Are the Ten Principles Utilitarian?

Utilitarianism, sometimes referred to as consequentialism, is a school of ethical thought that holds that the “goodness” of an action or the utility of a rule should be judged upon the result of that action, or of following that rule.  Taken at a societal level then, the “correct” action is one that maximizes the good or happiness for the greatest number of people.  While there may be written laws or rules in utilitarian systems, they are not seen as inviolable, but rather as guidelines which can be broken if the circumstances indicate that following the rules would not result in happiness.   Critics of utilitarianism raise issues such as:

  • Since we don’t know the future, how can we know which action will result in the most good?
  • Is it okay to sacrifice the happiness of the minority to benefit the happiness of the majority, e.g. wouldn’t be okay to have just a few slaves?
  • Utilitarianism is overly reductionist, fragmented, and fails to knit the pieces of context together in a harmonious way
Before considering how these criticisms impacted our interpretation of the Ten Principles from a utilitarian perspective, let’s first look at the benefits of considering the principles from this approach.
First of all, it was useful and instructive for us to consider the relative importance of the principles using this framework.  For example, the principle of Decommodification seeks to break down systems of exchange, such as monetary systems.  We asked ourselves:

Would it be okay to break the principle of Decommodification in order to support the principle of Participation by using financial or other tangible incentives to motivate a person to participate, i.e. is it okay to pay someone to participate in our community in the way that we want them to?

In this case, we decided that the answer was definitely, “no”–paying people for participation fundamentally defeats the purpose of creating an intentional community based on the Ten Principles.  As such, utilitarian thinking allowed us to clarify how we felt about the relative importance of the Ten Principles.

Furthermore, this line of thinking led us to the belief that it is possible to divide the Ten Principles into two groups, foundational principles and operational principles.  The foundational principles take precedence over the operational principles because they are values that underlie the ability of the community to function.  Conversely, failure of a community member to uphold the operational principles can be seen as an indication that this member may be out of alignment with the foundational principles.  We divided and ranked the Ten Principles as follows.  At some point, we’ll add some more posts that delve into this ranking more deeply, but for now the ranking is:

Foundational Principles

  1. Civic Responsibility
  2. Immediacy
  3. Gifting
  4. Decommodification
  5. Participation

Operational Principles

  1. Radical Inclusion
  2. Radical Self-Expression
  3. Communal Effort
  4. Leave No Trace
  5. Radical Self-Reliance

The process we went to to create this organization and ranking was eye-opening and very clarifying for us.  It allowed us to begin to make progress toward designing the kind of classroom experience we want our students to have.  It also gave us a solid, logical grounding for excluding students from our community who choose to act in ways that are contrary to the Ten Principles, such as failing to share their gifts or participate.

And yet, this way of thinking is vulnerable to the third criticism of utilitarianism lodged above.  Namely, it doesn’t entirely “feel right.”  This led us to make another pass at the Ten Principles from a third perspective, that of the ethics of care.  Our next post will dive into this issue…

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One Response to Balancing the Ten Principles–A Roadmap?

  1. […] A Roadmap? Our second approach to the principles was through the eyes of utilitarianism.  Closer, but still not there. […]