Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Utilitarians

In September Robin Grinter talked on the Utilitarians

Utilitarianism is the philosophy developed by the British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It lies at the centre of Western Humanist thinking and is a basis for knowing what it right and what is wrong. Humanism is a development of Utilitarianism that keeps it relevant to the changing and challenging human situation in which we live.

Some of the key elements of Utilitarianism are: a belief that everything must make a useful contribution towards that outcome to be of value; Utilitarianism is a rational philosophy of action, whose usefulness lies in calculating consequences in terms of human happiness or unhappiness; It is also secular because it  makes no reference to any supernatural considerations.  Utilitarianism is not a rigid and absolute morality, and it is not just a ‘natural’ philosophy that makes right and wrong the outcome of humanity’s ‘better nature’.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the major thinker figure in Utilitarianism. Both happiness and utility were philosophical concepts in common use in his day: indeed Francis Hutcheson coined the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ sixty years before Bentham. But it was Bentham who almost single-handedly wove happiness and utility together to make philosophy a force for action in the world in his ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’  (1789).

Bentham was a lawyer concerned to improve laws to create a better society. His one simple question for any action, law or custom was ‘what use is it?’, and the only criterion in answering that was to look at its consequences for the happiness and well-being of human beings. He didn’t personally influence any reforms because he died in 1832, the year when the first act of parliamentary reform was passed. But his thinking inspired the social reforms of Victorian England and the creation of our welfare state. He is the inspiration for the campaigning work of the Humanists UK.

However, not all reforms were kind. The poor law reform of 1834 stopped the wasteful handouts of basic food to the destitute, and set up workhouses so that  basic necessities were only available for useful work by “the undeserving poor”. Workhouses were pretty dreadful places in terms of human happiness.  Bentham’s own plans for prison reform were also pretty harsh: his ‘Panopticon’ would have removed all privacy by constructing prisons so that every prisoner’s actions were visible to those who governed them.

Morality for Bentham isn’t just a question of being good and virtuous individuals: actions have to have measurable, tangible benefits for society. To avoid time-consuming and complicated assessments for every action, we use ‘rules of thumb’, general guidance based on experience. This has led to arguments on the need to have general rules rather than calculations of outcomes. Bentham argued that if we suspect that these rules of thumb do more harm than good we should override them. His approach made Bentham very tolerant of private actions, for example homosexuality. 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) a declared agnostic, was a major political philosopher and author of ‘On Liberty’ (1859) and ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861). He shared Bentham’s commitment to reforms and improvement. He condemned slavery in America and as an MP, became a strong advocate of labour unions and farm cooperatives. He supported the second Act of Parliamentary Reform passed in 1867. In ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ (1869) Mill called for further reforms of Parliament and voting His most celebrated campaign was for women’s rights.  Mill disagreed with Bentham on the nature of happiness, intellectual pleasures being more valuable than sensual pleasures.

Robin used some scenarios for discussion in small groups. 

1. Aren’t pleasure and happiness fundamentally egoistic, which rules out seeking the well-being of others?  
2. Can you predict the consequences of actions well enough to be sure you’re doing the right thing? 
3. Have we got time to calculate all the likely effects of an action? 
4. Isn’t it better to make it a priority to minimise pain and suffering than increase pleasure? 
5. Isn’t Utilitarianism too demanding, seeking the maximum happiness which logically involves all human welfare?
6. Don’t motives and intentions matter when it comes to doing what is right? 
7. Can Utilitarianism permit wrong actions and lead to injustice?
8. This reflection illustrates a final issue: should we decide each action on its own merits or live by general rules?

Each group selected their own topic and share their deliberations with the rest.
Robin ended by asking “Is Utilitarianism, and therefore Utilitarian Humanism universally valid – as you’d expect a philosophy to be?” He himself doubted this because of the diversity of societies around the world and different attitudes to Human rights in some countries. Utilitarianism may be simple, but it raises complex issues.

Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation

16th August: Derek McComiskey asked "Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation?"  It is 500 years since one of the pivotal events of the Protestant Reformation - when Martin Luther produced his "95 Theses" in 1517. 

Firstly - the Catholic Church had held sway over the rulers and people of Europe for over a thousand year providing a single orthodoxy, a way of answering all the substantial questions that people might ask.  Once Protestantism was established it soon multiplied into many variants.  This plurality of thought immediately promotes sceptical questioning - surely they can't all be right?  Maybe one is right and all the others wrong, or maybe they are all a bit right and a bit wrong?  Perhaps ... none of them are right?!

Secondly - it is just interesting.  It resulted in a shift in thinking as profound as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but was a much more well-defined event occurring in a far more limited time.  Luther stood up to the two most powerful institutions in Europe (Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire) in jeopardy of his life and survived.  His is a very exciting story.

Thirdly - it was a profoundly anti-corruption movement.  Through much of the previous millennium the Catholic Church had been more or less corrupt.  It had been more concerned with empire building and suppressing dissent than the care of the people it supposedly served.  There was warmongering, factionalism and sexual hypocrisy at the highest level.  There had been many would-be reformers who ended up in flames or whose followers were terribly persecuted - Arnold of Brescia, Peter Waldo and Jan Hus amongst others.  The spark that really kindled Luther's anger was the sale of "indulgences" in his local area.  His parishioners were persuaded to part with their money to buy remission from sins for themselves or their relatives in purgatory.  Half the money was going to pay for the rebuilding (in grand Renaissance style) of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Fourth - the theological message of the reformers was more individual and democratic than the Catholic alternative.  In Catholicism priests are special and can really effect change in a person's "state of grace" by performing the rites correctly.  Luther argued strongly that this was wrong.  There was a "priesthood of all believers" - we each stand before God and are saved "by faith alone"; ordained priests are no different to anyone else.

Fifth - The reformer's Bibles in the vernacular languages, along with mass printing, was a real spur to literacy.  Catholic teaching was that only the Pope could interpret the Bible correctly so ordinary people were not encouraged to read it lest they develop wrong ideas.  Luther (and later Calvin) wanted everyone to read for themselves. However, he wasn't very happy when they came up with different ideas to him!  The newly invented printing press was invaluable to the reformation.

During the Q&A we touched on The Protestant Work Ethic, the possibility of an Islamic Reformation, what is the difference between Church of England and Anglican, why the Church of Scotland isn't Anglican and Luther's response to the Farmer's Revolt amongst other things.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous

At Stockport's July Meeting Stefan Cooper gave us a very interesting talk partly based on his own experiences.  Most of us have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous and maybe Narcotics Anonymous but I wonder how many of us have realised that there are more than 200 different Anonymous Groups.

The Anonymous philosophy is based on the 12 step principle  and was originally a model of seeking spiritual enlightenment. Groups are available not just for various addictions but also for bad habits such as overeating, for behavioural problems and involuntary problems such as diabetes.

Anonymous is Big Business. 90% of treatment centres in the US are 12 step based. There are no figures for the UK but it is a multimillion pound business using benefits, council tax etc. Some very well paid people are making a lot of money selling 12 steps to vulnerable people.

Many perceive AA groups to be a benign group of people and AA portrays itself as a self-help or mutual aid organisation. There is no mention of God on the web site but the message of the 12-steps is that you have to give yourself to God.  And 12-steps is the only way if you go to meetings.

Stefan met and worked with 1000s of addicts, some of the most vulnerable people in society. Detoxing only takes a couple of weeks but underneath is a lifetime of chaos. Sex abuse and crime also play a part in the equation.

If you open your door as a meeting and offer a solution this becomes the definitive solution. People can end up worse than they started. If the 12-steps don’t work for you it is your fault. This can create real fear in vulnerable people. Fear can work in rehab but not when you return to the real world. Therefore people become dependent on anonymous.

The anonymous movement developed from the Oxford Group, founded by the American Christian Missionary Frank Buchman, which later became known as Moral Rearmament.

One of the founders of AA, Bill Wilson, went through a number of courses of the Belladonna cure which was being used to treat alcoholism in the 1930s. He had a revelation whilst under treatment and believed that becoming a Christian would stop his drinking. He converted and never drank again but he was a chain smoker who died of emphysema. The 12-steps came to him whilst he was tripping in a hospital bed but people were told they were divinely inspired. The basic text for AA known as the Big Book mentions God 200 times in 167 pages.

Non-believers are pushed to believe in God and if they have a problem with this they are given a tract against agnosticism.

Anyone can set up an Anonymous meeting. All you need is a ring of chairs and a kettle. This is potentially dangerous as there is nothing to stop sexual predators forming groups under the guise of helping people, who are at their most vulnerable.