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Covid and the cruel ‘cost-benefit’ creed of our power-mad rulers


‘If in life we are surrounded by death, so too in the health of the intellect we are surrounded by madness.’  – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value   

AS a philosopher I find it frustrating that, with a few exceptions, the only challenge to this government’s assault on our freedom has been made in the form of a demand for a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ – a term which smacks of accountancy, of debit and credit sheets.  

The implication is that if the ‘collateral damage’ of lockdowns is greater than the actual or (notoriously) ‘predicted’ cases of Covid, lockdowns are not justified. If the damage is less, lockdowns are justified. Such a ‘debate’ is exclusively utilitarian. 

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory which is spiritually bankrupt. It has long dominated mainstream philosophical theory in ethics despite its moral philistinism, and its basic dogmas have entered popular ways of thinking, particularly with the practically-minded British, even among those who have no conception of what the theory entails. 

Utilitarianism was introduced in developed form by the 18th century British empiricist philosophers. Having picked up the juicy bone of David Hume’s principle of utility, Jeremy Bentham argued that the chief goal of life is maximised pleasure, which is supposedly measured by his ‘felicific calculus’.  

Trying to shy away from this rampant hedonism, J S Mill picked up the baton with his idea that the ultimate goal of all moral action is the greatest happiness of the greatest number – though by happiness he did not mean the same deep moral condition described by Plato. Plato’s view, long before Christianity, that ‘a good man cannot be harmed’, refers to a state of the soul. 

There are different versions of utilitarianism, including spin-off versions by some recent philosophers, and there is even ‘negative utilitarianism’, whose goal is the elimination of physical harm. But the basic dispiriting premise is the same – that morality is merely a policy or instrument towards a non-moral or empirically identifiable state.  

Thus moral reasoning becomes a matter of arithmetical calculation – the utilitarian calculus. 

The idea of moral goodness is reduced to that of expediency, in which all so-called moral action is not good in itself, only a means to a further end. 

This is the doctrine of ‘consequentialism’, which attributes all value to a prescribed goal, so conceiving of the moral agent as merely a centre of practical reason for whom altruism stands in need of an external (empirically describable) payoff.  

‘Good’ here means expediency and ‘harm’ means frustration. This ethic can never allow us to belong to what we do. In locating goodness or badness solely in the effects of our actions, it implies a severance between the doer and the deed. 

At the same time, this runs counter to our natural understanding of moral conduct. Human acts and actions are not mere observable changes in the environment.  

We do not, and cannot properly, regard people’s actions as if they were like parcels dropped from mail trains. We see people as being ‘in’ their actions, such that what they do expresses what they are and how they see the world.  

It is not merely actions but motive and character which are subject to moral judgment. A deserved reductio ad absurdum of the consequentialist position is that, in principle, robots could just as well engage in this ‘econometric’ calculus or ‘preference orderings’. 

Yet we are subjects of what Immanuel Kant rightly called the moral law. He distinguished hypothetical from categorical imperatives – a distinction similar to the one later drawn by Wittgenstein in marking the difference between relative and absolute judgments of value.  

The hypothetical or relative judgement of value has the form ‘do X if you want Y’, whereas the categorical or absolute judgment of value has the form ‘do X because it is morally right (and for no other reason)’.  

To send flowers to your mother to ingratiate yourself into a greater slice of her will, or even to send her flowers in order to think of oneself as a generous person, is not the same action as sending her flowers to comfort or show love for her – and for no other reason or no other ‘end’. 

Our true moral attitude to one another as human beings has a bedrock which involves reverence and respect in regarding each person as having freedom, responsibility, rights and duties. Anything less is to regard persons as mere things.  

Yet this government has ruthlessly taken away our (some would say God-given) freedom in the spurious cause of maximising our so-called safety. 

No number-crunching can possibly justify this monstrous assault on free and moral beings (nor is it justified by the fear-ridden compliance of so many).  

And no arithmetical calculation, no cost-benefit analysis can defend us from this imposition which is aping that of communist China, an imposition which is restricting freedom of speech as well as physical freedom.  

There is no possible unit of measurement for the suffering and indignity we have been subjected to: it is quite literally immeasurable.  

A salutary and thought-provoking comment from Wittgenstein …  ‘The whole planet can suffer no greater torment than a single soul. No greater torment can be experienced than one human being can experience. For if one man feels lost, that is the ultimate torment’ (Culture and Value). 

A particularly obnoxious ploy of our present administration, apart from its cruel emotional manipulation to spread fear (as advised by behavioural psychologists on the Sage committee), is the constant uncertainty, the ‘shifting of goalposts’, used as a means of social control: ‘We might give you a little bit of freedom, we might not.’  

Another pertinent remark of Wittgenstein (same source) – ‘Don’t play with what lies deep in a person.’ 

What consequentialism boils down to is the corrupt maxim that the end justifies the means. Such a maxim can, and has in our history, been used to ‘justify’ the actions of totalitarian regimes. It cannot morally justify the repressive force of this power-mad government.    

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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