Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is this what Bentham and Mill had in mind?

Our household, like so many others, subscribes to a fundamentalist utilitarian philosophy. Our everyday decisions fall back on the principle of utility by default.
(You remember the Principle of Utility, surely: We ought always to produce the maximal balance of positive value over disvalue. Or in lay terms: greatest happiness for the greatest number. )
When applied to baking this means that the number of biscuits produced should be evenly divisible by the number of children in the household. Happiness for them with biscuits, happiness for me not listening to them argue over who got more biscuits. Maximal positive value achieved.
But this happy balance was thrown off by the Professor of Pedantics going to visit a friend, leaving us with an extra biscuit.
Boy genius was the first to identify the problem.
“Where’s PP?” he asked.
“Gone out,” I reply.
“Where’s PP biscuit?” He looks expectantly at me.
As an initiate I understand that he is asking for his sister’s biscuit since she is not here to defend her right to it.
So there it is-Moral Dilemma.
If I give him the biscuit then his happiness increases but the Profs happiness is bound to decrease when she returns home and her biscuit is gone. This of course assumes neutrality on the part of the Mistress of the Bleeding Obvious, though in reality she will also be unhappy that she did not receive an additional biscuit.
Things were not looking good for boy genius and the biscuit. Then I recalled that the principle of utility allows for unjust social distribution-this is one of its main faults.
It was obvious that boy genius’s level of happiness at having an extra biscuit far outweighed the combined unhappiness of his sisters at missing out on the biscuit and my happiness at seeing him happy had to be taken into account. And so the biscuit was his.
Ethics in action.
But I’m not sure this is what Bentham and Mill had in mind.