is worthy of scorn and derision, so long as they're not in a position to meddle in the affairs of anyone other than themselves.

If he wants to think he knows how to run my life, he can for all I care, but if he tries to implement his policy then he is looking for trouble.