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Utilitarianism: The Thinking Behind Warnock

Fr Peter Bristow

Philosophy is not the pursuit of most men and women, who, inevitably and understandably, are occupied with the more practical concerns of life. Yet not only does it go on inexorably in its hidden way, but eventually the major varieties of it tend to come to the surface and influence the daily life and outlook of many people and, indeed, whole societies. It is a process which may take several generations, as is the case with utilitarianism which today holds us in its grip. This philosophy, which argues that freedom consists in doing what one desires, restrained only by the needs and happiness of the rest of society, is today everywhere the foundation of public policy.

The most recent and-glaring example of this has been the Warnock Report on human fertilization and embryology. It is argued that 'Moral questions, such as those with which we have been concerned, are by definition questions that involve not only a calculation of consequences, but also strong sentiments with regard to the nature of the proposed activities themselves.'
[1] Utilitarianism has been called consequentialism because the pivot of its morality is a calculation of the consequences or benefits that a given action or actions will proportion to individuals and society. Warnock accepts this viewpoint, underestimating other important moral principles, conceding them only in the vaguest way by the use of the phrase 'strong sentiments'.

The result is naturally that the rights of the individual and the dignity of the human being, not having been given sufficient consideration, are overridden. Warnock therefore recommends, among other things, because of 'the benefits arising from research', a fourteen day period during which experiments may be carried out on embryos, after which, if they are not implanted, they must be destroyed. The Bishops' Bio-ethics Committee comments that with this provision, for the first time in our civilization, 'deliberate killing of the harmless is to be made not merely permissible, but actually obligatory'

The Warnock Report displays its credentials perfectly when it acknowledges that the constraints it does recommend arise from 'the need to allay public anxiety' [3]. This is the mentality which is recommending egg donation and even trans-species fertilization in experiments, but drawing the line at surrogate motherhood. It is basing itself firmly, as has so much past legislation and morality, on Jeremy Bentham's famous dictum: 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation'.

What is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a version of moral philosophy, initiated by Jeremy Bentham and refined and popularized by John Stuart Mill, which, true to its etymology, is concerned above all with the usefulness of human activity. The reference, however, is more specifically to the utility and usefulness of human actions to produce happiness, which comes to be equated with pleasure or the satisfaction of desires. Though typical of modern man's mentality, such a philosophy is not unique to modern times. Epicureanism had something similar to say in ancient Greece.

However, in our own times, it has become a much repeated and sophisticated philosophical position, with an influence as wide as society itself. Incidentally, there is a good deal of sophistry. about it and many an admirer of the great Greek philosophers would say that Plato and Aristotle had dealt a mortal blow to sophistical reasoning and, in particular, to the idea that pleasure can be the sold end of human action. It is intriguing the way the history of thought as well as action is prepared to go round in circles.

Based on these presuppositions, the utilitarians make the guiding principle of ethics the maximization of happiness. Therefore, the actions which will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number are the right ones to be done. And those which produce pain are to be avoided. Almost from the start, many obvious difficulties were encountered by its adherents, which have led to continuous revisions. These different versions of the theory have resulted in other names being given to it, such as 'consequentialism' and 'proportionalism', but the continual revisions can still be grouped under the heading of utilitarianism.

This is so because in this system of thought, rightness and wrongness depend on the benefits and consequences an action produces. The notion that actions can be intrinsically good or bad and that the principles of such goodness or badness are self-evident in man has been discarded. This is surely contrary to experience, to the traditions of the ages, not to speak of Revelation! Vatican II says of conscience: 'In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience can when necessary speak to his heart more specifically: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged' [4].

It is not my purpose to point to all the difficulties of utilitarianism, which are legion, but simply to highlight two or three. In the first place, the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is not so much false as senseless in that no precise meaning can be given to it, due to the fact that happiness, like goodness itself, is not the sort of thing that can be quantified. Related to this is the fact that happiness is a concept which is subject to differentiation. What makes one person happy does not make another; one can hardly compare the happiness produced by listening to a symphony with that of giving money to charity. It makes more sense to speak of quality of happiness than of quantity, as the early utilitarians realized when they had to face the question of whether on their principles one should prefer to be a happy pig or a sad human being!

Furthermore, utilitarianism provides no grounds for preferring altruism to selfishness, or, for example, whether one should maximize the happiness of one's own family, party or church as opposed to everyone else's. Bentham hesitated for a lifetime over whether the maximization of his own happiness came before that of others, and thus his moral theory was unable to justify even the golden rule.


But the area where utilitarianism has been most influential and where it is equally untenable for a Catholic is in its notion that pleasure or the satisfaction of desires can be the end of human activity. Modern permissiveness derives from this hedonism. We see the fruits of this mentality, assisted by Freud and others en route, in the reaction to the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, which upheld the union of sex and procreation. Many of its opponents, realizing it or not, were and are arguing for a separation of the pleasures of sex from the responsibility of child-bearing. The use of contraceptives will, in the light of this, and as the Encyclical predicted, increase licentiousness and undermine the stability of marriage, which is just what we have seen happen.

As Catholics we have long been convinced that pleasure alone is not a worthy end of human action, though most assuredly there is nothing wrong with it in itself and it may well accompany other worthy ends. This can be decisively shown, I think, by the thought experiment, based on the hypothesis of the 'experience machine'. According to this, one has to imagine being plugged into a machine so that, while floating in a tank, one can be given all the pleasures and thrills imaginable. The only condition is that one has to be plugged in for a lifetime, or not at all. How many people would choose it? Very few. And why? Because man is interested in fulfilment through activity, not simply the satisfying pleasure of fulfilment.

A Catholic Response

There is lacking in utilitarianism, as there is absent in Warnock, a true and clear notion of man; of his rights and his dignity. This latter does not recognize the right of the embryo as a human being from conception, nor, indeed, in an unequivocal way 'the right to be born the true child of a married couple,...(and thus) to have an unimpaired sense of identity' [5]. The door is open for children to be born into one-parent families and, indeed, to two people living in a homosexual relationship. Such occurrences can only further undermine family life. The 'right' of an infertile couple or individual is allowed to obliterate many other basic rights.

Catholicism, therefore, argues for the need to get back to a morality based on the true nature of man as a spiritual and biological being. As an intelligent being, man is able to understand that good and evil are in no way calculations based on projected consequences or benefits, but rather depend on basic notions, values and disvalues self-evident to all mankind. These, together with rules or principles on which there is general agreement, allow us to make true moral judgments. The basic self-evident values to which all men have a right are such things as life, truth, work, leisure and culture, practical reasonableness, and religion. There are many rules, but one is that each of the basic values must be respected on every occasion: so, innocent life must never be sacrificed, nor truth violated. Another principle is that no human being may ever be treated as a means to an end.

These self-evident notions and principles, on which the general agreement of mankind can be obtained, are the foundations of the natural law which is written on the heart of man. This moral law (as it may also be called) has often been presented as flowing from the eternal law, and from the being of a God. And so it does. But this is not necessarily the way of knowing it. Precisely because they are written on our being, the basic goods and principles of ethical reasoning are self-evident to us. They lead back to an eternal law as a consequence rather than starting with it as a premise. In a pluralistic society where, as Warnock dramatically demonstrates, there is little agreement on moral conclusions, there is an evident need to find common ground in self-evident values and generally agreed principles. In other words, there is a need for a fresh presentation of the natural moral law which will attract and convince at least some of those who do not share all our other beliefs.

For instance, if we can get people to agree on a series of basic goods and values., if we can get them to agree also that each basic good is equally basic, then we can avoid the utilitarian practice of inevitably allowing some human right to be set aside. This happens because some good benefits will always outweigh other good ones where we are talking only in terms of consequences. Hence Warnock considers that the progress of research and success of some cases of in vitro fertilization outweighs the inevitable destruction (and death) of many other embryos. For every ten embryos implanted, only one comes to fruition as a successful pregnancy, and many thousands more do not reach the implantation stage. This is an intolerable instrumentalization and manipulation of human embryos for the benefit of a few, but such a conclusion follows from utilitarian premises.

Only moral arguments which take man's dignity and nature into account will ultimately protect the fundamental rights of each individual. It is often said that Humanae Vitae was a prophetic document. This was meant to indicate that it had a didactic or teaching purpose. But it is also prophetic in the sense that it teaches us that in moral questions today Catholics must go against the grain of accepting the views of the fashionable systems of moral philosophy, notably utilitarianism; and rely on their own natural moral law, adapted to the questions. of the time and presented in a way that can appeal to all sectors of a pluralistic society, who are reasonable men and women of good will.


1. Warnock Report. Foreword; para.4;

2. Bishops' Bio-ethical Committee, Comments on the Warnock Report. para 11;

3. Warnock Report. para. 11.19;

4. Vatican Council II. Gaudium et spes. 16;

5. Bishops' Bio-ethical Committee. op.cit., para. 13;

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

This version: 26th December 2004

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