[省思] Reflection on Michael Sandel’s lecture on Justice: Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism

Mobile phone Ericsson T28.
Ericsson T28

John Stuart Mill is right on several issues. First, Justice is the name of a mixed social consideration of collective utilities that are often implicit and unarticulated.

Second, not only does the appreciation of high culture take education and cultivation of interests, but it also distinguishes itself from low culture when you consider its longer-term effect (Katharsis) in your life. For example, men would choose a good woman with average looking for wife over a sexy and beautiful woman of poor temperament, even though women with average looking usually do not attract them at first sight. On the same vein, although Shakespearean works cannot compete with the Simpson Family in terms of instant pleasure, they are considered literary classics for but a different criterion: for the enduring moral transformation (and the pleasure associated with such transformation) they can yield .

For these reasons, I believe that utilitarianism/pragmatism is the only viable political ideology to govern a secular society. Indeed. all of us have already bought into it to a various degree, in spite the fact that other ideological apparatuses (such as socialism, liberalism, nationalism) are also being promulgated so as to convince us that “we are NOT just believing in utilities!”

However, a fully utilitarian commonwealth is unattainable, I am afraid, for the following reasons:

  • 1)     Not all the moral values in a human society are commensurable with monetary value: as Sandel pointed out in class.
  • 2)    To make the situation worse,  let’s realize that those monetary values individuals have assigned for their preferences, even when statistically quantified,  are not static and hence unreliable. They are always capricious and highly individualized, changing from persons to persons and from time to time. This is to say, human preferences and temperaments are floating both synchronically and diachronically.

I could never forget back in 1999 when Sony Ericsson launched their T28 mobile cell phone and had Kaneshiro Takeshi (金城 武) speaking for their marketing, it was such a hit and you can feel the buzz. The commercials were on TV all the time as well as giant billboards on the streets (one of them was on a building cross street to XingTian Temple 行天宮 on Min Chuan E. Road 民權東路 in Taipei City). As such, T28 became something many young people were craving although (or because) it asked for a premium (NTD$16500= USD~ $500) that they could not afford. A boy at 18 publicly announced that he would trade nothing less the rest of his life for becoming a proud owner of the Ericsson T28—golden version.

This was happening way before I got myself exposed to the theory of conspicuous consumption, and it left a stronger impact than any theory did in my life as it is a real life event. I have already been wondering what the boy is doing now in his life. Is he still willing to exchange his life for a Sony Ericsson T28? Can I ask him to cut off his toes if I tell him for every toe he cuts off of his feet I will give him a T28?

The point I want to illustrate here is that the boy who might agree to exchange one of his toes for a golden Sony Ericsson T28 (NTD $16500) might say No today. You could have owned his soul by giving him a T28 11 years ago, but today you might have to give him an apartment. Also if you asked another boy back 1999 if he wanted to trade anything in his life for a T28, he might also say No.

The moral values we believe are not only incommensurable with monetary value at times, but they can also be capricious and highly individualized.

  • 2)      Mill thinks that genuine utilitarianism/pragmatism should take into account the long-term effects they will exert on a given society, but I am afraid that he does not really know what « long-term » may consider. We are seldom long-term thinkers that think beyond our lifetime (cf. Martin Heidegger’s notion of dazein), just as we are seldom broad thinkers that that think beyond our limited scope (cf. « butterfly effect »)

Let’s suppose, if there is a painter whose works can be proven aesthetic masterpieces after a century, should we invest in him or not?

Or, let’s suppose you are a principal of a university and two investment proposals are put before you: one is about establishing a philosophical department and another building a civil engineering department. Each would cost the university 20 million to build and sustain– that’s how much your donor is allowing you to spend now. You have the foresight that the philosophers the former produces will keep writing works and lecturing in their lifetime, and the civil engineers will also presiding over construction projects in their lifetime. Among the philosophers, one will write his magnum opus at some point of time that will have a gradual uplifting effect upon the society of oncoming generations. While in the next 20 years the monetary value of these philosophical productions can hardly be said of high, 80 years later the inspiring work will nonetheless happen to be read by a dictator-wannabe; it will change his heart and will subsequently prevent the country from waging a devastating war that will cause 500 billion dollar worth of monetary loss.

As for the civil engineering department, you just realized that the net monetary effect the future engineers will bring to our society is 30 billons, but that profit will all concentrate in the next 30 years and that’s all.

Now, from a utilitarian perspective which department would you choose to establish –you are the principal of the university?

If your answer is the department of philosophy, then congrats! You have a clear mind and you know how to do the math. But unfortunately, utilitarians before and after Mill do not think like we do– they are mostly realists blind to the worth of the so-called “moral construction” work that humanities and religions are endeavoring. As I have mentioned, humanities and religions’ « monetary value » are like butterfly effect and implicit societal genes. Their effects are far-reaching and their real value may take ages to shine. Utilitarianism fails if we assess their worth like deliberating a commercial investment, focusing only what’s in our horizon (which is inevitable to all human beings according to Heidegger and Gadamer).

What this implies is that even if you want to follow Mill with all your sincerity, you still won’t be able to determine the utility of a thing. Indeed, who are us to predict and assign value to things that will only reveal themselves (and thus their true value and their essences) in, say, 60 years, 200 years, or 500 years later?

The equation with which we translate higher and lower pleasures to monetary values is bound to be flawed in every possible way. None of us is omniscient— Not you, not me, not “we”; but only God. Not everyone will be satisfied with money— Not you, not me, not “we”. Not God.

We are finite. But just because we are finite, we are also by necessity eschatological beings. Utilitarianism is indeed a humbling lesson for us.

We humble ourselves and we will behold the One who sees and judges everything from the eschaton.


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