Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Greatest Good

The chief modern way approaching morality is to look for the greatest good to the greatest number. This seems to make sense. And it avoids the need for God or any set of transcendent ethical principles. Now the original meaning of good here is pleasure. And this is necessary if they are to avoid adopting some transcendent idea of good. But will this work?

The first question is, how do you justify it? Now the idea has obvious attractions. To believe that what gives the most people the most pleasure is what is moral is a pleasant concept. Like the idea that a hot fudge sundae has no calories. But how do we prove this? And make no mistake, it requires proof. Most of the more traditional forms of morality question it. That does not prove the idea that what is morally right is equal to what brings pleasure is wrong. But it needs some justification. And I know of none other than we happen to find it attractive.

But there is a bigger problem. How can we really determine what constitutes the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people? Even with ourselves this is difficult to determine. Will we in the long run gain more pleasure if we use some restraint, or if we pursue self-indulgence? There is a continual choice between sophisticated and crude pleasures. And if you try to figure out what will give the largest amount of pleasure to the largest number of people, many of whom may have different opinions of what will give them pleasure, it becomes an impossible conundrum. But beyond that, there is the problem that what gives a person pleasure depends on their philosophy of life. That is not just that different people get pleasure from different things, though this is itself a complication, but that the same person with a different outlook on life would get pleasure from different things. So we end measuring how we should live by a flexible yardstick with an unreadable scale.

Also, there is the problem that if we live only for pleasure, there are a number of things that determine how much pleasure we get  from life which are simply out of our control. And particularly for a person who has serious struggles in their life, this becomes something of a mockery. To tell someone with a serious disability or who is trapped in poverty that the purpose of life is to accumulate as much pleasure as possible is a slap in the face. So we really have only two choices; we can throw out morality entirely (which most people are reluctant to do), or we can seek something higher than pleasure to base it on. But living simply for our own pleasure wears awfully thin in the end.

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