In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: “[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as “good” meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. “Good” has, however, become associated with “goods,” that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.
This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his “fundamental axiom” is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that “goods” are good for us and so more “goods” will always bring more good in their wake.
But now I want to examine the second part of this phrase: “the greatest number.” It just makes sense to most of us that a right-thinking person would endorse the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Doesn’t such a framework maximize the life chances of the greatest number of people? Of course, it all depends on what one means by “life chances.”
What I want to point out is that “the greatest number” implies a doctrine of “acceptable losses.” If the net benefits of any course of action are measured for society as a whole instead of for every individual, then actions which kill many people are justified on the basis of the benefit to those who remain living. Such benefits are presumed to outweigh the loss incurred by those dying and those related to the deceased.
This is the bargain we have made, and it has led to mayhem everywhere.
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