The greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
There’s so many problems with calculating utilitarianism. For a start, the nature of happiness is confusing. I think most people would probably start talking about distribution of wealth. It was certainly my first instinct, but does money equate to happiness? Absolutely not. We’ve built a society where survival is equated to money directly, and then we train ourselves to believe everything beyond that is funded by the same. Money, as something exchangeable for any physical item becomes a mnemonic for everything we ever wanted. But there are not just things that money can’t buy, but trying to buy your way upwards is generally only going to make things worse.
But this is a digression. Albeit a relevant one.
Beyond the specifics of happiness, you have the fundamental trickiness of utilitarianism. It’s nigh on impossible to work out the outcomes of something before it is done. Particularly with regard to a complex system like a government, a country, or a world. It seems clear to me (as a radical of sorts) that a lot needs to be changed to make this world right. But can I decide what the right ways to do it? Would any of my instinctive decisions pan out anywhere near how I expect?
You can’t calculate utility until after it has worked.
But it’s a positive principle to start with. It’s a better way of thinking of things than whatever we have at the moment. (I’m not quite sure what philosophical system we are currently governed by, I don’t think ‘Win elections and keep your friends sweet’ really counts as a philosophical system).
Of course, the greatest possible happiness to the greatest number of people would actually mean ending exploitation. Britain is still built on the poverty of others. The way we spend, the wealth we have, is stolen and exploitative. It would not be enough to equalise this country, we would have to remove the reliance on oil and cruelty on which our happily cheap lifestyles currently depend.
Get rid of that and we need to find a way to make our own land work for us all. Fairly shared, and people working on things that make them contented. Worry less about pursuit of money, look after each other. Build real things that help real people. Bring communities together. Smash down fences and share the spaces, share the work and focus on everyone. End greed and poverty at the same time.
Is this even utilitarianism?
The government wouldn’t be able to control most of this. It needs a fundamental shift of attitude. Government would have to tear apart industry, preserve our environment, and give us all the freedom to work together. A government needs to stop people killing each other, and find a way to share.
A government that does that wouldn’t look like a government.
And a country that did that wouldn’t look like a country.
It looks like a dream.
But not forever.
Illustration by Emma