This Advent at the Esolen house, as always, we watch old Christmas specials, including my half-guilty favorite, which is the musical cartoon version of A Christmas Carol, with Mister Magoo as the grasping old bill collector Ebenezer Scrooge, and Jack Cassidy (of all people) as Bob Cratchit, and Morey Amsterdam making his voice go small for Tiny Tim. "Are there no workhouses?" sneers Jim Backus, in the inimitably squeaky and sly voice of Magoo-Scrooge, about to tell a couple of pleaders for charity where to go. "Are there no prisons?" Scrooge pays handsomely for such institutions, he says, and those who cannot afford better must go there.
Now the popular interpretation of the story is that Scrooge is merely greedy, and that once he is persuaded to loosen up his death-grip on the moneybags, all will be well. That, of course, is completely to misconstrue what Dickens cares about most deeply. Scrooge indeed will loosen that death-grip, but only after he has undergone a change of heart, which will involve a rejection of utilitarianism and an acceptance of the Christian belief that every human being, even a crippled little boy named Tim, is of inestimable worth, and cannot finally be placed in a balance with material goods and material pleasures. And that is a lesson of enduring value. Scrooge, today, would not be the tight-lipped honor-clamped Victorian man of business; he might instead be a profiteer in bad mortgages, lavishing himself with a posh mansion and trips to the Caribbean. The utilitarianism underlying his "business," or his refusal to see that mankind is his business, would be the same, and must be rejected for the same reasons.
For it is a marvelous paradox, that if we really wanted the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and if we really counted as "good" those things that are transcendently good, such as the love of a little child, then utilitarianism testifies against itself and declares that the last thing we should want to do is to produce utilitarians. Let me enumerate some of the reasons.
First, it is one thing to say that in the utilitarian calculus everyone ought to count the same, and quite another thing to move the hearts of men to make that accounting correct. Dickens shows us one of the possibilities in Mr. Scrooge himself. He pays taxes (plenty of them, as he thinks) to a reformist government that sets up the palliative institutions. For him, the mass of mankind have receded into abstraction — relieving him of the necessity to attend to the pain of any one uncomfortably corporeal person near to him, as for instance his struggling nephew Fred, or his penurious clerk Bob. The other possibility is embodied in Dickens' satire on bad charity, Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House. This woman procures subscriptions to assist the natives of Borioboola-Gha (and to assist, not coincidentally, the British coffee trade), at the expense of her own children, whom she ignores. She practices what Dickens calls "telescopic philanthropy," meaning that she is of no use whatever to anyone; rather, she is consumed in selfishness, albeit a pleasanter and more dreamy-eyed selfishness than that of Scrooge.
Now it will not do to object that these are extremes, because Dickens' very aim is to show the utilitarian or the global philanthropist in pure state — and not give them credit for a humanity which their system perversely denies. For both Scrooge and Mrs. Jellyby show that one cannot love that abstraction called "humanity," and that therefore all actions performed in order to increase the total happiness of humanity must be vitiated by that same lovelessness. If it be objected that Scrooge should have taken care of Bob Cratchit, and that Mrs. Jellyby should have seen to her own children, I reply that indeed they should have — and would have, had they learned to love those nearest to them, and to esteem them as valuable beyond reckoning — which is but another way of saying the same thing. But then they must cease to be utilitarians.
For – and this is my second reason — the utilitarian cannot admit of inestimable value, without rendering all calculation pointless. It is one thing to say that calculation and love do not coexist; and that we would all be better off producing people who love rather than people who calculate. It is another, and more potent, thing to say that the terms of the calculus themselves have no meaning. These views of the world are irreconcilable. In one, the value of a crippled little boy is something no doubt very great but also determinate, needing to be weighed in the balance against, say, the value of a sound pound sterling, and the free market, and the rights of collection agencies and repo men. In the other, the whole purpose of having a law-of-the-household at all is that there might be households, so that a Tim would get enough food to eat. "Mankind," says Jacob Marley, "was my business."
Which leads me to my third objection — that utilitarianism enshrines a most particular and culturally determined version of the good life, and it is by no means clear that such a life deserves that enshrinement. Let us suppose Ebenezer Scrooge with the same habits of mind, except that he has been persuaded, for the sake of the country, that a certain amount of almsgiving would in fact redound to his own benefit and to the benefit of a great number of others. What, essentially, would be so different about him? The Cratchits would be better off, no question, but we would still have in Ebenezer a man swaddled up in selfishness, dead to genuine love. Give him some pleasant tastes in diversion — the opera, the playhouse — and he might even pass for a boon companion, but hardly a friend, much less a man who encounters the depths and the mystery of life.
Perhaps Scrooge would be, then, what we train our children to be now. I recall a conversation I had last year with a very smart professor of health policy, a Christian of sorts, who laid it down as certain that health at least was necessary for human flourishing; we could all agree on that. I couldn't agree, though; I was thinking of a pair of useless people who changed millions of lives, and neither of them enjoyed good health. One was the ragged Saint Francis of Assisi, and the other was a girl who caught tuberculosis and spent the rest of her short youth in a convent, dying in agony — and in peace: Therese of Lisieux. I simply do not see how holiness can be measured — and holiness, not health, not wealth, not prestige, not victories on the golf tour, is the ultimate standard for a truly human life.
Be advised, Christians! Attend to the Master, who never says to us, "Succeed in the world!" The next time someone asks what you hope your children will be, shake the earth beneath by replying, "Saints." And, after all that, it is the saint and not the utilitarian who is of most use in shaping the world; he whips the utilitarian at his own game.