Common Ground

It is my argument that liberals and conservatives share some basic philosophical common ground. That underneath their particular ideological beliefs, there are some foundational similarities. In order to make this case, I would like to use utilitarianism as something of a foil, if you’ll so indulge me.

First, how are we to define utilitarianism. Is it the unreconstructed Bethamite version or is it the more refined Millian type. Betham held, quite simply, that it was the greatest good for the greatest number. He used one minor qualification, which was “within reason.” Bentham succinctly captures the essence of his philosophy- “pushpin is as good as poetry.”

Mill qualifies utilitarianism a fair bit more. Mill holds that happiness is greater than contentment. And that there is a qualitative difference among the ends that humans might pursue. For Mill, the physical pleasures rank lower than the intellectual ones, generally speaking.*

I believe that we may dispose of the crude Benthamite version of utilitarianism as being well outside of what we might find an acceptable way to order society. But we would not be so quick to dismiss Mill’s version. It has an inherent attractiveness to a democratic society, especially one that is market-based. (Readers interested in Mill’s take on the tyranny of majority should look to On Liberty. I won’t touch on it here.)

It certainly seems sensible that we, as a society, ought to endeavor to promote happiness among our members. And, it makes at least some sense that we should value intellectual, or higher order happiness, over more base versions. Otherwise, we risk becoming nothing more than an amalgam of pleasure seeking libertines.

I hold that neither liberals nor conservatives would rule Mill’s view entirely objectionable. However, I would further argue that many conservatives (in the popular sense of the word) would find the lack of specificity in the distinction between happiness and contentment troublesome. And, more central to my argument, they would argue that liberals accept Mill’s vision in its entirety.

To tip my hand a bit, I do not believe that liberals, generally speaking, accept Millian utilitarianism. (I’ll leave aside the whole moral relativism argument, because it is a disingenuous political argument.) If we listen to liberals speaking about policy and politics, we hear a great many claims about economic inequality, respect for minority rights and other value laden language. I would argue that liberals, in making these arguments, are revealing their preferences for a society that is not distinctly not utilitarian, in any sense of the meaning.

Arguments about economic inequality and minority rights are not couched in a language of greatest good for greatest number, but rather in terms of moral good. It is my argument that liberals would hold these beliefs even in the face of evidence that efforts to stem stratification would lead to great economic consequence. Or that the promotion of minority rights actually impinges on the rights of the masses.

Unfortunately, liberals and conservatives are talking past one another. Much of the reason is political- our discourse has been corrupted to such a point that values means only those things on the cultural right’s radar (abortion, gay marriage). And, liberals share in some of the blame for being unwilling to couch their arguments in moral language.

Underneath both liberal and conservative worldviews, though, is the notion that there is such a thing as moral value. That we are something more than just collectors of pleasure. And that our society ought to be structured in such a way that we look beyond maximization, of profit or pleasure, to loftier ideals.

* This is where I find Mill wanting. There is no objective higher or lower pleasure. Thus, how does a society maximize happiness? I think in some ways it forces us back into Bentham’s version. The Millian conception is more appealing on some level, but I’ve never been convinced that Bentham’s version isn’t more honest.


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