“Does it work because it’s true, or is it true because it works?” –Aldin Waldo (my college philosophy professor)
What if reality and truth are not synonymous? This was the question that came to mind immediately after Professor Waldo’s typical moment of inexplicably. It got me thinking about something Janet said, “Everyone is a Utilitarian, they just don’t know it yet.” Janet was not referring to hedonism, or the backwards principles of the paternalistic oligarchy Winston Smith both trusted and feared. She was referring to the kind of utilitarianism promoted by John Stuart Mill, the kind that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And it is in terms of this good–however we define ‘good’–that most people judge the value of a political system, religion, or worldview.
Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Perhaps we are all too selfish to really want the greatest good for the greatest number. Most of us are usually content to not be ‘the other guy.’ In theory, however, we want what is best for the world and our fellow man. Specifically, we want political systems that ‘work,’ religions that ‘win souls,’ or ‘produce results.’ Our systems of belief are molded by our experiences. Did trust in god/myself/the system produce the results I desired? Yes? No? Alter course accordingly.
We judge the value of a worldview by its utilitarianism, but what if what works isn’t necessarily true? After all, the agricultural industry of the United States might prosper more in the long term if we instituted a system of regulated rainwater harvesting and interstate water trade, but we don’t. Instead we deplete the Colorado River to the extent that it dries up before reaching the sea. The underground reservoir that feeds Oklahoma crops has been unsustainably tapped for irrigation and will likely be completely depleted within twenty years. Potable water is being used to grow cattle instead of grain which ultimately feeds a much smaller proportion of the population than the land could otherwise sustain. Little, if anything in this world is ideal, yet it exists. In short, quality does not equal reality.
On a similar vein, I find myself wondering if certain facets of cultural Christianity (I’m looking at you Dobson), with their demoded attitudes towards science, homophobic doctrines, and paternalistic hierarchies reflect reality. What if the method of running the world that produces the most happiness for the most people isn’t actually in line with the supreme being who made it? What if there is a god, but he isn’t good?
Or, to put it another way, what if god is not the supreme realization of all my idealistic fantasies, but a real and particular being who, as such, cannot please everyone and thus leaves me wanting? What if, from my perspective, reality is un-ideal?
I’m not sure it would matter. It would not change the fundamental truth of the particular worldview which brings joy to the most people if the creator of the universe did not endorse it. God’s opposition to a utilitarian philosophy does not alter that philosophy’s utility. Utility, however, is a function of ‘good for’; it is a quality defined by the end-goal of the user. This is why the theoretical definition of utilitarianism (that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number), practically breaks down into discussions about the definition of goodness. And that, perhaps, is the question at the heart of all moral discussion.