An Argument Against Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is a philosophy of ethics which has strong appeal because it seems to create a sense of fairness and unity amongst individuals. This fairness and unity is derived from the concept of providing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people (Rosenstand, 2013). Despite these points of unity and fairness the philosophy of Utilitarianism has been perverted into oppressive regimes such as the leadership of Joseph Stalin.
Ironically, one of the greatest strengths of Utilitarian theory- its concern for collective human welfare- is also one of its greatest weaknesses. In focusing on what’s best for the group as a whole, Utilitarianism discounts the worth of the individual. The needs of the person are subjugated to the needs of the group or organization (Johnson, 2012).
Stalin, who came from poor and humble beginnings, would become a member of the Bolshevik party in 1917. Stalin would serve under Vladimir Lenin until Lenin’s death in 1924 and by 1929 gained complete control of the party, allowing him to form and control the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) until his death in 1953 (History, 2014). Under Stalin’s leadership, Russia would be transformed from an agrarian society to the second largest industrial and military power in the world. Although these facts concerning Russia appear to be beneficial, the cost for achieving them was tremendous.
Communism, in all its forms, shares the ideology of the state or whole of the people being more important than an individual. Because people are considered parts of the state, ultimately they serve to benefit the state as a whole. One would consider this philosophy to be cohesive with Utilitarian thinking, but what often results from communist rule is oppressive regimes and maltreatment of citizens in an effort to protect the state. Stalin’s leadership highlights this problem.
From the beginning of Stalin’s leadership of Russia, Stalin would use communist and utilitarian concepts of serving the greater good to justify committing atrocities. One of the most terrible examples of this problem can be seen in the Stalin’s forced collectivization and industrialization of agriculture (Library of Congress, 2010) (History, 2014). In an effort to provide larger food supplies to more Russian citizens, Stalin collectivized farming taking away private ownership of land. The more successful farmers and land owners, known as Kulaks, resisted the collectivization process which resulted in the deportation of 5 million Kulaks who were never seen again (Library of Congress, 2010). As well rapid collectivization led to widespread famine which killed millions of people. Stalin committed these acts because of his belief that individuals must serve the benefit of the state.
Another example of this type of ethical decision making can be seen in Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a biologist who convinced Stalin that his pseudoscientific concepts concerning agriculture were correct. Lysenko’s ideas were endorsed by the communist party of Russia and this barred scientific advancement for close to 40 years during the reign of Stalin (Gordin, 2012). Because of his popularity with Stalin, Lysenko was protected from criticism by other scientists. As Lysenko advanced in position he was able to silence his adversaries through intimidation and fear. The long-term effect of Lysenko was a halt to scientific advancement in biology and agriculture within the Soviet Union.
Not only was advancement halted in the field of biology large resources were wasted by the controlling powers of government. Because Lysenko did not follow proper scientific protocols, experiments were conducted that wasted time and carried little logical purpose. For instance, Lysenko spent inordinate amounts of time growing crops in geometric configurations attempting to prove that plant life could be affected in this manner (Gordin, 2012). But because of Lysenko’s position no one was allowed to challenge his thinking. Many scientists were imprisoned or killed for criticizing Lysenko (Gordin, 2012).
The Lysenko situation would appear to be counterintuitive to the principals of both communism and utilitarianism. However, Lysenko did make advancements in certain areas of agriculture such as winter farming and creating larger agricultural yields which helped to end the famine (Gordin, 2012). For this reason, Lysenko’s theories were codified and any criticism of them was considered illegal.
Perhaps the worst perversion of utilitarian thinking took place during WWII at the Battle of Stalingrad. When Germany invaded Russia at Stalingrad, Stalin implemented a scorched earth policy in which any resources that could be potentially used by the enemy were to be destroyed. This policy created starvation on both sides of the lines (History, 2014). When German soldiers paid Russian children with bread to obtain water, Stalin ordered that the children be shot (History, 2014). The scorched earth policy was effective because it forced German troops into starvation while consolidating scarce resources for the Russian Army. WWII would claim 23 million people which are almost half of the total casualties of WWII (History, 2014). Most of these casualties were the direct result of Stalin’s war polices such as the scorched earth (History, 2014).
While Russia and the Soviet Union grew under Stalin, the cost of this growth was tremendous. Stalin’s leadership was ruthless and oppressive. Stalin never hesitated to eliminate anyone or group that stood in the path of his vision of Russia.
Stalin ruled by terror and with a totalitarian grip in order to eliminate anyone who might oppose him. He expanded the powers of the secret police, encouraged citizens to spy on one another and had millions of people killed or sent to the Gulag system of forced labor camps. During the second half of the 1930s, Stalin instituted the Great Purge, a series of campaigns designed to rid the Communist Party, the military and other parts of Soviet society from those he considered a threat (History, 2014).
Despite the horror of Stalin’s atrocities and the totalitarian nature of his leadership, utilitarian ethics often supports his leadership. From a communist or utilitarian perspective, the tremendous cost of Stalin’s leadership can be justified because ultimately the millions of people who forfeited their lives served to create a more powerful state of Russia. Despite the fact that history shows that Stalin was a ruthless dictator who committed many atrocities on his own people, his actions could appear ethical when viewed under utilitarian principles. According to Johnson (2012):
Making a choice according to utilitarian principles is a three-step process. First identify all the possible courses of action. Second, estimate the direct as well as the indirect costs and benefits for each option. Finally, select the alternative that produces the greatest amount of good based on the cost-benefit ratios generated in step two (Johnson, 2012).
For example, when one examines the decision making process for collectivization Stalin’s ethics appear to be proper. Russian agriculture prior to collectivization was inefficient and could not support an industrialized society. Collectivization would ultimately lead to a more effective means of feeding growing urban centers and the population as a whole. Although millions of kulaks died, millions more would be fed. Stalin’s famine would ultimately lead to smaller populations that could be fed more efficiently under the collectivist farming system.
Similarly, the German invasion of Russia would have meant annihilation of large numbers of the Russian population as well as loss of national autonomy. The decision to implement scorched earth policies would kill many Russians as well as Germans, but ultimately the larger populace of Russians would be saved from German occupation and annihilation.
When looked at from this perspective, utilitarian philosophy becomes troubling. If a leadership such as Stalin’s could be justified then this justification leaves utilitarianism open to a great number of troubling ethical dilemmas. The larger implication of Stalin’s leadership for utilitarian theory is the fact that individual human life is devalued and made insignificant in the view of the greater good.
There are few people who would consider Stalin’s leadership to be ethical. Despite the fact that many of his actions can be justified, there is some intrinsic element concerning individual human life which seems to override the utilitarian formula for ethical decision making. This may be the greatest flaw in utilitarian thinking in that in an effort to account for fairness, it does not take into account intrinsic value. The life (happiness/benefit) of the worst morally corrupt person is worth the same as the most morally sound person. This type of thinking lends itself to cold calculations and overlooks the strength of human character. It is quite possible that any single victim of collectivization could have become a doctor or researcher and saved thousands of people in some other time line. But because utilitarian theory does not take into account the potential of the individual, this type of consideration is excluded from the ethical equation. Stalin’s leadership examples highlight the fact that human morality and spirit are not numerical aggregates similar to measuring supply and demand.
Gordin, M. D. (2012). How Lysenkoism became pseudoscience: Dobzhansky to Velikovsky. Journal of the History of Biology, 3(45), 443–68.
History. (2014, January 22). Joseph Stalin. Retrieved from History: http://www.history.com/topics/joseph-stalin
Johnson, C. E. (2012). Organizational Ethics: A Practical Approach. New York: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Library of Congress. (2010, July 22). COLLECTIVIZATION AND INDUSTRIALIZATION. Retrieved from Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/coll.html
Rosenstand, N. (2013). The moral of the story: An introduction to ethics. New York: McGraw Hill.
State Department. (2014). A Short History of the Department of State. Retrieved from US Department of the State Office of the Historian: http://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/short-history/nixon-foreignpolicy
By Unknown author — RGASPI. F.558. Op.11. D.1647. L.20. via Stalin Digital Archive, Public Domain
Vincent Triola. Sat, Mar 13, 2021. Joseph Stalin: Ethical Leadership Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/joseph-stalin-ethical-leadership