A Dangerous Chemical Combination

Jeremy Bentham is far from being my favorite moral philosopher. Every semester in my Ethics course I point out to my students what I consider to be serious deficiencies in his Greatest Happiness Principle. It is unlikely, however, that any famous thinker is totally mistaken in his views. No matter how imperfect his theory, it is probable, if we take the trouble to sift through the dust of his errors, that we’ll find a golden nugget here and there.

One of Bentham’s golden nuggets is this – his contention that there is no rule of conduct, no matter how good, that will not produce harmful effects. Any rule will produce good and bad effects. Society should not aim at choosing rules that have no bad effects, for there are no such rules. We should choose those rules whose good effects greatly outweigh its bad.

But wait a minute. What about the rule that prohibits bank robbery? What bad effects does that rule produce? Isn’t that a rule that has nothing but good consequences? No, it produces bad consequences for bank robbers. They get arrested, get put on trial, get convicted, get sent to prison. That hurts. It is also painful for mothers of bank robbers, who experience feelings of great sorrow when their boys go to prison.

Nonetheless, we keep our criminal laws against bank robbery in effect, since we feel that the good consequences of these laws greatly outweigh the bad. If this saddens bank robbers and their loved ones, we say, “Well, too bad, but the overall good of society outweighs your suffering. Besides, didn’t it occur to you that you could have avoided suffering by abstaining from bank robbery.”

If we were to believe that laws should have nothing but good results, our compassion for bank robbers and their families would cause us to get rid of our anti-bank robbery laws. Fortunately nobody, at least not to date, has taught Americans to feel compassion for bank robbers.

But we Americans did something just like this a half-century ago – not with regard to bank robbery, to be sure – but with regard to out-of-wedlock childbirth. Being a compassionate society, we felt sorry for the poor girls who had to bear a terrible social stigma for getting pregnant and having a baby before getting a husband. These girls were made to feel ashamed of themselves, since their pregnancy revealed that they had been (as we used to say) “loose.”

Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by H.W. Pickersgill, 1829 [National Portrait Gallery, London]
Portrait of Jeremy Bentham by H.W. Pickersgill, 1829 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

And they were forced, thanks to social pressure, to marry the guy who had made them pregnant, even though he might prove to be a very unsatisfactory husband; or they were forced to give the baby up for adoption; or they were forced to get a “back-alley” abortion (abortion still being illegal in those days). Why not take a more compassionate attitude? Even though we might prefer that girls not get pregnant before marriage, let’s not make a big deal of it. If we say that it’s a fault, let’s add that it’s a very minor fault; a venial sin at worst. And while we’re at it, let’s allow the poor girls to get abortions.

So we relaxed our social rule against premarital sex and pregnancy and childbirth. The result of course was that we got an explosion of all these things. In short, we got an explosion of sexual irresponsibility among young persons, who have a general tendency toward irresponsibility to begin with. And we got a concomitant explosion of children growing up with a single parent, many fathers of these children having in effect abandoned the children and their mothers. And great numbers of these half-abandoned children, as they grew older, became very poor students at school; and (if boys) they became members of delinquent and criminal gangs; and (if girls) they became, like their own mothers, unmarried mothers. And so on and so forth. In a circle.

By and large, our collective decision a half-century ago to treat unmarried sex and pregnancy and childbirth with compassion has proven to be a tremendous social catastrophe. It has devastated the black lower class, and is increasingly devastating the white lower class as well.

But who cares? We were compassionate. That’s the important thing, isn’t it? We believed that social rules – or at least sexual rules – should have no painful consequences; and if they do, we should get rid of them.

Likewise with same-sex marriage. We’ve heard a million sad stories. Adam and Steve are in love. It breaks their hearts that they are unable to marry one another. It causes them shame and embarrassment that their fellow Americans regard them as second-class citizens, undeserving of exercising that precious human right to marriage. Ah, but we are a compassionate nation. Our immensely sympathetic hearts go out to poor Adam and Steve. And so we change our rules. We get rid of a fundamental marriage rule that goes back to time immemorial in order that the tears should be wiped away from the faces of gay lovers and be replaced with smiles. Love wins.

So far, the catastrophic consequences of all this have not shown up in obvious ways. But they will. Wait and see.

It is very dangerous, it has the power to destroy us – this “chemical” combination of (a) the un-Benthamite notion that we can have rules that produce nothing but good results and (b) feelings of compassion whenever we hear a sad story. And the powerful and ubiquitous “progressive” propaganda machine is expert at telling sad stories.

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

  • Michael DeLorme

    Ideas have consequences—wrote Richard M. Weaver. Sexual activity always has consequences, writes David Carlin. In both cases, history ineluctably confirms them.

  • KarenJo12

    The social penalties for out of wedlock childbearing fell exclusively on women. Do you believe that is just? Why? If not, how would you equalize the penalties?

    • DougH

      The same pressure on the women to marry their children’s fathers was also on the fathers to marry their children’s mothers. For the modern day, I have no problem with mandatory child support for men that get unmarried women pregnant.

    • ThirstforTruth

      I think the answer lies within the scope of compassionate families, not within the
      purview of government. If a young woman became pregnant out of wedlock
      during the middle of the past century, it was rare and handled by the institutions
      designed for charitable works ( if her own family would not).
      It was not a perfect system ( what is?) but there were fewer illegitimate children and the governments were not expected to provide life-long sustenance for them.
      Governments did not reward immoral behavior. We did not have whole generations of citizens unwilling to work. Jobs were necessary to survive. Not so today with Uncle Sam Sugar-Daddy!
      Fathers of out of wedlock children should be held accountable, both fiscally and morally for their “romp in the hay”. Instead of imprisonment, these men, if not holding responsible jobs, should be “employed” by government and paid for their services. Their salaries should be garnished for support.The law should protect the woman and child in this manner. With of course, the “settled” law of Roe vs Wade, pressure would be on the woman more than ever to abort the unwanted child.
      We live in an imperfect world. The need for a God-fearing people still exists and
      will until the end of time. Governments that spurn religion suffer the consequence and collapse eventually. There can be no civil law that works unless it is backed by the laws of God and Nature.

      • givelifeachance2

        This is especially true today when it is easy to identify who the father is with DNA analysis.

    • Ernest Miller

      Karen Jo,

      Many reasons explain the historical disparity of social penalties, but you are correct, in a modern society the penalties should be equalized. And they have.

      However, to Mr. Carlin’s point the compassionate equalization chosen was to eliminate the baby allowing both adults to skate Scot-free. This type of misguided compassion is the core problem to resolve. And, I think the answer is really obvious to reasonable people.

    • kilbirt42

      Well one redeeming feature was economic. Or as the judge typically put it to the young man when ordering payment of child support until one’s progeny reached eighteen: You rang the bell on the cash register young chap, now you must pay.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Art 340 of the Code Nap[oléon famously provided (Art 340), « la recherche de la paternité est interdite » – The investigation of paternity is
        forbidden. Paternity could only be
        established by marriage or acknowledgement.
        As the Emperor declared, “They want nothing to do with the law; well,
        the law wants nothing to do with them.”

        Roman law was the same: “nemini invite suus heres adnascitur” – No one
        can have an heir born to him without his consent (D 23.3.16.1 (Paulus) Inst
        1.11.7) and formed the basis of most European codes.

    • Richard A

      That is the other side of the coin that made women the primary guardians of sexual morality – at least one of the parties to a potential sexual encounter had a powerful motivation to ensure it (the encounter) took place in a safe and approved (i.e., marriage) context. Your sense of “justice” ensures that neither party has a powerful motivation to guard sexual morality. How’s that working out?

  • Nancy Lynne

    Compassion, tolerance, diversity perverted is what we have today. Isn’t pride at the bottom of all this? I am more compassionate, more tolerant, seek more diversity than you, therefore I am a better person than you.
    How can this be undone? How can we change course? Where can we begin?

    • John II

      Well, perhaps we can begin by declining to use the editorial “we,” which C.S. Lewis identified as a rhetorical dodge, an indirect way of casting aspersion.

      Here’s a better use of “we”: We are all fallen creatures in desperate need of Christ’s divine rescue. We have the wit to see pride as what Augustine called the rex vitiorum, the king of the vices, but we’re rather feeble at the task of discerning that vice, and especially its consequences, in ourselves.

      We need to pray. A lot.

      • kilbirt42

        Or, as Chesterton put it, the one scientifically verifiable Christian Doctrine is clearly that of Original Sin.

  • DougH

    “The greatest good for the greatest number” is a fine rule to live by, so long as the decision to make the sacrifice for the greater good is being made by the ones that will have to pay the price. Otherwise, you have victims rather than nobility in practice. But that’s not what Carlin is talking about here, and so I think misapplies Bentham’s point — Carlin is talking about allowing people to avoid the consequences of their actions out of compassion. An obviously bad idea much of the time, but not the same thing. (Yes, I know I’m being a little pedantic.)

  • sanfordandsons

    Tolerance is not a Christian virtue. When I tell that to people who are trying to change society with same-sex unions or abortion, they cringe, because they think that tolerance should be a Christian virtue. You can tolerate your grand-child’s noisy play or your dog barking, but they are not reasoned animals, yet. While we may be labeled as in-tolerant, that is OK with me. I will not give up my Christian Virtue so that others can change society that will tolerate their bad behavior.

    • Steven P Glynn

      I concur, but I believe a bigger problem is a changing concept of tolerance. Through the 1970’s and 80’s tolerance of homosexuals meant that they should not be subjected to violence or threats of violence and that communities should not go to extraordinary lengths to enforce sodomy laws etc.. Somehow this has morphed into a need to congratulate them on their deviance.

  • A very fine article, full of that element that is so lacking in the world today – truth.

    • kilbirt42

      Yes! Reminds me of Orwell who said the first requirement in a time of universal deceit is to tell the truth. Finding a redeeming element in Bentham, now that makes it a tour de force.

  • Beth

    I struggled at the high school sports banquet. I struggled to put my hands together in a congratulatory clap for the pregnant volleyball player who, as the coach so tearfully exclaimed, “had the true courage of the team–the true MVP!” I yielded a couple of heartless slaps while my mind exploded over how warped this Catholic high school had become. I mostly looked at the other girls on the team and wondered if they too could see it.

  • Howard Kainz

    Bentham was a product of the Enlightenment, looking for a purely scientific theory of ethics, independent of religion or natural-law considerations. The problem with his theory was that the “greatest good” for the greatest number was conceived in terms of pleasure. He even formulated elaborate tables of different species of pleasure, which could be tabulated, given points and added up, to scientifically determine what was the ethical best. “Progressive” politicians now don’t go to such extremes of calculation, but they follow a similar procedure, with their similar definition of the “good.”

  • Stewart Davies

    The laws against criminal activity, such as bank robbery, do not produce bad consequences. The “bad consequences” result from the criminal activity, and not the law that seeks to prevent it. Those who obey the law avoid all bad consequences such as arrest, trial and imprisonment, and the betrayal of their families and the broader society.

  • SAG13

    I wonder who the ‘we’ were who were so compassionate in the moral decline of our culture? I really don’t remember any sought of dialogue around the dinner table, at the social gatherings of American Legions or the chit chat during bingo nights, or for that matter even in the classroom! What I do remember is an entire couch potoato society enthralled with the newly invented television. While mom watched silly morning programming or game shows, and kids, like me, watched cartoons in my youth, then on to historical WW2 clips and an occasional 1940’s or 50’s era movies depicting already long gone social mores in the afternoons, and the family collectively watched Father Knows Best in the evenings among dozens of other worthless entertainment shows that kept us smiling, giggling and applauding, our courts were hijacked by radical liberals wearing the latest sheeps clothing….sometimes the latest fashionable Democrat garb and sometimes the Republican double breated suit. Heck, once I even remember wondering why the same judge was running on EVERY parties ticket…Democrat, Republican, Conservative AND the Liberal party!!! I was in my thirties then and said to myself…what gives? ..something wrong in Denmark..oops…I mean Smalltown, USA!

  • Stewart Davies

    Consider the homosexual activists who present themselves for Holy Communion adorned in their rainbow sashes, which are public symbols of a gravely sinful lifestyle. Their intent is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord, by which they might find a healing remedy for their ills. Their sole purpose is to make a political statement which will embarrass the Church, and the secular media willingly allows itself to be co-opted, and delights in portraying the Church as intolerant, judgemental, hateful, hypocritical, “non-inclusive” and “(the gravest of sins!), “homophobic”. So, when, on such occasions, they are refused Holy Communion, is the ensuing outcry against the Church a “bad consequence”?
    Their sexual sins are greatly compounded by their intention to exploit the Eucharist as a “political weapon” with which to embarrass the Church. But their prevention from translating this intention into action serves to preserve the integrity of that which is most sacred, and it prevents them from actualising a sacrilegious Communion, which is a far greater sin than their sexual sins could ever be. This is not a “bad consequence”. It is an act of mercy, and its potential beneficiaries are the very same people who will have been frustrated in their attempts to falsely scar the Church by their political activism.

  • Charles Temm

    Solid points, I’m enjoying my subscription!