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Utilitarianism or “greatest-happiness morality” is a philosophy that almost no one takes any stock in these days. That itself should spark some interest, even if it were unaccompanied by the alarming reality that human happiness – which utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill took to be the basis for moral judgments – claims so little attention today not only in the ivory tower but also in daily life.
Take the case of Charlie Hebdo. A score of people assassinated is no doubt a terrible thing, but what if we put it in the balance with the many deaths and vast suffering that will result from the anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant legislation that is soon to come in response to the attack? The strange conclusion of this utilitarian thought experiment is that it would be better, in terms of overall human happiness, to have the attacks censored in the news and forgotten about.
Before clamoring about the importance of the truth and the great dangers of trifling with it – a position that I agree with – it is worth considering what the widespread elimination of human happiness as a political value has done to us. In Público.es Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote that what the Koachi brothers’ attack symbolizes is not so much a clash of civilizations but rather of fanaticisms. That is correct because (among other reasons) a civilization, in contrast to a fanatic society, would take more interest in human happiness than most Northern countries do today.
A recent study, admittedly using somewhat ambiguous criteria, shows that societal happiness poorly coincides with capitalist development and even less with free-market fundamentalism. This is the UN World Happiness Report of 2013, which indicates that nations with social-democratic traditions such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark do excellently in their Happiness Ranking, whereas some underdeveloped countries such as Venezuela and Costa Rica do relatively well compared to many more developed ones. The truth is that over the long run, capitalism’s course has been marked by the dialectic of its eternal promises of abundance and well-being that contrast with the harsh realities of its socially-produced scarcity and suffering.
In times of crisis, the scarcity and suffering come to the forefront, whereas happiness, the ideological counterpart of abundance, has to take the back seat. For those of us submitted to daily life under capitalism – in a structural crisis since the early 1970s – this means we are called upon to forget about post-war aspirations of sexual and spiritual emancipation and turn the page on enlightenment values (such as fraternity and equality) to make way for an array of fundamentalisms. Aesthetically, the openness and repose that emerged in Renaissance sculpture and painting and found its way into 1960s cinematic experiments, gives way to the hard bodied Arno Breker-style superheroes and cyborgs of post-1970s Hollywood.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, if one brackets the incidental “tree” of its content (really of trifling cultural importance), one sees clearly the extensive “forest” of occidental fundamentalism. Marches of locked-arm western leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Nicolas Sarkozy, are paralleled by fascistoid PEGIDA demonstrations, while ethnic difference – whether Basque, Catalan, or Arab – is forcibly sidelined in the public arena. Terrorists and black-uniformed police who are their spitting image steal the front page of every newspaper, and heretofore prudent governments seem willing to enter a new Holy Alliance (its implicit religion being “Occident is Great”).
The political convenience of the attacks? Of the multiple comparisons one can make with September 11th, it is worth pointing out that if George W. Bush needed the pretext of being a “War President” to consolidate his highly-questioned electoral victory in 2000, Francois Hollande desperately needs an excuse to assume part of the program of the ever more successful ultra-right National Front. Both terrorist attacks fit these political bills to a tee, for the near unanimous message they inspire is that the party is over: the Global North must renounce multiculturalism and all kinds of satisfaction and accept a future of asceticism and self-sacrifice.
This brings us back to Bentham and Mill. They may have been superficial in their social analyses (though Mill pointed to “wretched social arrangements” as inhibiting the happiness of the majority) and barking up the wrong tree when they proposed to quantify pleasure, but at least one element of their discourse – their boldly putting societal well-being at the center stage of public life – should not be laughed at in a moment in which the very neofeudal attitudes they criticized are having a field day in the Global North.
Chris Gilbert is professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Vene