Utilitarianism is the belief that the value of a thing or action is determined by its utility and it is the ethical theory that all actions should be directed toward achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), was British and the founder of the doctrine. He was a philosopher, an economist and a jurist, but refused to practice law. Instead, he did a thorough work in the reform of the British legal system and on a general theory of law and morality. He became well known, in 1789, for his “Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. I am borrowing from his ideas of the useful and the good. In that, Bentham came to the conclusion that ‘Nature has placed mankind under the influence of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure… they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our suggestion will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.’ Are our responses to corruption guided by pain or pleasure?
What Bentham believed came to mind, not too long ago as I made a journey in the company of two friends. We had set out at 6:15 in the morning from Zaria in northern Nigeria for Kaduna, to catch the 7:30 am flight, the only one for the day from Kaduna, to Lagos. Though we had the choice of two cars, we decided to ride in one. We were chauffeur-driven. The owner of the car we rode in sat in front while the other friend and I sat behind. The discussion, as usual, was the state of the nation. The theme as would be expected is perceived or is it real, massive corruption in the power sector that is rocking the nation. Before we got to Kaduna, we had all concluded that corruption in Nigeria has permeated the whole society and has most unfortunately spread to the grassroots level. We arrived at the Kaduna airport at 7:15 am, just barely enough time to get on board the plane. We were late, almost too late to get on board, and it seemed not our best day, because the flight was already full.
We were left with two options. We could go back to Zaria and forget about going to Lagos that day; a one hour drive, or we could continue to Abuja; a two-hour drive, where we would have unlimited options of getting to Lagos. Each of these was painful somewhat, but there was a third option that could ease our pains. It was this third option that somebody implemented and with some greases of the palm, we were on the aeroplane. Did we take the places of other people or were we had? We may never know the true story. As I sat, my mind loomed to some incredible dimension on the attributes, which seemingly is a holier than thou attitude in the face of corruption. Before now, I had always considered myself as one of the last holdouts against corruption, yet here I was under the influence of the sovereign maters of pain and pleasure. Did I, in my own little way, take maybe the place of a rightful traveller and forced the same to either abandon his trip or take a tortuous route to Abuja.
My other friends did not see it that way. They saw what we did as survival of the fittest and nothing close to being driven by pain or pleasure. To them, there was no correlation between what we did and the $16 billion dollars scam in the power sector. They unashamedly continued to rage over the pain of no constant-electricity supply in spite of the massive injection of funds, though. They condemned those who have kept us without light for so long, not minding their own pleasure in other areas of corruption. I have come to the conclusion that as long as each one of us covets the pleasure of whatever corruption at whatever level in the society, there will always be a pain; such as no constant-electricity supply. The pleasure derived in corruption will always rear its head as some pain somewhere. The pain of fighting corruption, however, will create pleasures that will better the state of society.
As it is in Nigeria today, corruption has a value and is giving happiness to the greatest number of people, irrespective of whatever station one occupies in our society. That is the doctrine of utilitarianism. The value of every action we take is determined by its utility. A society that does not provide the basic things of life – shelter; food and clothing to the majority of its people, will force that majority to do whatever it takes to survive. We tend to give value to other people’s corrupt acts while we skim over ours. Corruption no doubt has become systemic and for that, some conclude that Nigeria is a failed state. I do not believe Nigeria is a failed state, but rather a country wallowing in a condition that is a by-product of our chosen economic system. This is not an advocacy for socialism, which is retrogressive and less productive. The fittest will always be the only survivor in a gathering where everybody is on his own. What suffers in such a community are common interests. I once argued that it is our level of mental development and has nothing to do with wickedness or greed.
God created me as a creature of self-interest. My selfishness is, therefore, natural and not because I am wicked. To overcome it in order to promote what is of common interest in my community would definitely require higher intelligence. It is not an accident that in our society in Nigeria only what is of common interest are the only things left to rot. Look around you, you will find an advanced level of individual developments. Yet, what is common to both the king and the pauper; to both the governor and the governed, are derelict. Check out, for instance, the air we all breathe in our towns that the wind can blow in any direction; it is polluted by the stench oozing out of our refuse. The air smells so loud, you can hear it – but we could put fragrances in our cars and homes to mask the odour. Roads, rail, public schools, waterworks, etc. are all common to all, but we treat them as if they belong to individuals by not fixing their defects. Electricity supply is also common, but for as long as I can afford to run my private generator, well! If after $16 billion dollars was expended on electricity supply and I do not have a constant power supply, what moral justification do I have to protest? Those involved are corrupt, so do I; mine is only limited.
Published on March 30, 2008
by Samuel Akinyele Caulcrick on Nigeriavillagesquare.com