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Ground and Consequence:
A Note On the Pitfalls of Pragmatism and Utilitarianism.

New Zealanders are as susceptible as any other people to intellectual enthusiasms and philosophical dogmas, yet are not at all given to systematic philosophy, which they generally abjure, and pejoratively dismiss as “ideology”.   Their tendency to avoid any profound philosophical enquiry does not, however, have the effect of sparing them from the errors and partialities of philosophical systems.  Rather, it simply means that the philosophical fashions and phrases which they adopt are drawn from elsewhere, based on premises to which they are oblivious, and incorporating arguments of which they have no critical understanding.

The philosophical systems on which New Zealand operates are utilitarianism*, imbibed from Britain in the nineteenth century, and pragmatism*, imported from the United States in the twentieth.  Even those New Zealanders who know little of philosophy, or perhaps one should say particularly such as those, will find reassurance in the knowledge that the guiding philosophies of their society are utilitarianism and pragmatism, for they have a strong belief that, on the one hand, utilitarianism and pragmatism are sensible and good guides to conduct, and that, on the other hand, the generality of  New Zealanders are impelled by precisely those considerations.

If  told that utilitarianism owes its origins to English empiricist philosophers like John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, and that pragmatism developed naturally out of utilitarianism in the work of the Americans William James and John Dewey, they would note with approval names remembered, perhaps dimly, as representing men of great intellect and unsullied reputation.  And if reminded that among the basic dictums of utilitarianism are that “happiness is the greatest good”, that virtue consists in seeking “the greatest good for the greatest number”, and “those desires and actions are good which promote the general happiness” or that pragmatism maintains that “the rightness of a belief may be judged by the benefits (or lack thereof) that the belief conveys to the believer”, they will, in all probability, declare themselves satisfied to be classified as utilitarian pragmatists.  As, for the most part, they surely are.

However these doctrines are not so incontrovertible as they may seem to those who have no knowledge of systematic philosophy or theology on which to base a critical assessment.   The idea that happiness is the greatest good, which is the most fundamental tenet of utilitarianism, carries with it all the dangers of a seemingly self-evident truth which is rarely subjected to critical examination.  The associated precept, that good outcomes are more important that good intentions, finds support in the popular adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Once “good intentions” have been disposed of, it is but a small leap of logic to assert the laissez-faire economic principle that “the common good is best served when each individual pursues his own personal interests”; that human actions are to be judged not by their motives, but by their consequences; and that, furthermore, selfish motives may have desirable consequences.  In other words, the corollary of the “road to hell paved with good intentions” is “a road to paradise paved with bad (or at least neutral) intentions”.   Where such utilitarian doctrines hold sway, Immanuel Kant’s maxim that “the only thing that is truly good is a good will”, may be overwhelmed and effectively extinguished.  Goodness, the utilitarian believes, consists neither in a kind and loving heart, nor in generosity, nor in compassion, nor in adherence to a tried and proven moral code, but rather in actions which, regardless of intent or expectation, result in an increase in the sum total of human happiness, however that may be conceived and measured.

Consider, for example, the situation of a person contemplating the rightness of entering into a sexual relationship.  A moral system will prescribe simple rules of conduct which are independent of any supposed consequences, and those who act according to the rules will be justified, in the theological sense of the word, meaning that the social order can be expected to act so as to protect them from any adverse consequences of a moral decision.  A moral decision, that is to say a decision made in accordance with established moral ground rules, such as the decision to refrain from adultery, may be emotionally difficult, but tends to be intellectually straight-forward (or, to use a phrase with more critical connotations, intellectually facile.)  In contrast, utilitarianism logically depends upon a rational analysis of all the possible consequential effects of the decision.  Of these, the possible physical consequences (including pregnancy and venereal disease) are more apparent than the longer-term, and more indirect, economic, emotional, and social consequences, and yet, notwithstanding the extensive education which New Zealanders receive in the utilitarian approach to sexual relations, unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease continue to be major social problems.  That is an indication that utilitarianism is not working particularly well even in those areas where it might be expected to work best, and even when considerable resources have been committed to the effort to ensure that it will work as well as it possibly can.

Utilitarianism is also replacing proscriptive Judaeo-Christian morality as the underpinning philosophy of important parts of the New Zealand legal code, including the laws on abortion, establishment of legal gambling operations, censorship, environmental protection, insider trading, sales of land to foreign purchasers , and the creation of positions of market dominance through mergers and takeovers.    These matters, which, for the most part, were previously the subject of prescriptive laws, and hence judged on the basis of objective determinable facts according to strict legal rules, have now become matters to be judged on the basis of expert opinions as to probable consequences of a particular course of action.    It is significant that while prescriptive laws may require the involvement of experts in the provision of evidence, they do not fundamentally depend upon such expert involvement - which is why lay judges, in the form of the jury, have always been deemed fit to judge in legal proceedings on matters of proscriptive law.    However the consequential calculus involved in utilitarian type judgements is (not unreasonably) deemed to be beyond the abilities of lay people.   Therefore various experts and expert bodies - abortion certifying consultants, the Commerce Commission, the Casino Control Commission, and the Commissioners of the Environment Court, or the Environmental Research Monitoring Agency - are considered necessary in order to predict the “probable consequences” of allowing or forbidding, respectively, an abortion, the establishment of a casino, an industrial development, a company merger or takeover, or an experiment in genetic engineering.   One of the most obvious effects of utilitarian law is that it dis-empowers both the lay public and the representative legislature by removing these matters beyond the realm of their control and understanding.   At the same time it empowers a class of non-elected experts whose implicit claim to objective and omniscient foresight are rarely held up to scrutiny.

If that was where the matter ended, it would be cause enough for concern.   But it goes further.  The consequential calculus, even if sincerely adhered to at the outset, comes to be seen as both cumbersome and repetitive.  By imperceptible degrees a new permissive certainty takes the place of the old proscriptive rules.    Abortion certifying consultants come to believe that wherever an abortion is requested, it is ipso facto justified.    Casino authorities become convinced that only in the exceptional case will a casino have a net detrimental impact, and commerce regulators accept as axiomatic that the unimpeded progress of capital must work to the common good.  Censors, whose own subjective judgement stands in place of law, see little harm arising from artistic works that contain explicit sexual content, obscene language, or gratuitous violence.  The utilitarian experts thereby tend, in the long run, and to greater or lesser extent, to become, in the common parlance “rubber stamps”.   This marks the endpoint of the change from proscriptive law to a permissive “laissez-faire” social order, from one dogma to another, via a utilitarian intermediary which manifestly falls short of  its own aspirations to “judge each case on its merits”.  For many, however, the practical failure of the utilitarian ideal is of little concern, and the change from proscriptive “Judaeo-Christian authoritarianism” to permissive “individual freedom” is perceived as a positive good   But what is sometimes overlooked is that the laissez-faire society, in subjugating the common interest (represented by proscriptive law) to the self-perceived interest of individuals or bodies corporate, provides freedom only to those who already possess power, and only to the extent that they already possess power.  The assumption that those who have the conviction of power will always act in the interests of those who lack power - for instance that expectant parents will always defer to the unborn child, that casinos will always extend protection to the gambler, and monopoly suppliers will always seek to provide goods and services to market at the lowest possible price - may be  justified in a few cases, or even  a majority of cases, but never in all cases.

There is a tendency, therefore, for utilitarianism, on account of the immense difficulties associated with its practical application,  to naturally subside into permissiveness, with all the attendant problems.   But even in those cases where utilitarian systems and institutions fail to deliver completely permissive outcomes for vested interests - for example the institutions for environmental protection constituted under the New Zealand Resource Management Act - such impeccably utilitarian institutions may come under intense criticism on the ironic grounds that they are costly, cumbersome, slow, restrictive, and therefore themselves fail to satisfy the utilitarian criteria which they were set up to administer.   A second topical example is the attempt to prevent the Commerce Commission from investigating the likely consequences of, and issuing a ruling on the acceptability of, the proposed dairy industry mega-merger.  Once again, utilitarian arguments are being advanced in favour of over-riding the checks and balances provided by a utilitarian institution.

Whether applied at the social or the individual level of human conduct, utilitarianism denies the possibility of passing judgement on any action except by reference to the  consequential calculus,  a cosmic balance sheet of all the pleasurable and painful effects presumed to  arise from the action itself.  As such, it has been taken up with cynical enthusiasm by the exponents of laissez-faire economics, who are able to assert (though never able to demonstrate) that any project in which they have a vested interest - from genetic engineering to the global trade - results in a net increase in human happiness, or, in the language of the calculus “the greatest good of the greatest number”.   Where the consequential calculus is able to assume a concrete form - as in the realm of contemporary politics - the results are, if anything, even more inimical to the moral order.   Bear in mind that “the .. good” in the formula “the greatest good of the greatest number” has no relation to moral virtue, but rather is synonymous with “pleasure” or “happiness” and it will be apparent that utilitarian doctrines provide the philosophical justification for contemporary Gallup Poll politics, which by any other standard would be classified as cynical, manipulative, and fundamentally amoral.

Those within the utilitarian camp who maintain a lingering respect for the notion of morality as such, attempt to reconcile their conflicting beliefs with the idea that an improvement in the moral condition of the individual and society will follow naturally from the increase in material goods which utilitarianism (whether in its laissez-faire or political guise) will provide.  This idea, that affluence leads to benevolence, while poverty begets evil, has a superficial plausibility, but at root is as fallacious as the pre-Pasteurian beliefs that moulds spontaneously generated in stale bread, and rodents could be spontaneously generated in full grain stores.  Thus utilitarians implicitly deny Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of the “good will”.  They believe that material well-being is the proper aim of human society, and that moral virtue is only an incidental (albeit desirable) consequence of material well-being

But from the moral point of view, what is of primary importance is the ground on which people act, rather than the consequences of their actions.  Any rule of conduct based on consequences suffers from the following three defects.

First, that since the consequences of ordinary day-to-day social acts are, in their very nature, unpredictable, they cannot provide a reliable a priori guide to what should be deemed socially beneficial conduct.   That is to say, consequential morality provides no a priori guidance as  to the rightness, or appropriateness, of an intended action.

Second, because consequences are always more or less indeterminate, they can provide no definitive evidence of the “rightness” of an action, even after the event.    That is to say, consequential morality provides no satisfactory basis for judgement, or self-judgement, of a completed action.

Third, that on account of its indeterminacy, consequential morality becomes enervating to the individual, and cumbersome to society.   The proper implementation of consequential morality requires an excessive expenditure of time and mental energy both in deciding on an appropriate course of conduct, and in later examining, or judging that conduct in accordance with its actual consequences.    Both the individual and the social institutions can become  paralysed, so preoccupied with the mental mechanics of consequential morality that they lose the capacity to act in the world.

Fourth, that the very impracticality of consequential morality leads to its supersession by anomie and amorality.    Both laws and moral rules are progressively discarded.

Fifth, that because to trust another person means to have an implicit confidence in the way that person will behave in any given situation, and because it is impossible to confidently predict the conduct of a person who adheres to a system of consequential morality, the necessary basis of trust between individuals is broken down.

To sum up, consequential morality removes the simple guides to conduct, it undermines the basis of judgement, when implemented conscientiously it impairs the capacity to act, and when implemented pragmatically it ends in amorality and anomie.  But possibly the most telling of all objections to consequential morality is the fifth, and last, stated above: the destruction of the normal basis of trust between individuals.   A relationship, or a society, devoid of trust is a relationship or a society which cannot endure.

To first seek moral grounds for decisions that we may make in our personal, economic, or political lives is not to deny the importance of consequences, and indeed every conscious and rational human action, including morally determined actions, will have some regard to expected consequences.  But in a rational and moral society, the subjective grounds of an intended action - the motive, intention, or will of the actor - will be given at least equal standing with the anticipated objective consequences, and similarly the grounds of any past action will be regarded as being at least as important as its consequences when it comes to assigning merit or blame. Where the moral ground of action - the “good will” - has been overwhelmed by utilitarianism, it will be found that, quite contrary to the assumptions of the utilitarian doctrine, good consequences, if not completely driven out, will, at least, be severely reduced in scope.

In theory, utilitarianism is wholly concerned with the consequences of actions, to the exclusion of intentions.   In practice, utilitarian professions of concern for consequences are often feigned, and, in any event,  there rarely exist credible means for judging and assessing such consequences.

Pragmatism, which can be characterised as the application of utilitarian doctrines to the realm of knowledge, rather than action, similarly argues that the merit of any ideal should be determined by its social effects, rather than its grounds in fact and logic.

The pragmatic notion that the merit of a statement can be determined from its social consequences has  led to effective embargoes against, or political intervention into, important areas of social enquiry in New Zealand.   Examples include hostility towards those investigating differences in intellectual performance between races, the ban on the word “holocaust” in relation to the tribulations of the Maori people from the time of European contact, and the interdiction against the argument that the Nazi state had no explicit plan for the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe.   The danger in seeking to proscribe ideas on the basis of their presumed social consequences (the offence that might be taken by, respectively, ethnic minorities, the European population, and the Jewish community in New Zealand) is that it diverts attention away from the grounds of truth (verifiable facts), and, at the same time disrupts the dialectical process through which higher truths may be ascertained and established.   By which I mean that beyond the social mine-field surrounding such issues as the “holocaust denial” or “holocaust assertion” and so on, there lie more important fields of historical and moral enquiry.   While it is arguably best to avoid the mines already lying in one’s path - which means accepting the pragmatist argument to the extent of avoiding giving offence gratuitously or unnecessarily - it is likewise better for  interest groups, and particularly governments, to refrain from laying proscriptive mines in the path of those who are, however clumsily, journeying in the pursuit of knowledge.  Neither the  emotional reactions that an idea may inspire, nor its material consequences, should be the standard by which its validity is gauged.

Pragmatism has also had a major impact on the New Zealand education system, probably as a direct result of the influence of John Dewey, the twentieth century American educationist and founder of the school of philosophical  pragmatism.   It  occasionally emerges in seemingly innocuous forms, such as the belief that because personal self-esteem has (or rather is assumed to have) desirable consequences for the individual and the community, it should be cultivated in every student, regardless of how well or ill it may be grounded in the reality of individual character and behaviour.  But the pragmatist argument that a high sense self-esteem will benefit the individual, and on that basis can be deemed to be true and valid, is fraught with danger to such as remains of the moral fabric of society. The same logic when applied to matters of history, sociology, theology, or science so as to cause ethnic, gender, and social groups, or the community as a whole, to feel validated, justified,  or empowered can have the effect of not only assisting to obscure the  truth of a particular case, but, more perniciously, of creating a general disregard for the very concept of truth as something grounded in verifiable fact and sound judgement.

The problems of pragmatism extend beyond issues that may be considered politically sensitive and into areas that are purely technical.  For example some years ago I pointed out to a Professor of Economics at a New Zealand university that his interpretation of the multiple solutions to rate of return problems, although orthodox,  was mathematically unsound.   His response was to concede that the interpretation might be logically incorrect, but that since he had been successfully teaching that interpretation throughout his career, and since his students had also achieved success on their own terms, he could see no compelling reason for him to change his treatment of the subject.  His approach was pure and simple pragmatism, which assumes that it is acceptable to perpetrate a fallacy so long as there are no adverse consequences in practice.  His underlying assumption however, which is that if there are no perceived adverse consequences of an error, then there are, and will be, no adverse consequences, is itself an obvious fallacy.   The only rational assumption is that any belief not grounded in logic carries with it the risk, indeed the probability, of adverse consequences of one kind or another.    But to operate on that assumption is to reject the very basis of philosophical pragmatism.

Surprising as it may seem, utilitarian and pragmatic philosophies have enjoyed a measure of popularity in the religious realm, perhaps the most famous example being the “wager” of Blaise Pascal, who advanced the probabilistic argument that while God might not exist, it was still better to believe that God does exist.   If God exists, and you do not have faith, Pascal reasoned, then you will forgo eternal salvation.   If on the other hand you have faith in a God who does not exist, then there will be no seriously adverse consequences.  In fact, your life may be happier and better ordered than would have been the case if you had  lacked that misconceived faith in the existence of God.    Therefore it is better to believe in God, irrespective of whether the existence of God can be soundly established.    While Pascal was a man noted for both the brilliance of his thought and the sanctity of his life, the spiritual pragmatism of his “wager” hypothesis is repugnant to the concept of truth, and hence to the very being of that God whose essence is absolute truth.

Just as the faith of those who accept the doctrine of justification by faith may be based on nothing more noble than the pragmatic expectation of eternal salvation, so the actions of those who believe in justification by good works may be inspired by a mere utilitarian concern for the consequences in the afterlife.   It is for this reason that the widely disparaged and much misunderstood doctrine of predestination plays such an important role in orthodox theology. To be truly good, an action must be undertaken for its own sake (that is to say, it must arise purely out of the good will), and not in the expectation of material benefit, social approval, or even eternal salvation.   Hence in order for absolute goodness to have a place in the world, it is necessary to deprive human beings of the expectation that there can be any consequence to the individual soul arising from its own faith or good works, and the predestinarian doctrine (which is most often associated with the name of Calvin, but is in fact well grounded in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and forcefully articulated by St Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century) does precisely that, by teaching that one’s eternal fate is pre-determined by God from the beginning of time, and that, to borrow a phrase from Omar Khayyam “neither piety, nor wit ... nor all thy tears” may change a word of it.   To the English philosopher Bertrand Russell, predestination was “a ferocious doctrine”.   To a less noble soul it might have appeared as a license for immorality.   Properly conceived, however, the doctrine of predestination is neither licentious nor ferocious.   Rather it provides the necessary condition under which one can do good purely for its own sake, which is to say, purely for the sake of God.  It acts as a check upon the vanities and self-conceits to which the pious may be prone.   But, perhaps most importantly,. Predestination, somewhat paradoxically asserts that while everything is ordained of God, anything is possible.  It thus establishes the necessary philosophical basis for the concept of absolute “free will”, which is logically synonymous with “the good will” and thus provides a categorical refutation of the modern doctrines of economic and genetic determinism which go hand in hand with utilitarianism and pragmatism

It is perhaps unnecessary to go too deeply into the philosophical and religious alternatives to pragmatism and utilitarianism, beyond stating that they exist, that they fundamentally rely on the concepts of objective truth and the free will of human beings, and that they deny the capacity of human beings to comprehensively and accurately forsee their personal or collective destinies.   Pragmatism and utilitarianism, on the other hand, when adopted as the guiding principles of life, are inimical to truth, to moral conduct, to the human sense of awe and wonder, and ultimately to the very happiness of the individual and society which they profess to uphold.   Pontius Pilate asked "What is truth?" (John 18:38) and 2000 years later Bill Clinton effectively answered "Whatever you want it to be" - an answer which is in keeping with the mores and doctrines of our times, but one which does not serve humanity well.

* Definitions from the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary:

Utilitarianism: The doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority; the doctrine that the greatest good of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct
Pragmatism: the view that the truth of any assertion is to be evaluated from its practical consequences and its bearing on human interests.

Geoff Fischer
2 February 2001