Why doing the right thing and doing the moral thing sometimes aren’t the same thing

-or- Why J.S. Mill and his utilitarianism had a point

The bank holiday weekend was lovely, thank you. It was warm and sunny, and I finished knitting all the pieces of YoungerBro’s jumper (VERY EXCITING).

It was also dominated by news that one person had behaved selfishly, arrogantly and with blatent disregard for the recent lockdown rules. I should be more specific. One public-facing, newspaper-worthy person (because I am sure that many people also broke the rules, but without the public censure).

I will add here: I think Dominic Cummings behaved appallingly. I think his behaviour is selfish, arrogant, disrespectful and indicates his complete contempt for the British public. I’ve also just seen a video of his neighbours yelling abuse at him, and it momentarily disturbed me. I saw that the scientists involved with the SPI-B group advising SAGE had also remarked how the behaviours displayed by Cummings had undermined the work they had done in establishing public trust.

I am now going to take you on a teeny journey down through my A-Level Philosophy notes* to explain why everyone is so mad at Cummings right now. Apart from the fact that he’s the architect of this country’s utter doom, I mean.

A quick explanation of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that determines whether something is right or wrong by focusing on the outcomes. In short, ‘the end justifies the means’. Deciding whether or not an action is right or wrong depends on the outcome it produces.

The outcomes should maximise pleasure or happiness for the most number of people – they can’t only make the action-performer happy. And everyone’s happiness carries equal weighting, so if not doing something would make one more person happy than doing it would, you’re not doing that thing.

Now that’s utilitarianism in its most simplistic form – the philosophers who proposed it were a little bit more nuanced than this and gave guidelines for how this principle should be applied.

Why this has been important during the Coronaquarantine

Arguably, lockdown has not been popular with the populace.

God knows I’m mad as hell about being locked in my living room for ten weeks already, cut off from family and friends, working from home and spending eight hours a day staring at myself on video calls. It’s driven me to actual alcoholic drinks.

But we’ve understood, together as a nation, that by performing an action that makes us miserable (locking down, quarantining, isolating), ultimately, we’ll stop the spread of the disease and save lives, and THAT will make us all ecstatic.

We weren’t happy about it, but we all agreed to suffer together to save ourselves the trouble of dealing with something worse.

Why Dominic Cummings has ruined it for everyone

It’s pretty hard to get everyone to agree to doing a miserable thing for a nebulous and relatively unknown outcome. But we’d all bought into this idea, that suffering now meant happiness/pleasure/saved lives later on.

Cummings chose not to buy into that.

He decided that his happiness, his pleasure, his actions, were more important than a group good we’d all bought into. And worse – he’d sold us the group good! He prioritised what he wanted over what we’d agreed, as a society, to go through – together – to maximise happiness. He prioritised his own happiness in the moment. He ignored that thousands of parents were alone and struggling to care for children whilst ill. He ignored the rules that said no-one was to make non-essential trips. He ignored the advice that said ‘don’t visit second homes’, and ‘stay at home for seven days if you have coronavirus symptoms’, and did both. Because he wanted to. (I’ve yet to hear a decent explanation that justifies it.) In short, he ignored the government advice, he broke the rules, and he broke the public’s trust. People resign for less.

In short, he behaved like an absolute Kant.

*Actual philosopher friends, I’m sorry for the absolute butchering I’m about to make of some complex and complicated philosophical theories. I refer to my warning remark that it’s my A-Level philosophy notes I’ve cribbed from, which are now fifteen to sixteen years old, and a brain sodden with sunshine and knitting patterns that is translating them. Happy to amend if I’ve made glaring, offensive errors.

Immanuel Kant was a deontologist, and deontology is – basically – the opposite of utilitarianism; actions are in themselves good or bad and therefore bring about a good or bad outcome. e.g. murder is always bad, lying is always wrong, saving lives is always good. But also Kant sounds a bit like…yeah, you get it.

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