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Will Self

“The principle ideologue of British society is Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarianism, which puts forward the idea that the aim of society should be to achieve the greatest good/happiness for the greatest number.

But I put it to you that it is precisely this Benthamite ideology that derogates the individual and removes the individual from her immediate experience and alienates her from the social and political process. […]

Take the Utilitarian philosophy where it leads you, and it tells you that human increase can only be a good thing. After all, there’s so much more good to be had when there are more of us.

So on the Utilitarian calculus, we’ll be in really good shape when all day, everyday we’re packed in just as tightly as we are in this hall… That is indeed the underlying prolegomena of the Utilitarian position. It’s an endless yay-saying to more of everything; it’s an endless yay-saying to knowing the cost of everything, because cost can be quantified, and Bentham loved to quantify.

But you can’t cost the real value of life. Just as you cannot know what other people are thinking and feeling. And philosophies that base themselves on such specious quantification throw up specious demagogues.

It’s up to us to be individuals, to discover our own nature of the good, and to respect other people’s idea of the good as well. And not treat them as cogs on a production line or bits in a factory.”

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The inimitable Will Self, presenting his opener in the IQ2 debate on the motion We’ve Never Had It So Good. (He’s one of the most captivating speakers, so don’t just read the text.)

Self’s opposition to this motion is pretty creative. It centers on his claim that you can’t tally up the “good” of a human life, much less of a society; and, by extension, attempts to score and impose goodness of this kind (whether through authoritarian states or utilitarian ethics) will inevitably lead to tyranny. Jeremy Bentham, though an original and very important thinker, produced a philosophy that minimizes the human being by reducing him to easily quantified component parts. In my opinion, utilitarianism is unsatisfying, since, as in the organ donor scenario — why doesn’t one healthy person donate all her organs to save ten people waiting for lung, liver, etc. transplants? — your humanity may be sacrificed for our utility. The autonomy of an individual life can be abolished. Its sanctity and its dignity may be made violable.

This isn’t to say I nod along with Self and disagree with the motion. By a ton of metrics (life expectancy, median wealth, exposure to violence, education, equality, and on and on), we’ve really never had it so good. Pinker is good on this point. And I’m a consequentialist: I believe our moral scales should be tuned more to outcomes than intentions — so metrics really do have a story to tell. But his point is more profound than that. And the idea that “good” should be kept, in some sense, relative — out of our own modesty, our own inability to know what’s the good life for others — appeals to me.

More Self: