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Is this a valid philosophy to live by?

Wikimedia, CC 2.0
Source: Wikimedia, CC 2.0

Most of us want to live a life in which we make a difference. To that end, it helps to have a guiding principle, something we keep in mind as we make major life decisions. One such principle is utilitarianism. It’s perhaps most easily explained by example:

In choosing a career, the utilitarian chooses one that uses the person's best abilities and skills to maximally benefit society. That differs, for example, from the person who chooses the career that is most lucrative, highest status, easiest to obtain, most fun, or glamorous.

In deciding how many hours to work each week, again the utilitarian’s priority is to maximize contribution. So, for example, s/he might think, “Which would yield the most benefit: Spending hours 40 to 50 at work or with my kids and spouse and on pleasurable outside-work activities? Which would yield the most net benefit to all the stakeholders: me, my family, my coworkers, customers, and society?” That line of thinking differs from common not-utilitarian reasoning such as “All I need to do to keep my job is work 40 hours a week. Then I’m entitled to spend additional hours with family or on fun."

In deciding on a charity to donate money and time to, the utilitarian thinks, “Which charity will yield the most benefit? For example, intellectually gifted kids in working-class schools have much-wasted potential because programs for the gifted have largely been eliminated from public schools, few people or nonprofits fund that and, unlike in wealthy families, working-class parents lack the money and perhaps wherewithal to help their child live up to their potential. Yet kids from working- and middle-class families are not so beset by the multigenerational poor's constellation of problems that money and time spent on them is likely to yield less societal gain. So I’ll donate my money and time to those working-class gifted kids.” In contrast, a not utilitarian person might think, “Well, my mother died of cancer, so I’ll donate to cancer research.” The latter person failed to consider the likely net benefit of their donation. Cancer research is already heavily funded. Not only would that person’s donation add very little to the pot, their donation is unlikely to fund important research that otherwise wouldn’t get funded.

Another common not-utilitarian approach is to say yes to a human asker even if the cause isn't the best. For example, your fellow alum calls and asks you to donate to the college for scholarships. Even though your money will just replace money the government would have given to students, thereby enriching the colleges' coffers without allowing some kid to go to college who otherwise couldn't afford it, it's tempting to say yes. One more example: Your friend asks you to donate to the museum or symphony. Quietly, you believe other causes yield more benefit but you'd feel bad about saying no, so you donate money or time."

A counter position: Rawlsianism

Many people find utilitarianism too coldly rational.

For example, a pure utilitarian believes it wise to base resource decisions on “the battlefield medic triage” principle: Devote your limited resources not to the sickest patients but to those with the greatest potential to live. That’s easier to adhere to in the abstract but, especially when you see “the least among us” up close and personal, for example, in those commercials showing a pathetic dog in a cage, many people replace their utilitarian predisposition with, “I generally support utilitarianism but when there’s extreme deprivation, I should address that.” Indeed that is respected liberal philosopher John Rawls’ position.

But Rawlsianism can result in less good accruing. For example, a person deciding whether to volunteer in a school or in hospice could think, "I'd feel guilty just listening to kids read when dying people so need my comforting." Such thinking can feel good in the short run but, by definition, allocating resources away from where it's likely to make the biggest difference will, in the long run, lead to more pain and less gain.

The takeaway

Most people go through life without any foundational principle. Whether you choose pure utilitarianism, utilitarianism with a safety net (Rawlsianism), selfish/contributory balance, or pure hedonism (The pursuit of happiness trumps all), this article will have served its purpose if it encourages you to make a conscious choice so you do life as you wish rather than have life buffet you.

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
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