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The Utility of Selflessness

Utilitarianism is a convenient solution for issues of morality. The concept is simple enough; maximize happiness and minimize pain for the most people in any given moral conflict. However much we may lay claim to other modes of thought, it seems to me that we often cleave to this system as a way of resolving moral issues in modern thinking. It is an especially strong notion when considered in light of the fact that the United States, a superpower in every sense, boasts such principles in the Declaration of Independence as protecting “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (US 1776). This concept of happiness has become synonymous with diluted ideas of freedom, contentment, holiness, and integrity, among others – all tainted with selfishness, and what late liberalist Western society says they are. I firmly believe that morality is ruined by this claim to selfish happiness. In this essay, I will argue that happiness is a weak basis for morality, and that through a proper understanding of inherently selfless concepts like holiness and integrity, we will naturally develop a much healthier basis of morality.

     Before delving into a discussion regarding my argument against Mill, however, it is important to examine his ideas thoroughly. According to the basics of utilitarianism, we ought to determine right actions based on what is called the Greatest Happiness Principle. This principle “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” In utilitarianism, “happiness” is characterized by the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain, and “unhappiness” is characterized by the opposite. Here utilitarianism is subject to the criticism that it is hedonistic, but Mill rejects this critique with his claim that we should abstain from “lower” pleasures and aim for superior, “higher” pleasures. In doing so, we put off the hedonistic, immediate sensual pleasures, and keep to the deeper, longer-lasting pleasures of mind and soul.

     While this is an important and useful distinction, I feel that the term “happiness” has lost its potency in modern day ethical thought. In delivering his theory of utilitarianism, Mill obviously treats pleasure and the absence of pain as ends in themselves, rather as a means to ends. Thus, Mill considers his version of happiness to be fundamental – it is what makes actions morally right in his mind. But it is important to emphasize that this happiness is not simply the happiness of the agent. Instead, we must consider the greatest happiness of all persons, and we may not privilege our families or friends. As Mill remarks, we must be “strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” when making decisions. This maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain is extended to all sentient beings in Mill’s theory – that is, to all beings with the ability to feel pleasure and pain.

     Mill’s theory may appear very attractive. I believe this is why many of his ideas have become so prevalent. It is a simple rule to follow – maximizing happiness – and the things that add happiness are nebulous and undefined. But herein lies the problem. This malleability in meaning is the very root of my concern. It seems that in modern thought, utilitarianism has sunk deep into the culture, and the subjectivity it carries has become an acceptable state for many concepts. As such, any one person’s chosen meaning for “happiness” is no more right or wrong than any other person’s. This leaves us with a decentralized view of a vital concept, for which subjectivity is not that answer.

     This ambiguity causes another problem. Because happiness has become a subjective metric of one’s emotional state, it has also become very selfish. We are very protective of our own happiness, and as a direct result, we are less concerned with what makes others happy, thus undermining the intended end of utilitarianism. It is interesting to consider the fact that utilitarianism by Mill’s standard only functions in an Aristotelian sense of community, where identity stems from the group, and eudaimonia is the goal. Without this community focus, and with fallen humans involved, utilitarianism crumbles.

     Eudaimonia, mentioned above, was once a strong concept of deep well-being (one may even describe it as joy) that Aristotle emphasized. In the same way that this has lost its strength over time, there are other examples of once-robust concepts that have become weaker in modern usage. Certainly, the essences of the ideas themselves are not weaker, but inasmuch as an idea is characterized and explained by the language surrounding it, they have been weakened. Take, for example, freedom, contentment, holiness, integrity, and even love; these have all been weakened for various reasons, whether it be from over-usage, misusage, or neglect for philosophical rigor, in a similar way that happiness has. Each of these has sustained damage in different ways and to different extents, but for the sake of space and succinctness, I will focus on integrity and holiness, and examine how these might be redeemed and thereby provide us with a more solid basis for morality.

     Integrity is the quality of having strong moral uprightness. It is a complex concept characterized by actions performed out of sight. Thus, these actions are only morally subject to the agent’s own judgment. Despite the fact that there is no external force requiring specific actions, integrity itself can be thought of as adhering to a moral code, since our actions are always directed toward a goal, indicating the values to which one wishes to adhere. This further implies a moral standard. Thus, it is also a sign of great character to live with integrity, being able to impose guidelines upon oneself and uphold valuable virtues, even without external influence.

     Holiness is also a concept we should consider, for the sake of its richness. It is most often used as a religious term, but even beyond its religiosity, there is value in considering the inherent separation and process that it involves. Obviously, “holiness” cannot be completely divorced from its religious meaning, but this is not the main point of this paper. The benefits of considering separation are such that we can separate ourselves from those who live morally subjective lives. By treating ourselves as holy, we give ourselves over to a different standard, since we are no longer bound by the moral codes of the world. In doing so, we are indeed, “set apart,” as holiness describes. Also, the process (in Christianity, sanctification) that comes through holiness, is a process toward selflessness, encouraging the kinds of community at which Mill was aiming. Further, by this separation we also loose ourselves of concepts that are weakened over time, and we are free to aim at complete well-being, fulfilling contentment, and deeper love, among others.

     While this is not an exhaustive examination of how happiness has been weakened, I hope that with the supplement of other rich philosophical concepts, it is easier to see that “happiness” is not a very strong moral basis, and we would do better with other goals in mind. All this to say that essentially, morality is not ultimately about human happiness, since happiness is too subjective a concept to uphold truly objective morality. Maybe other inherently selfless concepts would help us to build an ethical system that is healthier and more robust than the system proposed by utilitarianism.