Author: Phillip Jensen

Happiness on Trial: Has Utilitarianism Failed?

An article from kategoria magazine Issue 11.

The basic ethical system of modern Western liberal democracies is utilitarianism. It is an old system which is taken up by ruling bodies because of its practicality and its ability to draw conclusions without recourse to a higher metaphysical authority, such as God. Its standard expression, found in philosophers from ancient Greece to imperial Britain, is that the best course of actionthe morally correct thing to dois whatever produces the most happiness for the most people.

Briefly, utilitarianism is an ethical theory that looks to the results of an action to determine its moral worth. In this philosophy, actions are not intrinsically right or wrong. Nor are they to be evaluated against some authority’s edict. That is, any particular action—for instance, theft—is not wrong because there is inherently something evil about the concept, nor because a deity has decreed it. Rather, it is wrong because it fails to improve the lot of humanity. It is wrong because it hurts someone, and it is wrong because it is detrimental to society. Bertrand Russell spoke as a utilitarian when he discussed ethical codes in these terms: “[T]he question whether a code is good or bad is the same as the question whether or not it promotes human happiness.”[1] Utilitarianism is sometimes referred to as the ‘Happiness Theory’.

The method of utilitarianism is rational, empirical and democratic. It is rational because only reason determines the outcome; it is not based on some moral instinct, but on a measured decision about what will, objectively, improve people’s lives. It is empirical because utilitarian decisions are open to the evaluation of the evidence that can be measured. It is democratic because there is no respecting of vested interests and special cases. Again note Bertrand Russell:

Those who have a scientific outlook on human behaviour, moreover, find it impossible to label any action as ‘sin’; they realise that what we do has its origin in our heredity, our education, and our environment, and that it is by control of these causes rather than by denunciation, that conduct injurious to soci­ety is to be prevented.[2] 

Although Western democracies all share something of a leftover Christian ethic, utilitarianism is the modus operandi of ethical debate today. It is not a theory wholly opposed to Christianity, for Christians believe in a creator God whose moral choices will produce the good life, and whose good life promotes happiness and opposes pain. It was therefore only a small shift for enlightenment moralists to move society from Christian to utilitarian ethics. Yet since the days of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, J. S. Mill and Bertrand Russell, utilitarianism has been the preferred choice of anti-Christian ethicists. It has been a welcome alternative to a Christian doctrine of morality, favoured by those who oppose Christian doctrine in general.

This is probably because utilitarianism rejects God’s divine prerogative of deciding what is right or wrong in his world. It dismisses relationship with God as the motivation and teacher of morality. It renounces the words, commands 27 and declarations of God as a basis of ethical knowledge. It ignores the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action in favour of looking to the outcomes of actions. It assumes that human well-being or happiness is the ultimate good, regardless of God.

Utilitarianism under scrutiny

But one need not be a Christian to find utilitarianism wanting as a moral philosophy. Ever since utilitarianism has become the dominant ethical basis of Western society, it has been under critical attack. There is, and has been, great debate and disagreement about the theory. For instance, some philosophers claim that every action should be evaluated independently, while others argue that rules have a utility that will override particular situations. Should each example of murder be examined to see if it really did decrease the well-being of humanity, or is it more ethical to agree that ‘murder is wrong’ is a rule that should be institutionalised for the well-being of humanity? Added to this, there has never been much agreement on how to measure the outcomes, especially for something as vague as ‘well-being’.

The debates about measurement are not so much about the difficulties of measuring quality of life, but whose life to measure. Should it be the life of the upper class only? Hardly, since utilitarianism rests on democracy—although evaluation of the happiness created by the art gallery compared to the Rugby League competition brings class issues into play. More subtly, should the measurement be of the happiness of the whole, or of each individual within the whole? Egoists might argue that if we concern ourselves with the happiness of each individual, the whole will look after itself. Non-egoists think that the whole will be able to maximise happiness only if certain individuals miss out on some of their own choices of happiness. Who decides such issues? And how much unhappiness will an individual be required to endure for the well-being of the whole?

The definition of ‘well-being’ also has great difficulties. Some utilitarians are hedonists, believing that happiness is a matter of experiencing feelings of pleasure; others (such as the ancient utilitarians, the Epicureans) have a more sombre approach, choosing the absence of trouble as the way to optimise happiness.

Of all the difficulties of utilitarianism the question of its ethical motivation is possibly the greatest. Utilitarianism fails to answer the big question of ethics—‘why?’ Why should I behave in any way other than what I want to? If utilitarianism is just describing why I do behave in the way that I do, rather than telling me what to do, then ethics is just psychology. If, on the other hand, utilitarianism is telling us how we should or ought to behave, it fails to give reasons for being so prescriptive. There is no ultimate answer as to why we should deny our own interests for the benefit of anyone else, and why we should be concerned for the good of the whole. If the argument is simply that it is in my best interests to benefit the whole, then (apart from reducing ethics to a rather selfish level) it cannot be proven.

On a range of levels, utilitarianism has deep problems which have never been resolved. Nonetheless, it continues as the dominant form of ethics in Western society. Most ethical questions are still decided on the utilitarian basis of ‘whom will it benefit?’, regardless of the deep inconsistencies such a decision will embrace.

How can we test utilitarianism?

While there is a wealth of philosophical literature examining the technical weaknesses in utilitarianism as a moral philosophy, we do not need to rely on that to assess it for ourselves. The test for whether utilitarianism works as a moral philosophy is to look at the results—which we are now easily able to do, given the immense amount of social data routinely collated and made available. Are the decisions based on utilitarian ideals actually bringing good to the majority in our society? And if they are not, is the expected utilitarian response—that is, to rescind that decision and try something else—being put into action?

A comparison of Bertrand Russell’s essay Our Sexual Ethics (1936) with the recent Australian government report To Have and to Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships (1998) provides a test-case for Utilitarianism in action in the area of personal relationships.[3] Certain ethical changes have been made in our social structure over the last several decades (commonly called ‘the sexual revolution’), and now we have the chance to see whether they worked—whether they did, as was claimed at the time, lead to a better society and more happiness for individuals.

Russell’s sexual revolution

The basis of Bertrand Russell’s proposed sexual revolution was the utilitarian theory of ethics. The time was past, he considered, for church morality. It was not helping anyone—on the contrary, it was actually harming people, for their subconscious conditioning was warring with their natural impulses. It was a bad system of morality. It did not promote human happiness.

On this basis, Bertrand Russell spelled out a new sexual morality for society. Instead of one based on the archaic and (in his view) false authority of Christianity, there should be a new sexual ethic which took seriously the reality of human impulses and organised society in a way that would be best for everyone. His predictions for future sexual ethics have proved uncannily accurate. What Russell first published in 1936 is astoundingly familiar to the modern Western reader at the end of the 1990s.

For instance, consider the four specific changes that Russell suggested were necessary for society:

In the first place, it is undesirable, both physiologically and educationally, that women should have children before the age of 20. Our ethics should, therefore, be such as to make this a rare occurrence.

In the second place, it is unlikely that a person without previous sexual experience, whether man or woman, will be able to distinguish between mere physical attraction and the sort of congeniality that is necessary in order to make marriage a success. Moreover, economic causes compel men, as a rule, to postpone marriage, and it is neither likely that they will remain chaste in the years from 20 to 30, nor desir­able psychologically that they should do so; but it is much better that, if they have temporary relations, that they should not be with professionals, but with girls of their own class, whose motive is affection rather than money. For both these reasons, young people should have considerable freedom as long as children are avoided.

In the third place, divorce should be possible without blame to either party, and should not be regarded as in any way disgraceful. A childless marriage should be terminable at the wish of one of the partners, and any marriage should be terminable by mutual consent —a year’s notice being necessary in either case. Divorce should, of course, be possible on a number of other grounds—insanity, desertion, cruelty, and so on; but mutual consent should be the most usual ground.

In the fourth place, everything possible should be done to free sexual relations from economic taint. At present, wives, just as much as prostitutes, live by the sale of their sexual charms; and even in temporary free relations the man is usually expected to bear all the joint expenses. The result is that there is sordid entanglement of money with sex, and that women’s motives not infrequently have a mercenary element. Sex, even when blessed by the church, ought not to be a profession. It is right that a woman should be paid for housekeeping or cooking or the care of the children, but not merely for having sexual relations with a man. Nor should a woman who was once loved and been loved by a man be able to live ever after on alimony when his love and hers have ceased. A woman like a man should work for her living, and an idle wife is no more intrinsically worthy of respect than a gigolo (pp. 122-3).

Does this sound familiar? Russell was a prophet of the 31 1960s sexual revolution, 30 years ahead of his time. All of his hopes have been realised: delayed marriage and sexual freedom before marriage; cohabitation on the way to mar­riage; no-fault divorce after 12 months separation. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is Russell’s prediction that sexual freedom for women must come at the price of (or in Russell’s view, with the added benefit of) both women working and the destruction of the traditional family structure: “If women are to have sexual freedom, fathers must fade out, and wives must no longer expect to be supported by their husbands. This may come about in time, but it will be a profound social change, and its effects, for good or ill, are incalculable” (pp. 121-2).[4] 

It was good, not ill, that Russell was expecting. These changes would make society happier and freer, and the lives of adults would be more honest, easier and generally more pleasurable. The important thing was that ethics should be based on what humans are like, and what really makes them happy, not on some traditional view of ‘sin’ with no real existence in human nature.

In seeking a new ethic of sexual behaviour, therefore, we must not ourselves be dominated by the ancient irrational passions which gave rise to the old ethic, though we should recognise that they may, by accident, have led to some sound maxims, and that, since they still exist, though perhaps in a weakened form, they are still among the data of our problem. What we have to do positively is to ask ourselves what moral rules are most likely to promote human happiness, remembering always that, whatever the rules may be, they are not likely to be observed. That is to say, we have to consider the effect which the rules will in fact have, not that which they would have if they were completely effective (p. 125).

Russell proposed a utilitarian sexual experiment for Western society. Only when the effects were tested, could it be seen how clearly superior this new sexual ethic was. Divorce would be made easy; the patriarchal family could easily be done away with; the State could support children, and marriage would become unfashionable, except among the “rich and the religious”. But first these things needed to be tried in practice: “Much ground remains to be covered by a com­plete sexual ethic, but I do not think we can say anything very positive until we have more experience, both of the effects of various systems and of the changes resulting from a rational education in matters of sex” (p. 126).

The results of the experiment

Fortunately for social experimenters, we can now test the success of Russell’s recommendations. The recent Australian government report To Have and to Hold: Strategies to Strengthen Marriage and Relationships publishes material on the state of marriage and families in Australia today. Did Russell’s (and many other proponents) proposals lead to a better society and more happiness for individuals? It is clear from the outset that the answer is no.

In the preface to the report, the chairman of the committee describes the legislative changes that took place in the early 1970s, culminating in the Family Law Act. Two pillars emerged:

…first, the importance of family: and secondly the rights and obligation of spouses both during the marriage and upon its ending. Hence the bill introduced in 1973, upon which subsequent bills were drafted, was based on a series of stated principles, the first of which was that ‘a good family law should buttress, rather than undermine, the stability of marriage’. The central importance of marriage was explicitly recognised in 33 section 43 of the Family Law Act. This section pro­vided that, in making any adjudication, the family
court must have regard to: the need to preserve and protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life; the need to give the widest possible protection and assistance to the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society, partic­ularly while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children; the need to protect the rights of children and promote their welfare; and the means available for assisting parties to marriage to consider reconciliation or the improvement of their relationship to each other and to the children of the marriage.

This pillar was supported by requirements in both the Marriage Act and the Family Law Act for the provision of funds to marriage education and counselling services. The second pillar is most significant:

The other pillar of the Family Law Act is reflected in the replacement of the grounds of divorce based on matrimonial fault with a single ground—breakdown of marriage, evidenced by 12 months separation of the parties.

Two decades after the introduction of the Family Law Act, this pillar, the divorce of the parties, remains the predominant operational basis of the legislation (pp. i-ii).

It is clear from the report that the first pillar of the Family Law Act is now seen for the weak rhetoric that it was. The resources of the family law court have been poured into the destruction of families, not their preservation. The real pillar of the legislation is the easy dissolution of the marriage bond. In fact the easy dissolution of marriage has effectively redefined marriage to mean: “a couple voluntarily entering into a legal co-habitation will not be able to enter into another legal co-habitation until twelve months separation from the first cohabitation”. Nobody makes promises in those terms during a wedding service—what they say is “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better and for worse until death us do part”.

The words of the contract bear no relationship to the meaning of the contract, thanks to the Family Law Act, because the power of the Act resides in the second pillar; the ease of dissolution. At the time of the Act many voices were raised expressing this problem, but were overruled because of the difficulty that people were experiencing in a court system which required some demonstration of fault in order to dissolve a marriage. Now, 25 years later, the Federal government has a report recognizing the problems that are emerging from their effective redefinition of marriage.

Statistical evidence

At one level, To Have and To Hold is an excellent report and the committee needs to be commended for its work and its willingness to report difficult conclusions honestly. There is a positive emphasis within this committee’s work, reflected even in the report’s title. Yet, in statistic after statistic, the report reveals the inadequacy of utilitarian sex­ual ethics.

The report naturally commences with a review of trends in marriage and the family since World War II. It was a period of quite significant change. The number of families with dependent children has decreased; the number of one-parent families has increased, as has the number of children being raised by step-parents. People are marrying less, are doing so at an older age and more frequently cohabiting before marriage. More people are remaining unmarried and, although the rate of remarriage has fallen, by 1992 one in three marriages included at least one partner who had been married previously. Only 57% of weddings in 1994 were celebrated by ministers of religion. The population has instead turned to secular wedding celebrants.

There has been a dramatic increase in divorce, even taking into account the sudden increase caused by the new Family Law Act in the early 1970s. The rate of divorce never returned to the low levels prior to the Family Law Act, and since 1986 has been steadily increasing. The number of children involved in divorce has grown markedly in the past two decades. At the same time, marriages that end in divorce have become briefer. There has been a rise in the proportion of previously married people divorcing again. There is a greater chance of divorce amongst those who remarry, as opposed to those marrying for the first time, unless the reason for remarriage was the death of the first partner. Almost half the children whose mothers divorce have a step-father living in the household within six years.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of children born out of wedlock. At the end of the second world war just 4% of children were born out of wedlock; in 1995 it was 26.6%. About half ex-nuptial births were to women in de facto relationships and about half to unpart­nered women. There has been a rise in teenage ex-nuptial pregnancies, although overall a decrease in births to teenage mothers (nuptial and ex-nuptial). There has been a substantial increase of single parent families with dependent children from 6.5% in 1976, to 14.5% in 1996.

The social impact

Even more powerful than the statistics is the examination of the impact of these changes. The authors’ summation of the present state of our knowledge leaves little doubt as to what is happening.

  • Decades of research have clearly established links between health and well-being and marriage, separa­tion and divorce (p. 27).
  • Virtually every study which has analysed mortality rate by marital status shows that the unmarried have higher death rates, a finding confirmed since the 1930’s in every country for which accurate health data exists (p. 28).
  • Relationship breakdown is one of the major causes of suicide worldwide, and the differential in mortality rates by marital status is huge (p. 31).
  • Both perceived physical and mental health have been found to be related to marital status in a way similar to mortality (p. 32).
  • Marital distress is an important health hazard for adults and children… Marital distress leads to depression and reduces immune system functioning in adults (p. 33).
  • A large number of studies have shown that divorce has both a short term and long term impact on children. Research also demonstrates that this impact often extends into adult life with consequences for health, family life, educational performance and occupational status (p. 34).
  • There is also widespread evidence of increased behavioural problems and delinquency among both boys and girls whose parents have divorced (p. 35).
  • Marital disruption has also been implicated in youth depression and suicide, and early sexual activity (p. 36).

A series of other studies indicate that:

  • children of divorced parents seem much more susceptible to psychiatric illness;
  • alcohol consumption by women whose parents divorced is far higher than women with intact families;
  • the incidence of stomach ulcers and colitis is four times higher for men aged 26 whose parents have divorced before the child was five compared to those who have reached 16 years when their parents divorced;
  • children of divorce… have a 50 per cent greater risk of developing asthma, and a 20-30 per cent greater risk of injury; and
  • parental divorce can be a factor in longevity (p. 35).

A series of studies which has examined the impact of parental divorce on children have found that the educational performance of children is adversely effected. These studies reveal that:

  • the adverse educational effects of divorce can occur in children of any age;
  • the chances of attending university decrease for children of divorce; and
  • unemployment and employment in low paying jobs is 37 more prevalent for children of divorced parents (p. 37).
          Series of studies have confirmed the intergenerational impact of divorce. 25 years after their parents’ divorce, children continue to suffer the emotional repercussions and the impact of divorce among chil­dren is long-lasting and cumulative (p. 39).

Naturally, analysts need to face the complex question of which correlative factors in these summaries are causative, and which ones are resultant. There is also the question of whether some other unidentified factors may give rise to these problems. However, the detailed studies of researchers from around the world, as well as in Australia, lead the com­mittee to their damning conclusions about the impacts of change in family life in Australia over the last 25 years.

To begin, family violence is at an unacceptably high level, and seems to have some relationship with the nature of the family structure:

[t]here is… some evidence that the incidence of conflict is higher in cohabiting relationships… there are more cohabitants reporting conflicts… than mar­ried… cohabitants, especially women, seem to tolerate their partner’s types of behaviour which marriers consider unacceptable (pp. 46-47).

The incidence of child abuse and neglect also seems related to relationship dysfunction… a higher proportion of child killers are either stepfathers or the mother’s de facto or boyfriend… non-biological parents present ‘a disproportionate risk for children, particularly in the early stages of their relationship with the child’. The proportion of suspected killers in de facto relationships was 6.5 times higher than for the general population. The study found that 28 per cent of the child killers had become parents when aged 20 years or younger (p. 47).

…family conflict, including violence and abuse, is one of the major factors leading to youth homelessness in Australia (p. 47).

…marriage benefits the health and well-being of individuals, and, conversely… separation and divorce bring with them elevated risks for both for­mer husbands and wives and their children. The extent to which these findings are accepted by social scientists is reflected in the work of a number of leading researchers. Sara McLanahan, herself a single par­ent, and professor of sociology at Princeton University, concluded her detailed analysis of four major national studies of families…: “Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parent’s race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries” (p. 48).

The government committee ends this section with the only way of accounting available: money. Apart from anything else, the breakdown in marriage is costing us.

Marriage and relationship breakdown is a direct cost to the Commonwealth budget in the form of social security payments, family court costs, legal aid, the child support scheme, and taxation rebates… These items total $2,771 million per annum. The figure is necessarily conservative. Other costs could be rightfully included in the cost of marriage and relationship breakdown, but it is difficult to separate the components. For example, the expenditure on emergency accommodation and the homeless allowance partly arises from marriage breakdown, but it has not been possible to determine the size of this part (p. 50).

A review of the literature indicates that poor health is partly a consequence of marriage and relationship breakdown. The extent of this cost to the nation is immeasurable. It extends not only to physical and mental health, but to the social pathologies such as child and family abuse. Similarly, absenteeism and low productivity have been linked to relationship problems (pp. 50-51).

The committee comes to this understated conclusion:

Marriage and family breakdown cost the Australian nation at least $3 billion each year. When all the indirect costs are included, the figure is possibly double. When the personal and emotional trauma involved is added to these figures, the cost to the nation is enormous.

In comparison the Commonwealth Government spends just $3.5 million per annum on preventative marriage and relationship education programs, and $2.05 million on parenting skills training. This is a 1000 fold difference. The imbalance is manifest. It requires correction (p. 51).

Contributing Factors

In the fourth chapter of the report, the committee looks at what causes, or at least contributes to, marriage and relationship breakdowns. Again their work is a summation of the detailed research that has been undertaken in recent years. They report the determinants of marital instability in the following terms:

In a recent survey of the determinants of marital instability, AIFS researcher, Helen Glezer, found that the premarital experiences contributing most to the risk of marital breakdown are:

• having an ex-nuptial child;
• premarital cohabitation; and

• leaving home at an early age.

According to Glezer, characteristics of those who experienced marital breakdown compared with those who have not, indicate that like those who have cohabited, they tend to have less traditional family values, are more egalitarian about sex roles, value children less and are more individualistic in their family orientation than those who remain married.

…family background factors such as growing up in a non-religious family, being unhappy at home, leaving home at an early age, and coming from a context of non-traditional family values are associated with both cohabiting prior to marriage and marital dissolution.

A series of studies have identified other demo­graphic and social characteristics that have been shown to contribute to marital instability. These include:

• exposure to divorce as a child;
• having premarital sex; and
• marrying as a teenager (pp. 74-75).

The chapter is stronger when it takes a case study of cohabitation and looks at the factors contributing to marital stability. The number of couples living together, both before and as a substitute for marriage, has increased substantially in recent decades. The community now believes that it is beneficial for couples to live together prior to marriage, and expert opinion of the past two decades has commended cohabitation. However more recent social science research points to a connection between cohabitation and marital breakdown. The Australian Institute of Family Studies Family Formation Project found that after five years of marriage, 13% of those who had cohabited were divorced, compared to 6% of those who had not cohabited. Ten years later, the proportions were 26% for those who had cohabited and 14% for those who had not. After 20 years it was 56% compared to 27% (pp. 78-79). These findings have been supported by similar studies in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Sweden.

It is not just that cohabiters have a higher risk of subse­quent divorce, they also have a less satisfactory relationship:

Studies have also found that couples who cohabit prior to marriage to be significantly lower on measures of marital quality. DeMaries and Lesley hypothesised that cohabiters would score higher on communication and couple adjustment in their study. However they found a negative relationship between cohabitation and satisfaction… It has also been found that the rate of violence is appreciably higher for cohabiting couples who have lived together for one to ten years than for married couples (pp. 81-82).

The effect on children is not positive either. “Where couples who cohabit have children, research indicates that the children perform at lower levels than children of married couples” (p. 82). Low performance was noted in scholastic achievement, while there was a greater drug use, crime and delinquency. The Committee concludes:

…marriages preceded by cohabitation show ‘lower levels of marital interaction, higher levels of disagreement and instability… lower levels of commitment to marriage’ and higher levels of divorce than marriages without previous cohabitation experience… in many instances, cohabitation is not a relationship with a future, but one that lasts for a period of time and then ends, either through marriage or dissolution (p. 83).

To summarise, the factors in marital instability seem difficult to identify but the determinants of marital stability seem a little easier:

[E]ffective communication and conflict resolution; realistic expectation of marriage; equitable division of labour within family; fertility within marriage; length of marital duration; and religious commit­ment. (p. 85)

Where to now?

This government report would seem to be a utilitarian’s dream, but it turns out to be a nightmare. We now have the statistical information, studies, academic analysis and measured results of a social, ethical and legal experiment. For centuries, a marital pattern was taught, legislated and upheld by the social conventions of the day. Now,  thanks to the 1960s sexual revolution and the 1970s enactment of it through legislation, we have had 25 years of experimentation with a new way of family living. The government has gathered the evidence concerning the consequences of this change. At every point we can measure so far, the experiment has been a disaster for the well-being and happiness of the community.

If the committee’s analysis is correct, then utilitarians ought to have no alternative but to cease the experiment and seek a happier way to organise society, or at least return to the previous form of social organisation. Bertrand Russell admitted this possibility:

The fundamental difficulty is, of course, the conflict between the impulse to jealousy and the impulse to sexual variety. Neither impulse, it is true, is universal: there are those (though they are few) who are never jealous, there are those (among men as well as among women) whose affections never wander from the chosen partner. If either of these types could be made universal, it would be easy to devise a satisfactory code. It must be admitted, however, that either type can be made more common by conventions designed to that end.[5] 

However, the government committee was unable to see what to do or how to do it. Its recommendations fall broadly into two categories. The first is to tidy up the finances. Different marriage counselling organisations have been funded on different bases, and there seems to be some lack of consistency and equity. It is only sensible to sort out such problems.

The second set of recommendations urges that more pre-marital counselling needs to be given. As with the financial recommendations, nobody could object to this. Evidence is adduced that premarital counselling is effective. However, the one group whom the report indicates are amongst the greatest contributors to marital dissolutions—that is, cohabiters—are the group who would be least helped by any of 43 this premarital counselling. While it is possible to measure the rates of divorce, the even higher rates of dissolution of defacto relationships for which premarital counselling is rarely if ever sought, is not taken into account.

There is no doubt that the committee is making right recommendations. However, there is a certain Gilbertian absurdity in these kinds of recommendations, given the enormity of the problem. The government alone cannot change a culture which is worldwide and has been developing over the last 150 years.[6] However if the government is concerned about the community’s well-being, then it could take certain actions that would help create a climate in which the social experiment could be reversed. We encourage governments to act on other issues, such as smoking, where the actions of an individual are to the detriment of the community. Ought we not request similar action in areas such as de facto marriages where the evidence of their harmful effects is now available? And might not some pres­ sure be brought upon the advocates of these kinds of relationships (such as some parts of the mass media) to correct the false information being disseminated about the nature of sexuality and relational happiness?

One clearly beneficial action which is unlikely to reach any public agenda, is that the government could support the religious cultures of the majority of the citizenship. It is reported that religious culture is a prominent contributing factor to marital stability. For those who would argue that it is inappropriate for the government of a secular society to support religion, it must be pointed out that a secular society does not have to be anti-religious, it only has to refrain from supporting one religion to the exclusion of others. Anti-religion is a commitment which is measurably unhelpful to the society as a whole. Supporting religions would be to the financial benefit of society as a whole.

Public policy and private life

Will utilitarians genuinely face the failure of their experiments and seek to ensure social well being? It is to be seriously doubted. Utilitarians have the other problem that the concept of the well-being of society includes the rights of individuals to choose to do what they like. Individual free­dom is, indeed, part of the well-being of society. Yet when it is costing society billions of dollars each year, then individual freedoms should be matched by individual financial responsibilities. Why should the community as a whole have to foot the bill for some individuals’ freedoms?

The social sexual revolution has effected our legislators and jurists to such an extent that they would not want to legislate morally against their own private desires. Utilitari­anism, in effect, becomes an excuse for doing whatever we want to do.

Let us recall Bertrand Russell at this point. His recommendations about sexual morality were couched in terms of the general good of society—what needs to be done to make all people happier and their lives less burdensome. Yet we may consider Russell’s own life when he wrote this. He was committed to a life of sexual immorality and used women for his own very selfish ends.[7] It so happens that in 1936 (when his essay on sexual ethics was published) he had just finished a long and very messy divorce from his second wife, Dora, in which he successfully fought to have their children made Wards of Chancery. The idea of no-fault divorce, after no more than a year of separation, must have seemed ideal to him. His suggestions may have been expressed as genuine wishes for the good of society, but can hardly be taken inde­pendently of his own very selfish desires for freedom from the ties of his marriage.

This has always been the problem with utilitarianism. It is not the real agenda. It is the intellectually respectable clothing for the choice to reject God and his ways. It is a rationalisation for the immorality of doing whatever we want. Yet it is philosophically flawed and practically 45 unworkable. Bertrand Russell was undoubtedly a very clever
man. But clever men are very ingenious at rationalizing their wickedness.

Humans are limited, and although we may think our standards are about increasing well-being, our horizons are generally much shorter. After all, whose well-being is it that matters the most? In personal terms, the utilitarian ethic is often reduced to the lowest denominator—we act in any way we want, unless it can be proven that such an action will hurt somebody else. When a person decides to fornicate or commit adultery it will hardly be because of a general ideal that this will help society. Rather, the thought process—if there is one—is far more likely to be along the lines of ‘It feels right to me, and it’s not hurting anyone, so why shouldn’t I?’

However, it is hurting someone. It is hurting all of us, and most of all those who live by permissiveness and their children. Until we have a reversal in society which realises the true importance of genuine morality and its basis in absolutes, our society will continue to pay. In the end, utilitarianism survives today only because there is no ‘acceptable able’ alternative when God has been discounted. Having accepted a non-sectarian approach to society which has turned ‘secular’ into ‘godless’, there can now be no appeal to authority outside the government. There is no moral theory that the society will accept. To challenge utilitarianism is to challenge the working of our society. Yet utilitarianism has created a society which, in the most practical of terms, does not work. What Bible believers have predicted for generations is now a matter of free information. A social experiment was tried, the data proclaims that it has failed, and the philosophy on which our society is based has no idea what to do about it.

[1] B. Russell, Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, Unwin Books, London, 1967, p. 121.

[2] Ibid., p. 125.

[3] Russell’s essay is reproduced in B. Russell, Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, pp. 120-127. The government report comes from the House of Representatives Standing Com­mittee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, June 1998. It can be obtained free of charge from Parliament House in Canberra, ACT, telephone (61 2) 6277 7222. Page references are to these documents.

[4] Russell further saw the implications of the revolution: “It is clear, that, even where there are children, the State is only interested through the duties of fathers which are chiefly financial. Where divorce is easy, as in Scandinavia, the children usually go with the mother, so that the patriar­chal family tends to disappear. If, as is increasingly happening where wage earners are concerned, the State takes over the duties that have hitherto fallen upon fathers, marriage will cease to have any raison d’être, and will probably be no longer customary except among the rich and the religious” (pp. 126-127).

[5] B. Russell, op. cit, p. 126.

[6] For an account of this development, see chapters 3 & 4 of T. Payne & P. D. Jensen, Pure Sex, Matthias Media, Sydney, 1997.

[7] See Phillip Jensen, ‘Peace I Did Not Find’, kategoria , 1997, No. 7, pp. 65-72.

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