Am I A Utilitarian?

When people ask me if I’m a socialist, I tell them no*. I might be wrong in this assessment, but my understanding of socialism is that it’s based on the idea of communal ownership of the means of production as an end in itself; that is to say, the goal is to achieve a given policy outcome. I’m not 100% confident in that judgment, because the only socialists I know are poisonously ironic Twitter leftists, and it’s easier to pull teeth than it is to get a straight answer about policy goals from one of those guys.

In fairness, the Democratic Socialists of America have articulated a pretty comprehensive vision. From their website:

We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.

We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane international social order based both on democratic planning and market mechanisms to achieve equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.

A charitable reading of that statement would seem to indicate that their goal is not “democratic planning and market mechanisms,” but “equitable distribution of resources, meaningful work, a healthy environment, sustainable growth, gender and racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships.”

I see it differently.

All the -isms I’ve used to describe myself in the past–libertarian, cooperatist*, uneasily-socially democratic–are, at bottom, fundamentally consequentialist, by which I mean that my main preoccupation is not the theory, but the outcome, the consequences. The goal, as I’ve privately articulated before, is fulfillment. Becoming. Flourishing in your own space. Actualizing your own potential. In No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton writes that “For each of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.”* Merton certainly has an opinion about what that destiny is, but I agree with the fundamental idea–that we each have a Good that is ours, and we should be granted the Freedome to achieve that Good.

It’s the same idea that Amartya Sen writes about when he says that “Expansion of freedom is…both as the primary end and as the principal means of development.”* So the goal is freedom, and I believe that the best way to achieve that goal is to build a world centered around solidarity, dignity, justice, and equity. I believe that unchecked greed is inemical to that goal, as it results in mass exploitation, alienation, and ecological catastrophe. I believe that the political power structure, as arranged, is hostile to this vision, resulting, as it does, in oppressive surveillance, mass incarceration, and state violence.

Freedom is the goal, and I would support any party that I believed could achieve those ends, but crucially, I would suppot any party that I believed could achieve those ends.

I do not advocate environmental sustainability because I think the earth has inherent value, but because its resources are finite. The unceasing plunder of the extractive industries means that humans in the future will be less free to live good lives as a result of higher sea levels, poor air quality, and extreme temperatures. But if, tomorrow, NASA discovered a perfectly habitable planet, and Elon Musk developed perfect, cheap interstellar technology available to everyone, I would trade in my Leaf for a gas-guzzling pickup.

In the same way, I advocate universal civil liberties and participatory democracy because I believe that a person’s quality of life is diminished when they are subject to political oppression. Humiliation of marginalized people, vast amounts of money in politics, disenfranchisement; all of these result in a population that is more alienated, more fearful, and less happy. But if, somehow, we developed a benevolent Artificial Intelligence that was able to administer all aspects of civic life with perfect justice, then I would stop my monthly donation to Fairvote and spend the money, on, say, Fair Trade coffee.

This isn’t necessarily easy to admit, and I realize I might get some criticism for it. But I welcome comments and crtiques. If I’m wrong, I want to know it, and I want to know why. In the meantime, I will continue to advocate for progressive policies, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s practical.


*No one has actually ever asked me this; most of my interactions with people these days include the sentence “Do you want to open up a tab,” which doesn’t often provide an organic segue into personal politics. But if anybody DID ask me, I’d tell them no.

*This has no affiliation with any other groups or organizations that happen to call themselves “cooperatist.” It’s more of a foggy term I use to define my personal values, which I guess would be a vague sense of universal solidarity, dignity, and mutual cooperation. There’s probably a better word for it, but despite the fact that “inventing a new political category for yourself” is basically the Free Space in High Schooler Who Just Discovered Political Theory bingo, I like it and I’m going to keep it.

*Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island. Page 131.

*Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom. Page xii.



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