Let There Be Justice: A Thomistic Assessment of Utilitarianism and Libertarianism

By Lloyd, Jason | Texas Review of Law & Politics, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Let There Be Justice: A Thomistic Assessment of Utilitarianism and Libertarianism


Lloyd, Jason, Texas Review of Law & Politics


I. INTRODUCTION

Throughout the pages of human history, philosophers have arduously endeavored to formulate a comprehensive theory of justice that explains the proper relationship between individuals and society, as well as the proper relationship of individuals among one another. Although the practical value of such a theoretical endeavor might seem negligible at best, the events of the past century alone suggest otherwise. Despite the optimistic promises of the Enlightenment and modern science, the 20th century proved to be the most bloody, the most brutal, and the most inhumane page in the history of mankind. Humanity was shaken by two world wars, the rise of communism, barbarous dictatorships, the advent of weapons of mass destruction, and a Cold War between two superpowers that lasted nearly fifty years and involved unprecedented displays of military, economic, and political force. The infamous Adolf Hitler was greatly influenced by the ethical teachings of Nietzsche, who posited that all values and virtues (such as justice) are relative to the power of various individuals and groups. This notion that "might makes right" is best typified by a famous statement of Mao Zedong, the 20th century Chinese dictator, who said, "Justice comes from the barrel of a gun."

In light of the devastating consequences that may occur if the principles of justice are misconstrued or disregarded, any society that hopes to survive and promote the well-being of its members must strive to formulate its public policies and laws in accordance with a theory of justice that reflects the inherent dignity of the human person as a rational being with free will.

That being said, the purpose of this work is to offer a comparative analysis of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Thomistic theories of justice in order to illustrate the implications of these theories and assess whether or not each theory, when put into practice, effectively safeguards man's inherent dignity and adequately fosters his development as a social being.

II. UTILITARIANISM

Utilitarianism, as a philosophical theory, officially sprang into existence in 1789 when Jeremy Bentham published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. As inheritors of Hume's empiricism, the Utilitarians rested their entire social theory on one basic principle that they believed was subject to empirical proof. While there are numerous formulations of utilitarian theory, the following three versions illustrate its central teachings as well as the development the theory has undergone since its inception.

A. Bentham

As the father of utilitarian theory, Bentham's formulation of the greatest happiness principle is the starting point for all subsequent Utilitarian theories.4 he states that "the end and aim of a legislator should be the happiness of the people," and that "general utility should be his guiding principle."" An underlying assumption of Bentham's greatest happiness principle is his equation of the good with pleasure, and evil with pain. He argues that, "(a)n adherent to the Principle of Utility holds virtue to be a good thing by reason only of the pleasures which result from the practice of it: he esteems vice to be a bad thing by reason only of the pains which follow ...."' Likewise, "Moral good is good only on account of its tendency to secure material benefits." In order to operationalize this principle, Bentham advocates what he calls a "moral calculus," so that "legislation may thus become a mere matter of arithmetic."8 In Bentham's system, therefore, the only standard of justice is pleasure and the object of law is the maximization of pleasure.

Because the maximization of the pleasure of society at large is thus the primary concern for Bentham, this necessarily implies that the individual is completely subjugated to the will of society, for his interests are served by the legislator only insofar as they conform to societal interests that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

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