Thursday, May 31, 2007

Utilitarianism Makes a Comeback

All schoolchildren should be given ‘happiness lessons’, says Professor Lord Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics.

The Labour peer and director of the LCE’s Wellbeing Programme, said happiness classes should last for an hour and be mandatory up to age 18.

Dr. Layard, who is a social policy adviser to the Government, draws on the philosophy of the 19th century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, urging that public policy should be an engine to promote public happiness.

The professor, who has undertaken much research to quantify happiness levels in our society, believes that capitalism, globalisation and individualism are responsible for an increase in net unhappiness. To counter this, Lord Layard ‘believes the central purpose of schools should be to teach “the secret of happiness”’, according to a BBC news report. In particular, he urges teachers to begin specialising in the science of ‘emotional intelligence.’

‘How can we expect people to learn to be happy without massive amounts of practise and repetition?’ Layard asks. ‘I believe it can only be done by the schools. Parents of course are crucial. But if we want to change the culture, the main organised institutions we have under social control are the schools.’

The plan is already being tested at the Wellington College. Last autumn the Berkshire boarding school introduced happiness lessons for older pupils, in collaboration with the Well-Being Institute of Cambridge University.


At first glance, Dr. Layard’s, proposals seem harmless enough. After all, who would contest the importance of happiness, on both the individual and social level? Surely the worst that could arise from providing ‘happiness classes’ is that time and resources would be wasted on something that cannot be taught. But it is hard to see anything sinister behind these proposals.

That is exactly what I thought before I began to investigate Dr. Layard’s philosophy.

Dr. Layard’s system begins with a premise that Christians will be able to agree to, namely that there is a ‘moral vacuum’ in our society. Because of this, he suggests, ‘We need to go down the route of giving values to people.’[i] The professor points out that we cannot achieve this without an ‘overarching theory which would help us resolve our moral dilemmas.’ That is where Layard steps in with the answer:

"I want to suggest that the right concept is the old Enlightenment one of the greatest happiness. The good society is the one where people are happiest. And the right action is the one which produces the greatest happiness."[ii]

This approach to ethics is known as utilitarianism and owes its popularity to philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In Bentham’s book Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he argued that in order for an action to be right it must first conform to the principle of utility. An action conforms to the principle of utility if and only if its performance will be more productive of pleasure or happiness, or more preventive of pain or unhappiness, than any alternative.

Bentham believed that all ethics could be reduced to this simple yardstick. Any decision that conforms to the principle of utility is right while all actions that do not conform to it are wrong.[iii]

Utilitarianism was very much a product of Enlightenment Modernism. According to Modernism, there was such a thing as objective truth, and man could discover it using his reason.

In the 20th century, however, there was a shift to what has come to be called Postmodernism. In contrast to Modernism, Postmodernism says: ‘You cannot find objective values through utilitarianism, Christianity or any other route. The best each person can do is create his or her own personal truth. What is true to you may not be true to me.’ Postmodernism has thus created a moral vacuum, where there are no clear signposts that tell us what we should or should not do.

Although Postmodernism has done a thorough demolition job debunking the absurdities of Modernism, there are some contemporary thinkers who still work within a Modernist mindset. For example, Richard Layard and Richard Dawkins both believe universal values exist and are discoverable through man’s unaided reason. Both men believe ethical values exist and can be inferred on the basis of some form of utilitarianism.[iv]

In encouraging in a return to utilitarianism, Professor Layard is aware what he is up against, yet believes it is necessary because of the moral vacuum of our postmodern age.

"This [utilitarianism] is not a currently fashionable view among philosophers. But they do not offer any alternative overarching theory which would help us to resolve our moral dilemmas. Instead they support various separate values: promise-keeping, kindness, truthfulness, fairness and so on. But what do we do when they conflict? What should I do if I have promised to go to my daughter’s play and my father is taken to hospital – keep my promise or be kind to my father? I see no way in which conflicts between principles could be resolved without reference to some overarching principle…. If the critics offered a convincing alternative ideology for public and private morality, we could argue about which was better. But, since none is offered, we have the choice between a society with no comprehensive philosophy or one that embraces utilitarianism."[v]


Lord Layard takes pains to point out that within his formulation of utilitarianism the goal is both the collective happiness of mankind as well as the happiness of every single individual.[vi] The problem is what happens when these two goals conflict, as they inevitably will? For example, what if hurting a hundred people would make me happy? Why would that be wrong? Suppose we say it is wrong because the happiness of the majority is what really counts. In that case, what do we do when the existence of certain people or groups is draining the happiness of the whole? Hitler believed he was justified in exterminating handicapped people since they were, quite truthfully, a drain on the economic system. What if killing one innocent person would make a hundred people happy? Anticipating this problem, Lord Layard writes:

"A horrible action – imprisoning an innocent in order to save lives, say – would require extraordinarily good and certain outcomes to justify it. The direct effects of an action should be considered when weighing up its morality, just as the results of it are."[vii]

In this revealing quotation, Lord Layard acknowledges that, in theory at least, a horrible action may be justified as the means to a desirable end. The proviso that we have to weigh things up very carefully before proceeding is less than reassuring when we consider that this was exactly the philosophy that lead to the gas chambers of Auchwich. Hitler believed the world would eventually be happier in the long term if he could steer the course of evolution by eliminating the weak. And it must be admitted that within a Darwinian framework there was a certain ruthless logic to Hitler’s view. (See my article 'Darwinism Encourages Racism, Eugenics and Fascism') After all, if the weak will be eliminated anyway through natural selection over many generations, leading to ongoing pain, wouldn't it be more efficient to get it all over and done with at once so that only one generation experiences pain? No doubt Layard would not agree with Hitler's policies, yet on the basis of his own utilitarianism, he could only say that Hitler was mistaken in his means, not in his ends. Hitler just hadn’t weighed things up properly.[viii]


Dr. Layard suggests that we are morally obliged to ‘accept the utilitarian objective’ because ‘It is in our nature to want to be happy’ and because we have an innate sense of wanting other people to be happy just as we have ‘an inbuilt sense of fairness.’ He points out that human beings get on better when they work together, and we are not as happy when selfish. However, because ‘natural sociability is not universal’ it is also important to ‘watch our back.’

It is hard to see how this appeal to nature can be taken seriously. Since Lord Layard acknowledges that both sociability and unsociability are common traits, on what grounds can he arbitrarily decide that the former and not the latter is natural, and therefore virtuous? Apart from this, there does not seem to be any logical connection between a thing being natural and a thing being virtuous. In a Darwinian universe, it is natural for the strong to oppress the weak, but that would not automatically make such behaviour right.[ix]


Lord Layard’s utilitarianism, in offering a purely secular framework for morals, ends up creating more problems than it solves. We have seen that it offers no standard for adjudicating between the happiness of the individual and the happiness of the many. More worryingly, Lord Layard’s philosophy provides a theoretical base for justifying evil in order to produce a greater good. We also considered the fallacious and problematic attempt to ground a theory of ethics in what comes naturally. If space permitted, we might also have pursued the political dangers inherent in Layard’s view that government is an engine for administering pleasure.

The root of all such problems is the attempt to ground ethics in something as changeable and fickle as ourselves. What we require is a transcendent standard external to us. Christianity teaches that there is such a standard. God has given us the Bible so that we can know the difference between right and wrong and act on that knowledge. We are not left on our own to engage in fruitless philosophical speculations as to what is right and wrong, because God has already revealed it to us.

While the Bible shows that happiness is a blessing, the Lord also warns us that any good thing can become corrupted when pursued apart from God. Happiness was never meant to be an end in itself but, rather, the natural outcome of seeking God’s glory in all that we are and do. If happiness is pursued in any other context, it becomes an idol, as the philosophy of Lord Layard so clearly demonstrates.

[i] From the BBC article ‘Pupils “need happiness lessons”

[ii] Richard Layard, lecture ‘What Would Make a Happier Society?’, 5 March 2003.

[iii] “Utilitarians” writes Gene Edward Veith, “decided moral issues, not by appealing to transcendent absolutes, but by studying the effect of an action upon the system. Stealing is wrong, not because the Ten Commandments say so, but because stealing interferes with the economic functioning of society. Something is good if it makes the system run more smoothly. Something is evil if it interferes with the cogs of the vast machine. Practicality becomes the sole moral criterion. If it works, it must be good.” Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought & Culture (Crossway Books, 1994), pp. 33-34.

[iv] Richard Dawkins’ utilitarianism is more complex. See my comments on The God Delusion.

[v] Richard Layard, lecture ‘What Would Make a Happier Society?’, ibid.

[vi] ‘And following the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, I want a society in which people are as happy as possible and in which each person’s happiness counts equally. That should be the philosophy for our age, the guide for public policy and for individual action.’ Article ‘Happiness is Back’ for Prospect, March 2005.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Lord Layard tries to get round this problem by stipulating that it is not a problem. He writes that “the Benthamite rule provides an increasingly practical yardstick for public policy and for private ethics. I would modify it in one way only – ‘to give extra weight to improving the happiness of those who are least happy, thus ruling out the oppression of minorities. (This also deals with the superficial objection to utilitarianism that it would vindicate the brutal abuse of a small minority if such abuse made the majority happier.)’” Ibid. The ease with which Lord Layard sidesteps this ‘superficial objection’ by simply stipulating that the philosophy must be appropriately modified is not reassuring. Consider that it might be just as easy for a more consistent utilitarian to come along and stipulate that less weight should be given to those who are least happy, or even that they should be killed so as not to drain the net happiness of those who can more easily be made to experience pleasure? On the basis of utilitarian philosophy, who is to say which approach is preferable?

[ix] Mark Linville has pointed out that unless we have a concept of design, ‘it is difficult to see how the term “normal” can retain its normative connotations. All that is left is the statistical-average sense of the word, which is merely a measure of the prevalence of a behavior by its occurrence in some percentage of the population. But the statistical-average sense of “normal” is, by itself, hardly sufficient for censuring certain desires or behaviors.’ (Salvo issue 2, spring 2007, ‘Animal Urges’, p. 68-69)
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