Reflections on Utilitarian Rationalization

The human ego is a clever, skulking beast, always ready with a scheme to protect itself against the humiliations inherent in so much of human life, specifically by artfully reframing these humiliations as acts of will, and ascribing causality to what is in truth only an inescapable effect, distorted by imagination. Necessity is the mother of invention, and few needs are greater in the soul of man than the need to save face, to justify one’s cowardice, shame, or folly. Man is the rational animal, tradition has it; that formula may be correct, but it expresses our essence in the form of an aspiration or a potency. In our practical reality, which is to say in the life most of us actually live, man is something entirely different: the rationalizing animal.

But for the most remarkable magic of rationalization, one must observe the maneuverings of the collective ego, which is to say the individual egos of the crowd, insofar as they have experienced the grander shared humiliation of the subjugated people, and their individual egos thus implicitly recognized the need to work together to contrive and maintain the only method of pride-protection left to the many when, in a fit of irrational fear and smallness, they have sacrificed everything to a tyrannical few: Claim enslavement itself as one’s deepest wish and greatest source of pride.

Subjected to the indignity of being stripped of all our privacy and freedom of movement, hounded at every moment, in every action, by a hundred governmental and quasi-governmental monitors, cameras, data collectors, and mandatory life-access passes of every kind, without which one may no longer participate in normal community life at all, the collective ego learns to tell itself, and eventually to frame as an argument with the most reasonable intonation, “But if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you have nothing to be afraid of.” Or it learns to recite the catechism of collective self-destruction: “These little sacrifices are a small price to pay for the satisfaction of knowing we are saving lives.” Having no choice but to comply with arbitrary and lawless mandates from above, the crowd rationalizes its compliance as morality and responsible citizenship, while reinterpreting non-compliance as prima facie evidence of guilt or moral lassitude.

Reduced by utilitarian moral indoctrination to identifying human worth with social usefulness, by public school standardization to identifying political life with accepting one’s place, and by the soul-diminishing Pavlovian vectors of “consumerism” to identifying happiness with material comfort, men become trapped in the spiritual vortex of egalitarian materialism. To conceal their diminution from themselves, they recycle the moral concepts of aristocracy as premises of economic necessity. “All work is noble,” they declare, perhaps almost believing it. But this is both a contradiction in terms, since nobility (as a moral notion) implies a life lived above the mere material necessity and functionality of jobs, and a logical absurdity, since nobility is a relational concept, such that to say all work is noble is to say no work is noble (which would be much closer to the truth).

The greatest lubricant to the machinery of modern tyranny is the universal indoctrination to abstract moralism, which is to say a moralism detached from the real experience of any individual human being, and thus residing not in the natural feelings of a freedom-seeking soul, but in the abstract slogans of utilitarian right-thinking. The problem with utilitarian morality — and all modern morality is utilitarian — is that it is by definition unrelated to the good of any of the humans who are being trained to submit to its dictates. The genius of utilitarian morality, on the other hand, is that to the extent that one has had one’s soul distorted to its “selfless” perspective, one becomes imbued with an automatic reflex for rejecting all one’s natural moral impulses as evidence of immorality, which is to say selfishness and lack of concern for the greater good. The inhuman triumph of utilitarianism lies precisely in this: It has effectively redefined “the greater good” as, quite literally, the good of no one, without any of its victims even noticing that their natural desires for independence and genuine community have thus been turned completely upside down.

The practical result is collective mutual fear and suspicion, with compliance taking the place of community, hatred taking the place of discussion, activism taking the place of art, and the addictive and incessant pursuit of mind-numbing comfort and physical pleasure taking the place of confidence and fellow-feeling.

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