Like all of us, I constantly ask, or perhaps simply assume the answers to, such questions, and virtually all of my concrete political action is grounded in some set of beliefs about these matters. But once I attempt to think openly and systematically about them, I discover how difficult it is to arrive at answers that satisfy me. And that perplexity is entirely separate from the problem of persuading others of my opinions. More often than not, I find that I just don't know what I think.
The problem seems not to arise in quite the same puzzling way at the individual or familial level. Like all professors of philosophy who have taught Ethics, I have spent my share of time discussing test cases in which we are forced to choose among competing interests and claims. Should I endure the discomfort of a trip to the dentist in order to forestall the potentially greater distress of losing some of my teeth? Are the sacrifices required for a professional education compensated for by the career that follows? Should we cancel a long awaited vacation because one child is under the weather? Should we make the same decision in the case of a sick pet? How should we respond when an aging parent starts to show signs of enfeeblement and dementia and needs a level of care that will compromise the lives of the entire extended family? [I worry a bit more about this one these days, needless to say.] All of these, and countless others, are difficult questions, but they seem to me to be different in kind from the questions I raised in my first paragraph.
The philosophical doctrine that most directly addresses this problem is Utilitarianism, as articulated by Jeremy Bentham at the end of the eighteenth century and elaborated by John Stuart Mill a generation later. Faced with a choice among alternative laws or social policies, Bentham says, Choose the one that promises to produce "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," with happiness construed as pleasure, and in the calculation, each person in the society to count for one." This last specification was, in its day, revolutionary, for it meant that the happiness or unhappiness of the poor was to weigh as heavily in the social balance scales as that of the aristocracy.
There is a great deal that is wrong with Bentham's rule, not least of which is the sheer logical impossibility of maximizing two or more independent functions simultaneously [namely, the "utility functions" relating outcome to happiness for each person]. But its intuitive appeal forces it into our thinking whenever we struggle to form a summary evaluation of a major social policy, or even an era. The most serious objection, almost all philosophers would agree, is the failure of utilitarianism to make a place for considerations of justice or human rights. Bentham's rule seems to tell us that oppressing, torturing, or even killing a few is acceptable, even required, if it will yield greater happiness for many. Would slavery be morally clean if we reduced the numbers of slaves sufficiently and took full account of the great pleasure that it yielded to the slave owners? I certainly think not. Just such considerations led John Rawls, in his widely acclaimed book, A Theory of Justice, to try to make an intuitive notion of fairness central to the principles regulating a society.
I am led to these reflections by the reports now current in the press about the impact of the financial crisis on American society. It would be easy for those who never lived through the Great Depression to imagine that what we are now experiencing cannot be anything like that disaster because American society, despite the bad numbers, seems to be in reasonably decent shape overall. But that would be a mistake. Let me explain.
I was born during the Depression, and was three weeks away from my eighth birthday when American entered Word War II. My father was a New York City high school teacher and my mother was a secretary and office worker. Both were employed full time until 1950, when my mother's first heart attack led her to stop working. We had quite adequate food, clothing and shelter, and a small car. We spent summers in the Catskills, renting a converted barn. Although we were, as a family, not at all affluent, we were essentially untouched by the economic crisis. The same was true for most Americans, of course, inasmuch as unemployment reached 25%, which means that 75% of the work force was employed. If you take a look at the movies of that era, you will find that they are filled with beautiful people who seem to spend all of their time in evening gowns and tails. John Ford's great 1940 movie, The Grapes of Wrath, with its unforgettable images of displaced Mid West farmers driven to the edge of starvation, is not at all what most of America looked like, even though it was an absolutely accurate portrayal of the lives of millions of Americans.
We are in the grip a similar perceptual illusion today. One fourth of all men of prime working age are unemployed. Unemployment among Black youth exceeds fifty percent. Millions of Americans either have lost their homes or are in danger of doing so, and millions of older Americans will never know the retirement they planned for and had every reason to expect. It will certainly be five or ten years, and perhaps a generation, before employment reaches pre-crisis levels, and the middle levels of the economic pyramid are being hollowed out.
And yet, despite a certain amount of reporting of these disasters [how else would I know about them, comfortably fixed as I am], our collective public image of America today completely fails to capture the depth of the misery that the crisis has inflicted on scores of millions of people. Part of the problem, as I suggested in passing in a blog several days ago, is that we have no summary index, analogous to the stock market index, that measures the happiness and unhappiness of an entire nation. [You see, now, why I alluded earlier to utilitarianism.] We are reduced to anecdotes and symbols in our efforts to grasp the reality of our own situation. Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber and Bernie Madoff and the Tea Partiers and the bonuses of hedge fund managers dominate our thinking, rather the quiet misery of millions.
If we are guided by Bentham's rule, even adapted to some notion of fairness, then we ought to prefer, to our present condition, a state of affairs in which unemployment is minimal, old age is secure, health care is universal, and our military is a rudimentary force useful only for repelling actual invasion, even if at the same time our literature is uninspired, our films are banal, our popular culture is imitative, and our role in the larger movements of world history next to non-existent. In short, we should prefer to be Canada.
But do we? In wonder.