I am currently teaching a seminar course using Thomas Sandel’s Justice as one of the main texts. It is an excellent book that concurrently digs and prods but that remains grounded in how peripheral and exercise-laden much of moral philosophy can be. Having never waded through many of these tenants of philosophy, I have had a good time wrestling alongside the students.
We recently explored Bentham’s Utilitarianism and his idea of pain and pleasure as sovereign masters and the guiding principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. He works out an example of this through his Pauper Management Plan where he suggests that beggars on the streets do not maximize happiness because when working folks see beggars, they become less happy because 1) they are disgusted or 2) they feel guilty. Thus, in order to maximize happiness for all, he suggested that all homeless folks be locked into a home out of sight. They would have to work everyday to support their stay in this house (i.e. lodging, meals, utilities, etc.), thereby costing the society virtually nothing. Workers would be incentivized to turn in homeless people with a cash reward that would in turn be tacked on to the homeless person’s bill. Thus, most folks who work would now be happy because they would no longer have to look at homeless people while walking throughout their day. Greatest good for the greatest number.
There are several responses to his plan. Some may find it undemocratic and a violation of individual rights to lock people in a home to work off some sort of imposed bill. An alternative indentured servanthood. Ideally, if a person wants to not work and live on the street, he should be able to do just that. Others my find this plan somewhat enlightened. They might suggest that if we could get folks off the street, they would be more likely to spend time on those streets – spending money, attending shows, etc. To a degree, several cities across the US have outlawed homelessness or some variation thereof.
Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the idea of greatest good for the greatest number, we must acknowledge that it is often a senior guiding principle of our time. Wars, taxes, social security, etc. are based on the greatest good for the great number principle.
My university is located in the bible belt and serves a highly republican/tea party student base. As would be expected, our discussion on the greatest good generally took a very Libertarian rebuff until we approached the current higher education system in the United States (and our very institution). The discussion took a very interesting turn.
Collectively we explored the idea of scholarships, grants, and student loans. I asked the class how they felt about agreeing to subsidize the education of a fellow student because he could jump higher and/or because she could swim faster because the university felt that it was in our general best interest to have these students representing us in athletic competition. Interestingly, they all agreed.
I asked the class about the university arrangement that allows for un-athletic students (and students who can’t debate, play an instrument, sing, etc.), who score lower on standardized tests to pay more to sit in class next to students who scored higher on the same exams in order to partake in the institutional prestige brought on my enrolling students with higher test scores. Students felt that it made sense for lower-scoring students to pay more in order to mutually reap the benefits of the university’s name on the degree certificate. They felt it very fair to charge certain people more money in order to subsidize the education of those students who scored higher, who were poorer, who were underrepresented, and so forth. This conversation was getting further and further away from where I expected it to go. The closeted liberal that I hide deep inside my psyche was growing more and more excited - could it really be?
Further, they fully agreed that the government should take money from each of our paychecks in order to redistribute the money in the form of grants and loans to folks who could not afford to pay for college tuition. They felt that an educated citizenry was critical to the function of our society and that we should help those who can’t afford tuition, bills, and housing.
At this point I became ecstatic. Thrilled.
Feeling lucky, I decided to go one step further.
I asked the class that since they felt that way about redistribution of income to support the education of the whole, would they support taking tax payer dollars and cents to help pay electric bills of those who were struggling to pay.
That question was followed by a chorus of boos, shouts of rebuttal, and a general disdain for poor people who don't want to pay their bills.
And…now were back.
- Listening to Johnny Cash & Social D
- Listening to Johnny Cash & Social D