Are Utilitarian & American Synonyms?

Avra Salters: Period 07

America is considered the land of opportunity. It was built on equality, potential, and acceptance. It started as a virtuous nation but has not necessarily stayed that way. There are many aspects of the American lifestyle and idea of happiness that are meaningful and rooted in the famous quote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”[1], but the modern mindset has distorted this idea into life, liberty, and the pursuit of everything.  Moderation is not a word associated with America and the life some Americans like to live. This lack of moderation and increase in material abuse has caused some Americans to lose sight of what living a good life means. Instead of being driven by principle, America is now driven by pleasure and want. The utilitarian lifestyle that states “all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain”[2] has weeded its way into American culture. This ideal has bled into not only the cornerstone of America, family, but also into the working world, the entertainment and media realms, and American politics.

Family has always been seen as the core value of American citizenship. It is an aspect of life that has stayed the most authentic throughout the transition from virtue seeking to pleasure seeking, but has still lowered its standards. In the 1960s, despite the numerous amounts of cultural wrongdoings that occurred, the family was the most important aspect of someone’s life. It was about providing for one’s family and making sure that both inspiration and principle were drilled into to the heads of adults and children. These ideals were considered the keys to happiness. In modern times, the focus of the family unit has shifted. It has, in certain cases, become the financial success of children. The measure of effective parenting is how financially successful their children have become. The traditional ethical duty of parents was the installation of values such as integrity, work-ethic, and self-sacrifice. The current ideology of parents is promotion of self and the question of “In the long run, how will this benefit me?” The education system, and how parents strategically place their children within, it is a prime example of selfish motives taking precedent over virtuous motives. The college application process is not about finding a school that will increase your personal depth and knowledge about things that will help you grow as a person, but instead is about getting a specific degree that will put you in a specific career that will make money and therefore make the largest amount of people happy. This money provides the opportunity to increase your personal pleasure and to remove limits on getting that pleasure. The promise of a pleasurable life, which is linked with certain college majors, causes parents to give children the mindset that there are things more important in life that virtue and having respectable values. The mindset is that it is more important to be great than to be happy and if you are great, then you can have everything.  The first step of having everything is having money and to be financially successful, a high-paying career is essential.

America, being the land of opportunity, includes work and the chance to hold a career that is promising, successful, joy providing, and helps increase self-contemplation. These ideals have been overshadowed in modern society by money. Money and the promise of what money can bring them, causes people to dedicate their lives to something that they do not love. This dedication cannot bring true happiness. This dedication is about the excessive pursuit of success which can potentially make a large amount of people happy. In the working world financial success has been equated with happiness. True happiness does not stem from superficial enjoyment. The error in this type of approach to a career is seen through the midlife crisis. Although Americans may have other reasons to spiral out of control during their 40s and 50s, many are breaking down because they realize that they are living an unfulfilling life. They come to the realization that some decision in their life was not made for the bettering of themselves emotionally or mentally but for status and position; a status that has not helped them achieve the happiness or pleasure that they thought they wanted. It reveals the principle that happiness is individualized and rarely linked with pleasure, especially pleasure linked to material objects or mental ideals that do not help further contemplation and virtuous behavior. The headspace of choosing a career path based on superficial means further reiterates the superficiality of modern society and has been heavily influenced by the entertainment industry.

The entertainment industry runs America, whether it is political entertainment or social media. Unfortunately what is displayed through entertainment is the main means of communication to American citizens. It has always been semi-corrupt but in modern times it has increased it errored ways. The media encourages utilitarianism. They encourage a life without moderation, a life without sacrifice, a life where the end justifies the means if the end can provide the greatest amount of people with an illusion of happiness. The media is another realm of American life that is status driven. Because of this need for status, entertainers justify the means of receiving their fame and fortune. In the example of the Kardashian’s television show, nothing about this program supports virtuous actions or hard work but people love to watch it, so the producers and actors continue to create programs that increase their wealth and notoriety. The intention behind this type of television is to profit and pleasure from those profits. Although many people will be getting paid, none are truly doing it for a love of reality television. Similarly republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has utilitarian behavior. He is wealthy and pleasure seeking as he says whatever necessary to create the largest reaction. Even though his statements may be absurd or incorrect, they benefit him and his many supporters by increasing his exposure and personal status.

American politics are infused with utilitarian beliefs. Some of America’s political policies support the theory of “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the most public or individual good.”[3] Stemming all the way back to slavery, individual pain and suffering was overlooked for the pleasure and benefit of the masses. Less extreme examples plague Americans in the modern age. The death penalty, for example, places an individual’s suffering below public justice. Although this is said to benefit society because it helps more people than it hurts, it is still harmful action against the individual. Additionally, homeland security is an extreme utilitarian policy. The government invades the personal lives of Americans and violates personal liberty in the name of national security. They go against basic privacy rights to benefit the masses.

The utilitarian course of action is selfish behavior that claims to benefit the masses. The argument that “happiness is good and that there is no reason for one person’s happiness to be more important than anothers”[4] and that it is even better if the sharing of this happiness directly or indirectly benefits you, is an argument that America supports and performs. Family, the most communitive institution in America, is exploited for selfish reasons that claim to benefit the greater future success of the entire family. The people of the working world have succumbed to the pressure of being financially successful and have sacrificed their personal loves for future advantages that they and their associates may have. In the entertainment world, moves are made to bring false happiness to millions of viewers, despite the emptiness of the message and potential condemnation of others. Lastly, the political policies of the United States of America encourage the behavior of putting masses’ needs over the individual regardless of the means. America, as a utilitarian society, promotes mass pleasure and superficial success over individual liberty and joy.

[1] The Declaration of Independence (1776).

[2] John Stuart Mill. “Utilitarianism.” In How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[3] “In a Culture That Has Embraced Utilitarianism Never Surrender the Moral High Ground.” Freedom Outpost. April 19, 2014. Accessed December 8, 2015.

[4] “Utilitarianism.” Accessed December 8, 2015.



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