In a post-Enlightenment society, particularly since Jeremey Bentham and J.S. Mill, the ethical culture of our politics, institutions, and society in general, has been captured by utilitarianism. For clarification, when I say ‘utilitarianism’, I am defining it in the broadest application of the word, meaning that the common goal of increasing the ‘good’ or ‘happiness’ of as many people as possible is what fuels our ethical decision making. It is important to say, if I may, that it is not the aim of this article to either prove or disprove utilitarianism. Instead, I wish to explore the degeneration of utilitarianism into what I call ‘faux-utilitarianism’, which now has such a tyrannical grip over the politics of this country that many are not even aware of its presence – we accept it, just as we accept that the sky is blue.
The processes of public policy research and implementation in this country are dominated by utilitarian motivations. Our political slogans from across the political spectrum – such as Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘For the Many Not the Few’, the Green’s ‘For the Common Good’, or UKIP’s ‘Empowering the People’ – are ripe with utilitarian undertones of a majority-rule common good. Of course, in large part this is due to the nature of democratic elections. In order to receive the majority vote, you need to make the majority of people content. Modern liberal democracy is, almost by its very nature, utilitarian. Within the Civil Service, policies are researched and advised upon through the lens of utilitarianism, in the hope of addressing issues or implementing policies that might increase the common societal good.
On the surface, this might all sound fine and well. After all, why wouldn’t we want to increase the common good of society, making decisions that will benefit majorities? The more people well-off and happier people are, the better, right? But it is at this point within the political discourse that the curious beast of faux-utilitarianism rears its ugly head. When a political culture is ruled by faux-utilitarianism, we focus so much on the theories and rhetoric of increasing the common-good that we actually lose sight of the effects of its practical implementation.
A perfect example of this is the political discourse (or lack thereof) surrounding the National Health Service. Whenever the NHS is mentioned, its utilitarian triumphs are praised to high heaven: it has increased the overall standard of health, giving the majority free access to healthcare and medicine, and so on. As MP West Streeting has very recently discovered, to have even the slightest nuance that, even on an extremely surface level, challenges the utilitarian interpretation of the NHS is to write your own political suicide note. Even if what you are saying is true or will improve things, that does not matter, as it is the utilitarian rhetoric that matters more than the utilitarian outcome. To question the NHS, even in the slightest, as an infallible arm of utilitarian ethics is a dangerous heresy, worthy of the wrath of our Eternal Health Leader, Nye Bevan.
But a spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of NHS skepticism. Of course most people, myself included, are not suggesting the abolition of free healthcare. But if you look around, you will see and hear deflating groans of dissatisfaction towards the NHS – and they have always been there. During Tony Blair’s time in office, it was people moaning about getting GP appointments too quickly; nowadays it is people moaning about getting them too late. Yet, the political solution to these opposing things is always the exact same: the Government needs an even greater increase of power and money in order to truly establish the utilitarian aim of our social institutions. In faux-utilitarianism, it is no longer the common good as an outcome that matters, but rather the grasping of the political levers by which the “common good” can be controlled.
We see this grasping of the faux-utilitarian levers as clear as day in the recent news surrounding strike action. Apart from workforces such as train drivers or nurses, industrial (if we can really call it ‘industrial’) action has extended itself from the traditional working-class to the middle classes. Only a couple of days ago, it was announced that Civil Service Fast Stream graduates (earning £28k a year fresh out of university) were moving towards strike action, and the last few years have also been plagued with lecturers and professors striking. This is not to say these jobs are perfect and require no change, but it reveals something very interesting about the faux-utilitarian political system. In the faux-utilitarian narrative, all we ever hear about is talk of increasing equality, yet this exact same society has produced a political framework within which well-to-do bureaucratic servants and academics can strike, and receive establishment sympathy for it. But there is no chance for a minimum wage fast-food worker scolding his hands on hot grills of doing the same.
So, how is this justified? This strike action is justified by utilitarian rhetoric. They tell us they are not striking for themselves, but for the future of education, students, graduates, patients, taxpayers, and/or broader society as a whole. A McDonald’s worker, for example, cannot wield the weapon that is utilitarian rhetoric. For it is extremely difficult to make a sound utilitarian defence of McDonald’s (believe me, I used to work there). The moral justification of strike actions, particularly outside of traditionally working-class manual labour sectors, is no longer based upon relative or comparative conditions, or even social class, but rather by a utilitarian checklist that is justified by the mere political administration of these sectors/institutions. It is not a nod towards or battle for truth/justice, but rather a self-justification that is designed to fit within the approved framework of faux-utilitarianism in order to justify their own actions. To be valid, you must be able to prove your utilitarian worth, even if there is no proof of a positive contribution to the majority of society. Without this utilitarian worth, your pay, social class, conditions, hours, or discontent, do not really matter.
But here is the real kicker: it does not matter whether the claims of wielding utilitarian, common-good value are actually true. All that really matters is being able to control the utilitarian narrative, and faux-utilitarianism is precisely this. It is the domination of political discourse and social life through a utilitarian philosophy, but with no interest as to whether we are objectively witnessing utilitarian outcomes. All things politically permissible by the current system are justified by talk of the common-good, yet very little attention is actually paid to whether this common-good is manifesting itself in wider society. What is being defended in modern political discourse is not really utilitarianism, but rather a utilitarian rhetoric that preserves the status-quo of modern liberal politics, that reactionarily allows it to preserve itself against all criticism or change. So long as it can frame the opposing argument as being un-utilitarian, regardless of the proof in regard to policy outcome, no further justification is needed. And we swallow this en-masse daily.