For the Greater Good

The novel I’m currently working on (along with a related screenplay) is based on a stage play of mine, Singer. The title is a reference to Peter Singer, the well known philosopher and ethicist, who is a proponent of Utilitarianism. This is the view, roughly speaking, that the correct aim of an ethical system is to maximise the enjoyment/fulfilment (however you might measure that) of people in general. It is a provocative stance in that this sounds like a reasonable goal when you first consider it, but if you dig deeper it suggests moral conclusions that work against common moral instincts: consider for example how you might feel about a society that chose people at random and forced them to donate a kidney to save a stranger. It’s also an interesting approach because it presents us with moral challenges that we might normally manage to ignore.

The counter-intuitive cases aside, there’s also a pragmatic objection to the utilitarian ideal, and one I’ve been thinking about lately in relation to the ways modern schools operate. Institutions, particular corporate and government entities, are quick to exploit the language of utilitarianism to suit their own agendas, and what makes this process insidious is, I suspect, very often they don’t even realise they’re doing it.

The corporate world, and increasingly education too, is a very goal focussed beast. Be it increasing shareholder wealth or market share, raising pass rates or lowering a budget deficit, corporate entities are their very best when they have an overarching goal. The behaviours of the various cogs within the machine can then be structured so as to best serve this goal, and decisions regarding resource allocations and policy settings can be made relative to this objective. It makes things, on one level, very simple and correspondingly efficient. The difficult questions (what are we really trying to achieve in this particular situation?) are replaced by a much simpler one, (how will this help us achieve our goal?)

The goal, in Utilitarian parlance, becomes the greater good, in the name of which small sacrifices and discomforts can be justified. And, in my experience, the result is very often disastrous.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is the way the goal, once named, is somehow ushered into the rarified realm of the unscrutinised. In the NZ in the 1980s the Labour Government (and the National one that followed) oversaw a remarkably brutal transformation of the economy, in the name of reducing headline inflation. It was clear at the time, and has subsequently become even clearer, that a massive cost was being incurred in terms of poverty, social dislocation, addiction, mental illness, intergenerational disadvantage, crime and the like, yet the line that was consistently pushed was that all of this was a necessary evil, in the pursuit of a greater good, a price stable economy. These days we have prices that are stubbornly stable, and it is tremendously difficult to argue (with a straight face) that the pay-off was worth the agony. Yet somehow the reason for the transformation escaped proper scrutiny, and part of this, I think, is the beguiling nature of the greater good argument. Suffering in the name of a higher purpose has a sort of nobility associated with it, and makes dullards of us if we are not vigilant.

Modern schools, in the essentially competitive model brought about through the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms, are very good at talking in terms of their greater goals. While these are expressed in many forms, they tend to boil down to two things, higher pass rates, and higher regard within their community. And, as with economic fetishes, both these aims escape serious analysis. Looking good in the community’s eyes a hugely distorting goal, privileging as it does style over substance. The monolithic IT monster has been quick to exploit the opportunity presented. Convince people that their children will suffer if they are not constantly interacting with the latest shiny digital toys, and schools will automatically come running, devoting more and more of their budgets to serving an industry that hardly needs their support, and then wondering why it’s getting harder and harder to balance their books. Ditto the shiny prospectus, or the eye catching road front building project. Marketing is expensive and, in a situation where the value of the product is not in question and the spending therefore not discretionary, something of a pointless waste of everybody’s time and resource.

Raising grades seems more obviously beneficial. We want kids to learn as much as they can, right? Nevertheless, a number of problems are often missed here. The first is the tyranny of the measurable. Very little that is valuable in education is easily measured, and so the more focus that goes on measurable outputs, the more resources will be shifted away from useful education in favour of education that gets ‘results’. A classroom where the overriding concern is drilling students in preparation for examinations is a dreary and uninspiring place to be. It’s also clear that students lose a great deal of autonomy in a grade motivated world. The school’s focus moves from ‘how can I help this student get what they need?’ top ‘how can this student help the school get what it needs?’ (Namely, a better grade profile). In a world where teen anxiety disorders are rising inexorably, this doesn’t feel like a smart move.

Finally, giving that grades mostly serve as a rationing device, schools endlessly competing with one another to have their students outperform others may have remarkably little, if any, net gain. Schools, rather that preparing students for the life ahead as well as they can, can get caught up in a zero game of trying to help their students gain opportunities at the expense of the students in a neighbouring school. Hardly the sort of the mission statement that will attract the next generation of idealists into the profession.

The more schools commit unthinkingly to these types of greater-good goals, the more brutal they become in the treatment of their staff (and weirdly, the more pious they become if challenged – ‘don’t you know, where doing it for the children?’) In New Zealand, the proportion of new staff brought into non-permanent positions is rising, and sadly some schools now treat these in a probationary manner. Budget constraints, very often brought about by a school’s slavish devotion to unexamined goals, have seen support staff in particular, the most vulnerable and underpaid members of the workforce, treated without respect or compassion. The old virtues of loyalty and kindness have been replaced by a utilitarian cry to arms. ‘Yes, we know this seems hard, but we are doing it for the students, for the school.’

It is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the virtue ethics of the past, where acting with honour, kindness and honesty were to be valued above all other goals. Who said history is progressive?

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2 thoughts on “For the Greater Good

  1. PCN says:

    I could, and have, been ranting about this for years without nailing down the source of the problem as you have. It all seems clear now! In the UK we also have the same approach being used in the NHS.

  2. Thank you. It’s somehow both reassuring and depressing that this problem is not ours alone.

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