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From the March/April, 2011 issue of Touchstone


The Utilitarian Prince by Daniel Propson

The Utilitarian Prince

Tolstoy’s Stepan Oblonsky & the Pleasure Principle That Doesn’t Work

by Daniel Propson

Any reasonably perceptive individual has probably noticed, if only subconsciously, that some moral actions have bad results. Punctuality, for example, can be tremendously inefficient; honesty can cause pain; diligence can cause frustration. For the moment, let us ignore the question of whether these consequences are bad in context. We can certainly admit that they are bad in isolation.

Some ethicists seize on these bad consequences and argue that punctuality, honesty, and diligence are not virtuous in themselves, but only virtuous when good consequences result from them. At first glance, this sounds like a bad joke: “Wait a second—you told the truth and a bomb exploded? You’d better be sure to lie next time.” But these people are quite serious, and they think they have latched onto an ethical principle. Crudely stated, their motto is this: Do whatever has the best consequences.

In qualified form—“all things being equal”—this is good advice. Indeed, one might wonder how any system of action that did not lead to good consequences could ever be called “ethical.” The devil, however, is in the details.

The Principle of Utility

The demands of utilitarianism, an ethical philosophy popularized in the nineteenth century, are quite difficult to live up to. Utilitarianism is based on the so-called “principle of utility,” which has many different versions, but amounts to: Always do whatever gives rise to the greatest preponderance of pleasure over pain in the world. At first, this seems reasonable—aren’t all systems of ethics concerned with nurturing happiness and avoiding misery? But the utilitarian ethic is singularly mathematical. The utilitarian calculates the probable pleasures and pains of potential actions, and chooses whichever action appears to be quantitatively advantageous.

In practice, this leads to all sorts of nonsense, and the utilitarian philosopher probably spends very little time following his own tenets. If he did, he would advise doctors to kill some of their sicker patients in order that the others might receive better care. He would encourage his kids to go to unchaperoned parties, urge his wife to take a lover on the side, advise his students to steal textbooks from the college bookstore. He would plagiarize others in his published work (taking careful measures not to be caught), and he would condition his duller students to agree with all of his own conclusions.

He would seek the “good” of all at all times, constantly calculating what pleasures and pains would be incurred by various actions, and he would never be duped into following conventional morality, which—despite having no basis in his empirical understanding of the world—has outposts in his head (conscience).

Such a man would be, to say the least, remarkable. And yet, the philosophy of utilitarianism has infiltrated the ethical reasoning of today’s common man. The prevalence of the question “Whom does it hurt?” in our day-to-day ethical considerations is a haunting indication of how the principle of utility has permeated our minds. In such a landscape, it is instructive to consider in depth—through the lens of literature—whom the actions listed above do hurt, and why we must resist the dominance of a utilitarian ethic on our culture.

Oblonsky’s Traits

There are a great number of thoroughgoing hedonists in the history of literature, but relatively few utilitarians. One illuminating literary example of a utilitarian, however, is Leo Tolstoy’s Prince Stepan Oblonsky, the brother of the infamous Anna Karenina. Oblonsky, commonly considered a minor character in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, is as delightful to read about as any man could be. He is charming and amiable, although by conventional moral standards he is altogether a scoundrel. The opening pages of the novel tell of his wife discovering that he has cheated on her with the family governess; it is telling that Oblonsky cannot help but giggle at his wife’s shocked reaction, like a naughty schoolboy who has been caught stealing cupcakes.

And yet, he is extraordinarily devoted to the welfare and advancement of nearly everyone he knows, and he is quite willing to spend his considerable energies on their behalf. In Oblonsky, Tolstoy has presented a new kind of modern antihero, a character so vitally concerned with advancing his own vision of the world that he fails entirely to notice what the world actually is.

An extremely vigorous and full-blooded man, Stiva (as his friends call him) has a great deal of affection for his wife and half-dozen children, although he has very little time for them. This is hardly a fault, however, because he spends his time in altogether noble pursuits—working a vacuous desk job, frequenting the theatres, and dining with intimate acquaintances, of which he has hundreds. He is such an accomplished liar that he believes every lie he tells, most especially the lie that he loves his wife and family with all his heart. When prompted by the vestiges of guilt to feel somewhat derelict in his duties toward his family, he quickly reminds himself that nothing is to be gained by such feelings.

To the classical ethicist, Oblonsky is a mockery of a man. Still, the reader must not fail to realize that Stiva has a great many ordinary virtues. He is intelligent, generous, kind, and courageous. He has no question of his duty toward his friends, and he is quite willing to make friends with all sorts of people. He has an endless supply of charisma for any task, and he does not lack for tenacity or decisiveness. He is recklessly sympathetic, although (it must be admitted) he is perhaps incapable of love. He has committed himself with great energy to obey the scriptural injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”—indeed, he has sown his seed on other fields besides his own (no doubt at none but his heavenly Father’s behest).

The Problem of Justice

But the virtues, as classical ethics would have it, are all focused by one singular virtue: the virtue of justice. This is the virtue that utilitarianism itself is supposed to embody. But what do we mean by justice? Is it a sense, a moral feeling? If so, the utilitarian reasons, it must be a fallible sense, because people honestly disagree about what is just.

The British utilitarian John Stuart Mill said that although justice itself “does not arise from anything which would commonly or correctly be termed an idea of [utility] . . . whatever is moral in it does.” For Mill, insofar as justice is not based solely on the principle of utility, it is merely an expression of the base human desire for vengeance. In order for justice to be ethically relevant, it must be understood as “the greatest sum total of pleasure, and the least pain, for everybody.” Aristotle’s idea of “giving to each what is due him,” Mill implies, is barbaric and paternalistic, and he casts it to the curb. (This philosophical technique, by the way, of redefining a common word to your own philosophical ends, is neither charming nor particularly effective. It does, however, demonstrate that Mill is an intellectual utilitarian, too).

It is no wonder that the utilitarian must dispose of the average person’s idea of justice. This idea—which is a purer and more meaningful ancestor to the concept of rights—is harsh and uncompromising when confronted with the real world. Few of us even aspire to live up to it. For instead of being able to take refuge in what I and others want, and provide that, justice requires me to consider what I and others deserve. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion that wrongdoers deserve the suffering they get, and that therefore we ought not to protect them from it.

This is something that Stepan Oblonsky cannot countenance. Christian forgiveness is the only religious concept he has any familiarity with, and he applies it generously in every conceivable situation. Those who have fallen must immediately be picked up, dusted off, and put back on their notoriously weak knees, without any opportunity to repent or to heal. Oblonsky takes our Savior’s kind words to the woman caught in adultery as a carte blanche for sinful indulgence, completely ignoring the story’s conclusion: “Go, and sin no more.”

To such a man, sin is a spice that complements the goodness of creation. The whole aim of civilization, according to Oblonsky, is “to make everything a source of enjoyment.” Although he rarely makes the effort to attend church, he is perfectly delighted with the Church’s existence. The Church’s “thou shalt nots” make his dinner taste twice as good, and his dessert simply delectable. And—lest his conscience accuse him—he is quite confident that he is doing everything he can to make everyone’s life as pleasant as possible. Especially his own.

The Problem of Subjectivity

Subjectivity is the perennial hobgoblin of utilitarian ethics. The actual importance of various pleasures and pains can only be judged through the lens of a single individual, and individual judgment has its own peculiar biases. When thinking of his own pleasure, a man is bound to quantify it as particularly valuable. When thinking of the pain he causes others, he is bound to underestimate it. Although objective quantitative standards for measuring the utility of various courses of action have been proposed, they are patently absurd—as if life could be quantified and analyzed like the statistics of a baseball team!

In practice, utilitarians have their own ways of making decisions. Oblonsky, while enjoying the hospitality of Russian peasants on a hunting trip, allows himself and a friend to take liberties with some ladies he encounters. He does not stop to consider the pain that he might cause a young girl in such an interaction, because he has certain “sensible” reasons not to factor that into his calculation. (Besides, it is perfectly possible, so far as Oblonsky knows, that the evening’s activities hurt no one). He desires pleasure, and he wants to give pleasure to another, and he need not allow his thinking to go any further.

A fully objective evaluation of the situation might give rise to the suggestion that more than one woman was being used by Stiva’s casual infidelity, but the utilitarian could counter this by saying that using another person does not—in itself—harm her. But this is exactly the problem; if we at every step factor in the possible painful revelations, the possible broken hearts, the possible momentary ecstasies, we have disassociated ourselves from the central feature of moral action itself: its interpersonal nature.

A pretty Russian peasant girl is not a collection of nerves and sinews and consciousness; she is a human being, and her being must be accounted for. The proper response to another person’s being can be referred to as justice (in the classical world) or love (in the Christian), but it can hardly be encompassed by a set of calculations.

Oblonsky’s Interventions

Oblonsky is exceptional in at least one respect, however. A singularly gregarious soul, he sincerely longs for the happiness of dozens of friends and confidants, and he is willing to go quite out of his way to help them. His intervention, indeed, makes the happiest moment of the book possible: when the farmer Levin, who had previously been rejected by his beloved Kitty (who was in turn neglected by her hedonistic object of affection, Vronsky), is finally brought to swallow his pride and ask for her hand in marriage. She accepts, and no doubt Oblonsky is utterly delighted at his role in the matter.

Not every project of his turns out quite so well, however. When Stiva’s sister Anna becomes entangled in a disgraceful love affair (with the same Vronsky who behaved so awfully to Kitty), Oblonsky contrives to convince her husband to grant her a divorce. “It is very simple,” he assures Karenin. Of course, the simplicity of the divorce is based entirely on Karenin admitting to having had an affair of his own—an admission as false as it is shameful.

Why does Oblonsky encourage this divorce? Because it is, in his subjective estimation, best for all involved. Karenin will be freed from the scandal to pursue his own career, Anna will be free to indulge in her no-longer-illicit romance, and Vronsky will be freed from the awkward position of being a home-wrecker. A conscientious utilitarian might very well judge this to be the pleasure-maximizing situation, but this very situation reveals the demon lurking behind any consequentialist ethic.

Prior to Oblonsky’s meddling, Anna had been apologetic, ashamed, apathetic. But the machinations of Oblonsky give her hope. The promise of pleasure is restored to her, and a new avenue to avoid pain is opened. She runs off with Vronsky, not even bothering to follow through with the divorce, abandoning her husband and her young son. The promise of pleasure was a lie of the mind, however, and the pleasures of Anna’s “freedom” look a lot like shame, self-hatred, and jealousy.

Unforeseen Consequences, Unsought Ends

Anna’s fate is part and parcel of the reductionist philosophy she has bought into: since she sees nothing worthwhile in this life but the satisfaction of desire, the satisfaction of desire becomes forever unavailable to her. Had Oblonsky seen all the possible ends, he would likely have acted differently—yet can a human being reasonably be expected to see all ends?

He cannot, but he must. Utilitarianism requires the subject to know the future. Yet even if we were right to believe that pleasure and pain are all there is, we could not justly claim to be able to predict what would come of our decisions, except in the most circumscribed of cases. Utilitarianism is a good philosophy for dividing pieces of cake, but for little else. The action that appears best at one moment might lead to the worst possible consequences, and there is no scientific way to foresee all the possibilities in advance. This is, admittedly, also true of systems of Christian ethics, but these systems never claimed to lead to the best outcomes (that is, unless interpreted eschatologically).

But if the criticism of utilitarianism is so straightforward, why does this philosophy continue to dominate popular ethical discourse? No doubt, because—unlike its competitors—it promises a systematic approach. The modern mind, having lost sight of what Matthew Arnold calls the “sea of faith,” has no sense of real ends, goals that would transcend the happiness and pains of this “darkling plain” of temporal reality. Our world is plagued by what Paul Tillich calls the “anxiety of meaninglessness”; utilitarianism offers it an admittedly meaningless (though smug) replacement for dignity, and many jaded intellectuals are more than happy to swallow the bait.

The impulse to utilitarianism derives its force from the assumption that our lives lack any purpose but the purpose we give them. This depressing thesis, combined with the optimistic belief that human beings can work together to create a better (read: more pleasant) world, amounts to the principle of utility.

Levin’s Road to Reverence

Konstantin Levin, an introspective farmer who is often viewed as Tolstoy’s mouthpiece in the novel, takes another road. Where Oblonsky is practical, Levin is existential—but hardly in the pejorative sense in which the term is often used today. Levin considers himself as a being in time, with certain convictions about right and wrong, convictions that he can neither discard nor explain. He is hesitant and sensitive in his inner life, steady and hardworking in his outer life. Levin’s subjective values correspond to the classical values of justice, prudence, temperance, and courage because, while Oblonsky has been regularly paying heed to the desires of others, Levin is vitally concerned with their needs. The needs of every man are the same.

But Levin considers all this of no credit to himself. This is not morality, he reasons, because all of these considerations come quite naturally to me. To be good, in Levin’s mind, is to do something otherworldly, something

as necessary as it is impossible, something that cannot be fathomed and yet must be done. This sort of depth of feeling about moral matters can be found in Aquinas and in Kant, but it cannot be found in Bentham or in Singer. Kant calls this feeling “reverence” and connects it to the concept of the human being as an end in himself.

Nevertheless, Kant’s intellectualism obscures a central facet of the moral project as Levin would understand it. Reverence must be a movement of the heart, not the mind, a movement toward a worthy object. The moral life is not simply characterized by an Aristotelian life of habitual virtue; it is more fundamentally characterized by the abandonment of the self in the face of the divine—that is, by worship.

A Question of Blameworthiness

Earlier, I implied that Oblonsky is a paradigmatic example of a utilitarian, and surely that claim could use a bit of qualification. Does he always do the thing that leads to the greatest pleasure and the least pain for the greatest number? Indeed, he does not, for he is not a seer. But does he do the thing that he expects to have such consequences? He does. But here is the rub: can he, by utilitarian standards, be blamed for neglecting those people (like his wife) whose well-being he ignores, that is, be blamed for his own myopic vision of utility?

I can imagine two possible answers, neither of which suffices. First of all, the utilitarian might say that -Oblonsky’s lack of vision is blameworthy according to the principle of utility itself. It does, in fact, lead to worse consequences for mankind, as a whole. But perhaps Oblonsky could not have predicted this result. If we blame him for the actual results of his actions, then we must demand (after all) that Oblonsky learn to tell the future, and quick.

The second possible answer is this: Although it is wrong for Oblonsky to neglect his marriage, he is in no way blameworthy. The failure to maximize utility is a failure contained within our own inherent limitations as people. This latter view, predictably, is taken by Oblonsky himself, who, when his wife catches him philandering, channels Oedipus: “It’s all my own fault and yet I’m not to blame. That’s the tragedy of it.” In essence, the view here espoused is that we are imperfectly determined beings in an imperfectly determined world, spectators of our own immorality.

What we would like to say, of course, is that Oblonsky ought to be blamed because he does not follow through on his commitments, or because he has a shallow and inaccurate view of the world. At this point, the utilitarian prophet to the nonbelievers, John Stuart Mill, enters, and tells us that moral rules like “Keep your promises” carry force within the utilitarian framework, because following them would, on average, lead to the best consequences.

Consigned to Futility

But if there are any cases where one ought to break a promise, because, say, keeping it would have devastating consequences, Mill has a problem. How do we determine which promises to keep, if not by the principle of utility? And how do we interpret the principle, except subjectively? The utilitarian goes to great lengths to distinguish utilitarianism from hedonism, but this distinction can only be sustained by assuming that a moral decision can be made to exclude subjectivity. Any such assumption is false.

Aristotle, in contrast to Mill, has a perfectly adequate explanation of exceptions to moral rules: since morality flows out of dispositions (virtues), every moral decision is unique. Rules are rough-and-ready descriptions of the actions of a good man; they are not prescriptions that must be followed blindly.

Oblonsky would say this is all nonsense, of course. The pain that he causes Dolly does not proceed from his own actions, but from her unrealistic expectations. For his part, Oblonsky was living up to his own ideals—how can he be blamed if his ideals fell under the opprobrium of his wife? In his own way, Oblonsky rationalizes, he is following the Golden Rule, and doing unto others as he would have them do to him. He would be more than happy to indulge Dolly in an affair of her own.

And this is the most formidable aspect of the utilitarian worldview: if everyone were to agree upon the utilitarian conception of the good, it would (in theory, at least) create a perfectly moral world—that is, a world with maximum pleasure and minimum pain. But people like Anna Karenina, for all their faults, cannot bring themselves to believe that pleasures are more important than promises, and this knowledge consigns all their pleasures to futility. Indeed, the experience of futility is present, in some form, in every experience of utility, as the teacher in Ecclesiastes wisely contends. Utilitarianism is anti-intuitive, perhaps so anti-intuitive that no one can ever actually believe it.

Where Mere Discretion Leads

The modern landscape of ethics is dominated by this declaration of Kant: that ethics must pick between two ends, either the incalculable ends of various human beings or the rational idea of the human being as an end in himself. The latter idea is a metaphysical statement that must be justified, but it has the distinct advantage that it yields coherent results. It does not presume to know what people want (for, after all, it is not unlikely that some people have the desire to be murdered or raped), but instead takes for its guide what people ought to want—which is to say, what they need.

The philosophy of man as an end in himself is a clearer guide to action than consequentialism, but it is—and must be—characterized by sacredness. This sacredness makes it possible to endure the scorn of the materialist philosopher, just as Levin endures Oblonsky’s ridicule of his disapproval of adultery. The materialist dogma is: if something can be felt but not seen, then one is justified in being skeptical about it. (Never mind that no one has ever seen this credo itself.)

Just as no one has ever seen God, no one has ever seen the sacred. It must be inferred, and particular men have particular reasons not to make that inference. The word “sacred” can still exist in the common parlance of the materialist, however, as Oblonsky himself demonstrates. Challenged on the decency of a momentary dalliance with a peasant girl, he justifies himself: “Why not, if it amuses [me]? My wife won’t be the worse for it, and I shall get a bit of fun. The main thing is to keep the sanctity of your home inviolate.” “Sanctity,” here, comes to signify little more than discretion.

Indeed, discretion may be foremost among several haphazard virtues that utilitarianism unintentionally entails. A consistent utilitarian would be compelled to commit manifold atrocities, if only he could be sure that no one else would know. A classic example: a neglected beggar seeking medical treatment could “justifiably” be used as material for multiple organ transplants, at the expense of his life, provided this murder could be covered up -sufficiently well.

What We Can Do

But what of it? If discretion has displaced decency in the ethical pedagogy of the modern world, what can we do to combat its advance? We are not entitled to “do whatever is necessary” to dethrone it, any more than Oblonsky was entitled to do whatever was necessary to obtain his sister’s divorce.

We do have at least one meaningful form of recourse, however. We can commit ourselves, as followers of Christ, to consistently live out the fullness of his moral philosophy on earth, a philosophy centered on personal integrity and communal justice. It is yet to be seen if, having so committed ourselves, we will fail; but it is certain that, if we do fail, we can always try again. We are blessed in the profound truth that the consequences of our actions are not within our control, but they are in Someone’s. And the goods in his hand are beyond all reckoning. 

Daniel Propson is an English teacher at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He and his wife attend St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Detroit, and are members of the Word of Life community in Ann Arbor. They live with their two young children in midtown Detroit.

“The Utilitarian Prince” first appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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