Utilitarianism and the Disease to Please

Sabrina Zuniga- morning

Will Utilitarianism ultimately lead to a happy life?

Be the best mother for your kids and your husband. Be the best boss for your employees. Be the most supportive friend. Be the best athlete for the team.  Have the highest income career in order to support your family. Do everything your parents say in order to please them. Change yourself in order to conform to society. These are just a few of the examples of the pressures we, in our modern society, deal with in order to provide the highest utility for others. Our society has developed a utilitarian sense of friendship, family, relationships, and acquaintances; the driving question of each relationship ultimately comes down to, “am I doing everything within my own capabilities to make the other person (or people) happy?” Rather than focusing on a balance between our own happiness and the happiness of others, society has imposed that we need to work on ourselves in order to be good enough for others and to provide the maximum utility for the community. Utilitarianism’s “standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether,” ultimately calling people to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of society [1].  While we do need to work together to live in a productive and harmonious community, sacrificing one’s own personality and mental health and taking on extreme pressure and stress in order to live up to society’s standards eventually eradicates each individual; thus, society may seem like a peaceful and effective community on the surface, but in reality, it is a group of struggling individuals sacrificing their own happiness in order to please others.

Utilitarianism defines happiness as complete absence from pain [2]. Starting from a young age, people are taught to live and grow according to the Greatest Happiness Principle, which states that the ultimate end is to live “exempt as far as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyments” [3]. For example, we are taught to play our hardest in sports so that we feel the satisfaction of victory and don’t know the disappointment of loss. We are taught to earn the highest grades so that we don’t have to live through the struggle of failure. We are taught to look our best at all times so that we don’t know the pain of being harshly judged for our appearance. This is a logical upbringing according to the Greatest Happiness Principle; the children are simply being taught to work their hardest in order to evade pain. But what some parents, teachers, coaches, and societies don’t see is the amount of pressure put on the growing adolescents to live up to these ideals. The elders are doing their best to look out for the kids’ futures, but by doing so, they enforce harsh standards in order to “help” the children reach the ultimate end goal of freedom from pain. These harsh ideals are never ending- one can never be rich enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or good enough in general. The pressure to achieve ultimate perfection, which would supposedly eradicate all pain, desperately drives one to do whatever it takes in order to please others despite the fact that he or she could be giving up his or her own happiness to do so.

One might ask, “Why does perfection need to be achieved?” According to utilitarian philosophy, maximizing one’s own utility will ultimately help society as a whole. For example, if one student were to make all A’s, get into a prestigious college, and pursue a monetarily-beneficial career, the student’s efforts not only will eradicate the possibility of his/her own poverty and low status but also will most importantly provide economic stability and wealth for the student’s future family. But in this pursuit of perfection, that particular student may encounter numerous difficulties along the way. The student may struggle to get the A and always receives Bs and Cs, causing him/her to develop strong insecurities for always falling short of an A. He/she would constantly put him/herself down for not achieving grade perfection, never feeling satisfied despite having exerted all of the strength and effort he/she could muster into the work. Thus, the student has fallen short of his/her parents’, the schools’, and even society’s expectations; thus, his/her failure has imposed a hindrance on the community. Fast forward to university, and let’s say that this student decided to pursue a career in physical education rather than the medical field. For the student’s whole life, the parents had a career in the medical field in mind for the child, yet the student discovered a strong passion for sports and teaching children, thus causing him/her to want to pursue a career in the physical education field. It is a given fact that a doctor makes more money than a physical education teacher, but in the eyes of family and society, the money earned from being a P.E. coach would not be enough to pay for bills and taxes, to maintain a high economic status, to indulge in expensive pleasures, and most importantly to provide for a family. Thus, pursuing this career would go completely against the Greatest Happiness Principle- living a life free of pain. The community then decides for him/her that he/she should give up the dream of becoming a P.E. teacher and pursue a career with a higher income in order to eliminate the possibility of poverty, to maintain a high economic status, and to provide abundantly for his/herself and for the future family.

But now let us consider what is going on in the student’s mind as the community decides that pursuing his/her dreams would not be beneficial for anyone else. The student believes that as a P.E. teacher, he/she will be ultimately happy. The student happens to love and have a talent for teaching kids and teaching about health and exercise; thus, being a P.E. teacher would allow the student to reach his own maximum utility. Nothing gives the student more satisfaction than leading children in exercises and teaching about healthy eating habits. He/she hopes and dreams of pursuing that particular career, but then is suddenly faced with pressure from both family and society to give up her hopes and dreams in order to work for a job which will benefit society more. As the community tells the student that his/her ambitions are worthless and ineffective, the student is swallowed by insecurities and decides to give up the dream and possibility of maximum self-satisfaction in order to please the general public. The student, now pursuing a career in the medical field, fails to exercise his/her maximum rational faculty (which happens to be the Aristotelian definition of happiness) because his/her ambition does not lie in the medical field but rather in health science (The Nachomachean Ethics). But it’s okay that the student gave up the hopes and dreams of becoming a P.E. teacher because it was all for the greater good, right? It doesn’t matter that the student isn’t happy as long as he/she contributes enough to society, right?

According to utilitarianism and the Greatest Happiness Principle, the student’s individual happiness doesn’t matter, only the happiness of the community.

This people-pleasing pattern has almost become a norm in modern society. In schools, at work, and even at home, people are faced with the pressures to sacrifice their own happiness to please others. This unhealthy people-pleasing tendency actually hinders the progression of society as a whole because if the internal structures in society are not at their full mental and physical capacity, society cannot benefit. The need to please actually is one of the major causes for many mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression, and can have major negative effects on one’s overall mental health by causing low self-esteem, perfectionism, and codependency [5]. If people are obsessively engaged in the need to please, they will not be able to contribute to society fully and will not be able to exercise rational faculty. Thus, obsessively working to please others actually hurts the community and the individual, contradicting the Utilitarian doctrine. Rather than focusing so much on working to satisfy the needs of others, people should be taught to invest in the betterment of themselves so that they can reach their full potential. Once their full potential is reached, they will be able to help society, thus advancing it even further as compared to if we were to focus solely on achieving unrealistic expectations which actually lead to society’s destruction.

[1] “Utilitarianism.” John Stuart Mill in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[2] “Utilitarianism.”

[3] “Utilitarianism.”

[4] “The Nicomachean Ethics.” Aristotle in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[5] Psychology Today. “Are you a People-Pleaser?” Last modified Oct 26, 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shrink/201210/are-you-a-people-pleaser

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s