The Good, Yours and Mine

Is what's good for Harvard good for the world?

Broom of the System

This column is mostly about national politics and that my coursework tends more toward abstract issues in moral philosophy—the two do not tend to intersect often. So much so, in fact, that the philosopher with whom I most consistently agree—the 19th century Cambridge utilitarian Henry Sidgwick—held views on real-life politics that bordered on the repugnant. He, in sharp contrast to previous utilitarians, was deeply skeptical of large-scale political and economic reforms, and argued that adherence with Victorian social mores was required by the principle of utility. He even once attended a lecture on land reform by the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw and, after Shaw finished speaking, rose to respond, stated that Shaw “advocated nationalization of land; that nationalization of land was a crime; and that he [Sidgwick] would not take part in a discussion of a criminal proposal,” and sat right back down again.

But Sidgwick also wrote brilliantly and rigorously about moral philosophy, and in particular about one specific problem that has come to mind often as I consider, two weeks before graduation, what Harvard has come to mean to me. Sidgwick once jokingly noted that he had written a book where the first word was “ethics” and the last word was “failure.” What he was referring to was his conclusion to The Methods of Ethics: that there was no way to prove that one should act a utilitarian (that is, on behalf of the well-being of all) rather than as an egoist (on the behalf of only one’s own well-being). They both appeared to be rational positions, and Sidgwick could not for the life of him prove that one has more reason to be a utilitarian than an egoist.

For most people living in England at Sidgwick’s time, this did not present much of a problem at all. If one believes traditional Christian tenets, then those who act virtuously, or on behalf of the good of all, are rewarded for their efforts with eternal bliss in heaven. Those who fail in these duties are punished with eternal torment in hell. Thus, it is clearly in each person’s self-interest to behave virtuously, for the good of an eternity in heaven (and avoiding an eternity in hell) will always outweigh whatever benefit acting selfishly and against the common good provides in this life. The utilitarian and the egoist thus must act identically.

But as he was writing the Methods, Sidgwick lost his faith in God, even going so far as to resign a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge because its terms required assent to the teachings of the Church of England. And with his faith, Sidgwick lost the best way to reconcile egoism and utilitarianism, to show that one must always act for the sake of the common welfare. The possibility that the two might conflict was what Sidgwick called the “profoundest problem in ethics”.

I am more optimistic than Sidgwick was about the prospects for demonstrating the superiority of benevolence to egoism. But what he got absolutely right was the fact that we yearn for a theory, like Christian theism, that says they are one and the same. What worries me is that I think Harvard students have convinced ourselves that we have such a theory, one that exculpates us from sacrifice while leaving us convinced that we are doing the right thing. We call it “meritocracy.”

It allows us to say that Harvard should lay off workers at will because the purpose of a place like this is to educate people like us, not to help people like “them.” Or maybe we should pay them well, but only so we get better food in the dining halls. It allows us to say that there’s nothing wrong with taking banking jobs after graduation, that we’re doing it because the financial industry helps people, not because we like money. It lets us justify the fact that we go to a school with more resources than any other and yet educates a small student body whose natural endowments mean they need those resources less than practically anybody. It lets us say that the rule of the smart and well-credentialed helps everyone, that it’s not just another caste system.

I love Harvard. I have loved my education here, I loved the clubs I joined, and I love the friends I made. But the system that makes this place so great for people like me—people like us—does so on the backs of many, many others. The money that makes Harvard so incredible could be educating countless more people if sent elsewhere. The administration’s remarkable avoidance of substantial cutbacks to student life since the financial crisis was enabled by mass layoffs. The endowment is as big as it is in large part due to alumni who go to jobs contributing to financial crises at banks and hedge funds. None of that is acceptable.

Of course, everyone believes convenient things, as psychologists who study confirmation bias will tell you, and Harvard students’ commitment to meritocracy’s all too self-serving tenets is hardly unusual. But my main wish as I leave here is for a greater recognition of what a problem this is and a greater degree of Sidgwickian doubt about whether our interests and the world’s can be reconciled. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they can be. But we need to be asking the question.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Follow him on Twitter at @dylanmatt.

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