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 is a retired 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 and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.