Antidotes to the Utilitarian Mindset

The utilitarian mentality changes the rules of the game of social life, by spreading a way of thinking and certain concrete criteria for estimation. Therefore, opposing it requires changing some thought patterns and ceasing to assume as the supreme values ​​of society those that utilitarianism dictates.

One of the most well-known expressions of the utilitarian mindset is the imperative to be productive and efficient above all

. Almost no one discusses the duty to be useful or to make the best possible use of resources that are scarce. The problem comes when utility is presented as the only valuation criterion, or as the most decisive, even in areas where it makes little sense to apply cost-benefit analysis.

Utilitarianism finds an ally in certain ways of thinking. Sometimes these are topics taken on uncritically; in others, more elaborate ideas that embrace a certain conception of the good.

Manifestations of a different entity

At the most critical moments of the pandemic, when resources were scarce, some resorted to the criterion of seeking the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people

to resolve the difficult ethical dilemma as to who should give priority in intensive care units. Some medical organization provoked controversy by recommending that, among other factors, the greater social utility of the patient be taken into account, measured by the number of people under their care or the importance of their position.

A variant of this mental pattern is the assumption that what is desirable, from an ethical point of view, is

what saves the most suffering. Therefore, today the decision not to have children is defended not as a mere option, but as a moral duty that more people should imitate. Of course, there are good and bad things in life, but why bring children into the world when we can avoid all their suffering and, at the same time, minimize the damage to the planet?

Another form of utilitarian thinking is that there is nothing wrong with doing evil to achieve good

, a phrase that is not always verbalized with this rawness and, therefore, can be practiced more or less consciously… even among the supposed anti-utilitarians. It happens, for example, when someone changes someone else’s words, or their meaning, in order to get them to say what suits a cause or an argument; when someone reproduces someone else’s article without permission on a blog, claiming that “it can do a lot of good”; when someone refuses to recognize what is right in the posture of the political rival to avoid giving him an advantage etc.

In its most extreme aspect, utilitarianism is clings to the excuse that the end justifies the means to consider good actions contrary to human dignity, such as torture to obtain information that save lives; the genetic manipulation of embryos – or, directly, their destruction – to cure others; covering up crimes to save the good name of an institution; psychological coercion to make someone do what they don’t want to do, alleging all kinds of beneficial consequences for themselves, the company, the party…

“Dignity is what bothers”

The first and most urgent antidote against this type of action is to become aware of the indispensable value of all people. There are never any good reasons to treat a human being as a thing, to demote him to the condition of means. And to anyone who appeals to balances, weightings and calculations of consequences in search of some justification, the concept of dignity will not be easily adjusted.

Javier Gomá explains this very well in his book Dignidad, in which he defines dignity “as what bother. It bothers when iniquities and vileness are committed, of course, but, even more interesting, is that sometimes it also bothers the development of just causes, such as material and technical progress, economic and social profitability, or public utility. And this uncomfortable, numbing and paralyzing effect that often accompanies dignity, which forces us to stop and stop thinking about it, opens our eyes to dignitas precisely those who are uncomfortable because they don’t serve, the useless, the leftovers, who are always threatened by the logic of a story that would progress faster without them.”

What is the taste of the slow life?

No wonder the utilitarian mentality lags behind will with speed. If the ideal of a society is to produce the most in the shortest possible time, slowness and calm are seen as a hindrance.

Today, singing n. º XXIV by Antonio Machado: “Despacito y good letter: / El hacer las cosas bien / importa más que el hacerlas”. At the same time, as a reaction, initiatives and books keep appearing that claim more reflective ways of using technology, of eating, of consuming, of doing journalism…

Behind it is a desire for calm, but also to live with more meaning, on a more manageable scale. As one of the defenders of the Slow movement, Carl Honoré, says: “Slow means putting quality over quantity, being present, savoring the minutes and seconds instead of counting them, dedicate your time and energy to the things that really matter and do everything as best as possible, not as fast as possible.”

Humans have their rhythms, their costs, their ways of creating value…

Another idea of ​​progress

If utilitarian logic forces us to see each fraction of time as a portion from which to derive quantifiable fruits, Slow Movement invites us to recover a taste for life: reading for the pleasure of reading, not to be more cultured; rest for the mere fact of enjoying a moment in the sun, a walk or a conversation, not as a means of achieving optimal happiness that allows us to continue being productive, etc.

The apotheosis of this anti-utilitarian attitude would be Jenny Odell’s resistance strategy, summarized in the motto “Do nothing”. In fact, something really needs to be done: stop estimating what we do for its productive value and discover that there are many moments in life that are “ends in themselves, not steps” to other things. [O livro de Jenny Odell foi publicano ano passado pelo selo Latitude com o título Resista: Não faça nada. (N. t.)]

Faced with a voracious and insatiable idea of ​​progress – “linked to the idea of ​​putting something new in the world”, of seeking the disruptive every day, “newness and growth” –, she proposes another that includes verbs such as maintain, take care, delay yourself, observing… Doing nothing is taking the time to understand everything that is in this “augmented reality” that is the life we ​​have.

Metric madness

The utilitarian mindset attaches great importance to the quantitative. To quantify is to give numbers; and where there are numbers it is easier to calculate whether the benefits are maximized. Today this pattern is reinforced by the cult of metrics, which allows comparing a lot of data quickly… and effectively.

The problem is that applying this criterion in all scopes can lead to quite inhumane results. The sociologist Steffen Mau warned of this. For him, the growing tendency to value employees according to quantitative criteria is giving way to a new system of social estimation, in which the value of a job well done no longer matters so much as scoring better than the rest in the right metrics. Which inevitably leads to the devaluation of work.

This logic is clearly visible in the journalistic field, where it achieves impacts (clicks, likes, retweets…) has become the definitive indicator of success. Media such as The Guardian and The New York Times have already started to react to the metric madness, and today they wonder if their articles are serving to provide meaning and understanding, which is what they consider to be true success. The journalists of the New York daily, whose business model is mainly based on subscriptions, understand that the most valuable news is often not the one that gets the most clicks, but the one that reinforces in its readers the conviction that “they are getting information and perspectives that you can’t find it anywhere else.”

The primacy of the human

Giving up the qualitative in the name of productivity is surely one of the quickest ways to undermine the human. Who denounced this was Odell: a society that demands to translate everything we do into economic benefits ends up disdaining actions as far from the useful as contemplating, listening or meditating, even the times (rest, fun…) and non-productive spaces (parks, gardens…).

An illustrative example: there are already those who recommend abandoning courtesy formulas in digital correspondence, such as thanks, to avoid excessive interactions and, break, pollute less. Some studies even calculate the tons of carbon the UK would save if the British sent fewer thank-you messages.

Of course it is very convenient to avoid unnecessary messages, but there is no reason to renounce kindness in order to be more profitable and sustainable. In the end, the productivity imperative always finds reasons to appear rational and do something else. But at some point it is necessary to face blackmail and remember that humans have their rhythms, their costs, their ways of creating value…

And who do I want to be?

In The Benedictine option – a book more interested in provoking countercultural ways of thinking and ways of life than creating ghettos for religious people – Rod Dreher laments some manifestations of the utilitarian mindset. [O livro tem edição brasileira; saiu pela campineira Ecclesiae ano passado. (N. t.)]

Many schools – including those of Christian inspiration – take it for granted that the key is to prepare students for the job market and ensure that they have enough success to lead a comfortable life. In politics, the civic commitment of those who want to contribute to the ethical regeneration of society increasingly appears to be conditioned by the need to see immediate results…

Faced with these attitudes, Dreher insists on awakening, above all, the desire for “a life of integrity”. And he puts as an example the Czech dissidents under the communist regime, whose resistance program is summarized in a few words by Taylor, a student of these movements: “They formulated the idea that their actions were worthwhile in themselves, and not because of the concrete and quantifiable consequences. they could have”.

In this case, your actions served to gain freedom, but you have to be willing to go through the experience that righteousness does not always have a reward . Here the decisive criterion is not what I get, nor how it serves others, but who I want to be.

Educating in beauty

In general, to the utilitarian mentality – as we have already seen – it does not matter how things are in themselves. Therefore, another great antidote against this way of thinking is to educate according to the idea that people have an intrinsic value and that there are attitudes, activities, things… that are valuable in themselves.

Time in class should be seen as an opportunity to deepen the enjoyment of intellectual life as an end in itself, as José María Torralba claims in )Una educación liberal.

And within all the possible anti-utilitarian training experiences, one of the most necessary today is education in beauty. Makoto Fujimura gives two reasons: first, because beauty teaches us that there are things that objectively deserve esteem. Secondly, because educating in beauty is educating in the idea that the supreme value of a society is not utility. Or, in other words: it is to educate in a higher understanding of life than that offered by the mentality that you are worth what you produce


© 2022 Acpress. Published with permission. Origin end in Spanish.

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