Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 07, 2015

ISAIAH BERLIN: Equality (Mill and Kant)

The Declaration of Independence declares that all men are created equal.  It also says American citizens have a right to “the pursuit of happiness.”  In his essay on Utilitarianism (GB4) John Stuart Mill agrees.  He wrote that “the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”  This idea appeals to many Americans.  Equality and happiness are two very high ideals but they’re probably not achievable in the real world of economics and politics.  So what is the highest level of equality and happiness that we can reasonably hope to achieve?  Mill concludes correctly that “the general happiness is a good to the aggregate of all persons.”  Utilitarian philosophy has been summed up in the simple formula: the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  The greatest happiness for the greatest number sounds like a good fit for American political philosophy.  But Isaiah Berlin forces American readers to pause and reflect on what it means to embrace Equality as an ideal.  He now wants us to pause and reflect on what it would mean to embrace Utilitarianism as an economic and political philosophy.

Berlin sets up the following scenario.  “If I enter a bus and do not pay for my ticket, and conceal this fact from the conductor and the other passengers, and give the sum withheld to a pauper whose situation is thereby improved materially, it may be argued that at any rate from a utilitarian point of view I have done what is right.”  Why?  Because I have contributed to the greater happiness for the greater number.  Berlin explains that “the general sum of happiness (in this case via that of the subsidized pauper) will surely have gone up to a greater degree than if I had paid my fair to the bus conductor.”  From a Utilitarian standpoint this is logically true.  The bus company won’t suffer from such a small loss of bus fare.  I promise myself I won’t make a habit of not paying my fair share.  The conductor won’t know about it and won’t feel like he’s shirking his duty.  The other passengers won’t know about it and so won’t be tempted to do the same thing.  These facts may all be logically true but Berlin nevertheless thinks it’s just a clever rationalization for doing the wrong thing.  Why? 

Berlin says “the morally relevant fact that, having entered into a quasi-contractual obligation to pay, I have broken my promise, my act would be condemned as unfair, for it would rightly be maintained that I can only gain advantage (or the pauper can only gain advantage) so long as the other passengers continue to behave as they did before.”  Immanuel Kant agrees and would not only condemn the act as unfair but also as immoral.  In his essay First Principle of Morals (GB5) Kant opposes the Utilitarian philosophy by laying down this maxim: “act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Before I decide to skip paying my bus fare in order to give it to a homeless person I should stop and ask myself one simple question.  What would happen if everybody did it?  Berlin answers that question.  “If my act were generally followed no one would pay, and the buses would stop running.”  Giving money to a homeless person would indeed increase the general happiness by a factor of two.  I would feel happier giving my bus fare to a needy person and a homeless person would feel happier by receiving money.  But if the buses stopped running it would not lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  Many people would have to walk or find some other means of transportation.  That would not make them happy.  The net effect would be less happiness.

So much for good intentions.  Berlin thinks equality is a good goal.  But he also thinks “equality is one value among many.”  Happiness is a good thing.  Liberty is a good thing too.  Balancing equality and the pursuit of happiness and liberty is America’s great political experiment.


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