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? . . .

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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.

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