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Applying Utilitarianism

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is what Jeremy Bentham stated as the goal of Utilitarianism. But this isn’t to say that our goal is simple “pleasure”. John Stuart Mill, for instance, differentiated between “higher pleasures”, which are intellectual and moral, and “lower pleasures”, which are purely physical. In my view, it also implies reducing pain. Maximizing happiness must include diminishing misery, especially if we’re focused on achieving long-term outcomes. Sadly, our nation seems to prioritize punishment – applying more misery – to situations where eliminating misery needs higher priority.

Almost a decade ago, I came home to find a burglar in my home. I had left my house to go to the eye doctor and apparently my burglar and his friends saw this as an opportunity to break in and steal stuff. Unfortunately for them, I had to turn around to get something I had left at home. When I got to the house I noticed their “getaway” car speed away, but thought nothing of it. I stumbled into the burglar as I was entering my office. He was walking out with my laptop and a pile of other stuff in his hands. Both of us caught by surprise, I punched him in the face as he ran past me. In less than an hour, both the burglar and his accomplices had been caught by the police.

I’ll admit: punching this guy felt great. I wanted to do it more. He had violated my home. He had tried to steal my wife’s jewelry box, which included sentimental things she received from her grandmother. But that would have satisfied only my own baser instincts for revenge. Make no mistake: I would have felt good about punching him – justified, even. But there’s no justice to be found in revenge.

The truth is, this burglar was a drug addict. Later, we learned that he and his pals had broken into several other houses in the area. The getaway car they were driving was registered to the burglar’s mother. This guy and his pals were drug addicts, paying for their habits by stealing stuff and selling it on the street or pawn shops.

Having your house broken into is, in a word: weird. It is unsettling. I’m 6ft and over 200lbs. I’m generally not afraid of much, but for the next 2 weeks even I was checking and double-checking the locks on my doors. Had they actually gotten away with the stuff they wanted to steal, my wife would’ve lost several things that had meaning to her. I would’ve lost 2 guns and ammunition (they were in a pile he had place by the door) and, even though they had trigger locks, I’d live every day terrified that my guns would make their way into the hands of even worse people than our burglar.

So here’s our situation: Burglar and his two accomplices are drug addicts who steal stuff from other people to pay for drugs. It is easy to simply regard drug addicts as losers. I had a lot of experience with drug users and addicts in my youth and there is a lot of truth to labelling people that way. But this is oversimplifying the issue. Once an addict has reached a point in their addiction that they’re breaking into houses, they’re now increasing the level of misery in the world.

Where is “justice” in this situation? How do we drive public policy from this? What do we do to maximize happiness and minimize misery here? This is where our Justice system fails not just the “bad guys” but the “good guys” as well. Justice isn’t measured by the proportion of retaliation applied. Retaliation causes more misery. Justice should be measured by the amount of misery we avoid or cease from occurring.

In other words, our goals should be to ensure that this sort of thing stops happening. We should reduce the likelihood that people’s stuff gets stolen, and to do that, we need to find the cause. Why was this guy going around breaking into houses and stealing stuff? Because the drug addict needed to pay for their habit. His drug addiction caused him enough misery that he had to steal to support the habit. His stealing increased the misery of his victims. Indeed there’s a ripple effect to addiction that sows the seeds of misery all around. The addict’s very existence is a net negative to society.

To stop this cycle of misery, you can’t just grab addicts and toss them in jail. You need to stop the addiction. No other option really exists. You can’t make the black market drugs more affordable. You can’t shake your fingers at the addict to tell them to stop it. You can’t really do anything that would be effective or just other than to stop the addiction. Merely sentencing people to jail just doesn’t work. Putting them on parole and making them pee in a cup periodically – expecting them to sort out their own habit – won’t help. The only thing that will help is taking targetted action that stops the addiction and keeps it stopped.

Addiction – as I understand it – is horrible. Getting off the drugs is hard enough, but staying off is also a constant struggle. Speaking merely as an ex-smoker, it was around 3-4 years before I was 100% able to fully reject the thought of picking up a cigarette, and even if I had one right now I’d be right back at it – and cigarettes are nothing compared to heroin or methamphetamine. Relapse happens and as a country, we’re doing nothing to stop it.

The real answer to this challenge is to provide services that help eliminate the causes for crime. In the case of an addict stealing to maintain their habit, the real answer is to provide ongoing drug treatment. To conservatives, this might seem like a waste of money, but drug addiction treatment is actually cheaper than throwing people in jail. While conservatives might say “I don’t want to pay for those losers to get drug treatment”, all of the other possible options cost taxpayers more and do nothing to stop misery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the average cost for one year of methadone maintenance treatment is approximately $4,700 per person. Compare that to one year of imprisonment, which is estimated to cost about $18,400. This alone makes “Get tough” policies on drug crime bad policy no matter whether you’re liberal or conservative. After all, if conservatives want to stop wasting tax money, clearly the better answer is the one that costs taxpayers less.

In applying Utilitarianism we need to make decisions based on a holistic view of the happiness gained and misery ended/ averted and should do so with a strong preference to the “higher pleasures” and longer-term happiness. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions, and this one is no different. Our first goal, in the case of drug addiction, should be to avoid addiction in the first place. This requires a mix of law enforcement, social outreach, and education up front. As well as treatment for addicts even before they commit crimes. Simplistic and emotionally-driven negative reactions to such progressive ideas fail to consider the overall cost to taxpayers and quality of life.

This example is but one in which Utilitarianism helps lead us to a policy path that will most effectively improve society, free of ideological dogmas. By seeking to address the root cause of challenges in our society – and choosing the path that eliminates the greatest pain across the whole of society, we can improve the quality of life for all citizens equitably without irrational dogmas.