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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, Professor of the School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

The utilitarian temptation

Mon, 03 Jun 2019 11:08:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

Utilitarianism is the tendency to put utility before any other quality or aspect of things. It is to subordinate everything to what is convenient to us and to reduce what is convenient to us to what is useful. It does not consist only in affirming that what is useful is a good (which can be admitted with some nuances); it also consists in maintaining that the supreme good is what is useful; everything that is good would be so because of the utility it can produce.

It is not wrong for parents to want their children to do a degree program with more possibilities of economic income than others; on the other hand, it would be wrong to reduce the preparation for life to the acquisition of useful knowledge. "It is not enough to specialize young people for a official document; it is not enough to prepare technicians, but it is also necessary to form personalities. It is a matter of forming complete men, and of presenting study and the professional work as means to find oneself and to fulfill oneself and to realize the vocation that corresponds to each life". (John Paul II).

 Utilitarianism places utility above more properly human values: truth, freedom, justice... What matters is not the truth of the real, the truth of being, but the truth that is desired, that is desired or that is convenient on each occasion; what matters is not the truth, but "my truth"; also the truth of the majority. This last "truth" changes according to the votes obtained in each case. This false criterion of truth could be refuted with an irony perhaps not at all fine: "eat garbage, because a million flies can't be wrong". Some well-known verses of Antonio Machado are very clarifying in this topic:

"Your truth?/no, the truth;/and come with me to look for it./yours keep it".

For Julián Marías, "the utilitarian temptation is invading the most intimate and valuable redoubts of life: the relationship between teachers and disciples, friendship and love". He adds that "this invasion is very worrying, since friendship and love require a disinterested, generous and effusive attitude, which is incompatible with the utilitarian mentality".

 By reducing everything to utility, utilitarianism undervalues the noblest motivations of human beings and disregards the most important values: generosity, solidarity, honesty, etc. It thus condemns man to a life of individualism, lack of solidarity, few horizons and probably unhappiness.

One of the main errors of utilitarianism is to consider all realities only as means to achieve a practical result . This ignores the fact that there are realities that can never be taken as means (for example, the reality of "person", which has the character of an end and not of a means). Since practical results are achieved with means, an unlimited faith in technique tends to arise. Technology is necessary; it is an important factor of progress in all sectors of life (health, work, communications, etc.). But technology is for man, and not man for technology.

I am not criticizing technique but the mythification of technique, technical pride, which can deceive human beings into believing that with technique in their hands they are omnipotent. The idolatry of technology is considered one of the main causes of modern atheism.

It is necessary to use technical or technological resources, but giving them an instrumental value and not an absolute value; with this condition they contribute to a more human life. Let us think, for example, of the consequences of the steam engine for transportation, the printing press for culture, and household appliances for domestic tasks.

What is the best place to prevent and/or overcome the utilitarian temptation? The family, the family environment, because in it each member is considered as a whole. Children need and receive educational aids in the form not of theoretical values but of lived values.

The family is not based on laws or utility; it is a natural community of love and solidarity irreplaceable in the transmission of essential values for the development staff of its members. Each one of them is accepted and loved unconditionally, not for what he/she is worth and contributes, but for what he/she is. This does not usually happen outside the family.

In the family, children are educated not with lessons and classes, but by promoting day by day, with the good example of the parents, the virtues that lead to maturity and happiness. This possibility is due to the fact that it is an educational community with a formative character, with lived values that are contagious as if by osmosis or impregnation and that end up becoming one's own.