The other day a friend of mine mentioned that his political stance was neither liberal nor conservative but in fact “utilitarian”. I asked him what this meant, and he explained that a person upholding a utilitarian viewpoint condones whatever sort of socio-political system which benefits the most people in the best way possible. At the time that sounded like a pretty good idea. But after thinking it through I have to wonder if utilitarianism-at least if applied to American politics-isn’t really just veiled socialism.
Since utilitarianism is fundamentally founded on the idea that the best socio-political system is one which provides the “greatest good for the greatest number of people” one might contend that a utilitarian viewpoint of politics does not take any side whatsoever and could just as easily uphold a capitalistic world view. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to wonder if (at least in current American politics) one were to follow the tenants of utilitarianism to its fullest extent, if one wouldn’t end up with socialism by default. Here’s why:
A subtle yet serious issue with ambiguity arises concerning the definition of the terms “best” and “most people”, or “greatest good” and “greatest number of people”. If by most people we mean as many people as possible under any current socio-political system, one could argue that capitalism already provides the most people with the best options possible so long as best means, for instance, $100,000 a year or more. Capitalism is probably the only system which allows as many people to make $100,000 a year as possible (without decreasing the value of the dollar, of course). The problem here is in quantifying “greatest good”, since this can easily be understood as a relative term. What is good? Is it a certain quality of life, or is it the opportunity to experience a certain quality of life? The Constitution grants Americans the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. The only way to fix this problem is to have everyone pre-agree upon some standard of “goodness”. But even then one runs into a problem of applying such a standard to “the greatest number of people”. How are we to determine, for instance, if that term means the greatest number of people as a whole, or as many people as possible without changing the value of “goodness”. There is a difference between promising to provide X amount of goodness to everyone and promising to provide X amount of “goodness” to as many Y amount of people as X is capable of being achieved under the current socio-political construct.
Modern American World View
Modern Americans are becoming increasingly dependent on the government’s recent tendency to give free handouts. It seems that when most people think of the terms “greatest good” and “greatest number of people” what they actually mean is providing X amount of “goodness” to everyone. Since quantifying subjective terms such as “goodness” , “well-being”, or “quality of life” is virtually impossible, a utilitarian social viewpoint would require that the government define a standard amount of either money or some other form of credit and distribute it equally to all in order to ensure that everyone obtains “goodness”. This is nothing more than socialized wealth distribution.
Whether America ought to be more or less socialized is debatable, but if one is to truthfully uphold utilitarianism as a practical socio-political stance, one is really upholding socialism.