The Traditional View: Utilitarianism

The most prominent philosophy in the Western world over the last two centuries has been utilitarianism, which conforms to the principles of utility developed by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham and later elucidated by followers such as John Stuart Mill and others. Utilitarianism has governed Western thought since the advent of modern nationhood. It focuses on the well-being of the aggregate rather than on that of the individual and has had a profound effect on the way social policies were designed to reflect social justice.

Utilitarian Principles

Utilitarian reasoning can be seen as one with an ends-based rationale, which means that “decisions be made that produce the greatest good for the greatest number” (Sama & Shoaf, 2002). However, some scholars of utilitarianism prefer to see the philosophy as far from focused on “add[ing] up the people potentially helped by an action and subtract from that number the people potentially harmed,” but rather as a school of thought that “employs special protection for individuals who might otherwise be sacrificed for the good of the whole” (Elliot, 2007, p. 100). Utilitarian solutions are solutions that are meant to “augment the happiness of the community” in a way that is “greater than any which it has to diminish it” (Bentham, 1789/1995, p. 13), and the so-called utilitarian standard is formed by happiness that “is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned” (Mill, 1863, p. 15). As such, utilitarian solutions conform to three main principles. First, they are goal-oriented rather than rights- based. Second, they are focused on maximizing the size of the economic cake rather than on the way the cake is distributed. Third, they may justify, perhaps even require, favoring the few at the expense of the many in the name of the “common good” (Schejter & Yemini, 2007).

The utilitarian philosophy has governed Western thought since the advent of modern nationhood. The focus on the well-being of the aggregate rather than on that of the individual has had a profound effect on the way social policies were designed to reflect social justice. The wealth of nations has been determined by measures such as gross domestic product (GDP), whose growth is seen as the goal of policy. Within this conception of social justice, evidence is provided that when average incomes of society rise, the average income of the poorest fifth rises proportionately (Dollar & Kraay, 2000), a policy commonly known as “trickle-down economics” (Hopwood, Mellor, & O’Brien, 2005). However, GDP as a concept is oblivious to the concerns raised by unfair distribution of growing wealth (Sunstein, 1997), and the mere fact that the bottom fifth’s income has gone up still does not mean it provides them with all (or any) of their basic needs.

The principles of utilitarianism led to the adoption of two different types of communication policies in the USA and Europe. In the USA, the need to choose from among competing providers of media services owing to the scarcity of physical or economic means that prohibited whoever wished to from providing such services led to the adoption of the so-called public interest standard as the determining standard for the government when making that choice (Krasnow & Goodman, 1998). In the nearcentury since the standard was legislated in the USA, the constant need for updating its interpretation led to the development of a public interest doctrine, in which the triad of diversity, localism, and competition served as the policy goals (Copps, 2003; Stucke, 2009). Indeed, diversity and localism can be seen as the balancing or correcting factor of the principle according to which the aggregate happiness is what matters, since they were the two mechanisms developed to compensate for the control of the media by the few. Loyal to its utilitarian roots, however, the public interest standard focused on providing licenses to those who would benefit the community as a whole the most and not, for example, to those who had not had an opportunity to be heard so far. Over the years this meant a slow transition to a system in which those who already had licenses were virtually assured that their license would be renewed (Zelezny, 2010).

Indeed, “utilitarian rationalism has served as the prevailing paradigm in communications for more than a century” (Christians, 2007), and utilitarian philosophy has provided the basis for adopting the idea of freedom of expression in US jurisprudence. The root of the concept of the marketplace of ideas can be traced back to Mill’s philosophy (Goldman, 1999). This philosophy is also at the core of the argument that public discussion must include minority opinions in order to discover truths (Elliot, 2007) and the concept of social responsibility of the press (Plotkin, 1996), which evolved out of a recognition of the dangers of concentrating the ownership of the press in the hands of a few (Hutchins, 1947). Such concerns have been seen as the precursor to the theory of access to the press (Barron, 1967), a theory that, in fact, questions whether the marketplace of ideas can function without a “legal imposition of legal responsibilities” (Barron, 1967, p. 1674). Utilitarian theory has been used to justify regulation under scarcity because it justifies silencing voices for the sake of the common good under conditions of scarcity, which require making choices.

In Europe, spectrum scarcity concerns were resolved by leaving broadcasting in the hands of governments, in the belief that broadcasting was too important to be left to the whims of the free market (Levy, 1999). This belief sat well with the European ideal of public service, “which derived from the absolute powers of monarchy” (Garnham, 1999, p. 200). While never really articulated as such, public service in Europe meant that the state saw itself as being responsible for providing universal geographical coverage across whole countries and guaranteeing the continuity, rather than universality, of supply (Garnham, 1999). When it came to the establishment of so-called public broadcasting, the ideal of informing, educating, and entertaining at the same time came along with a strong commitment to impartiality (Barendt, 1998), which can be seen as a close relative of the USA’s moral journalistic ideal of objectivity, both deeply rooted in Millsian ideals of neutrality, a basic tenet of utilitarianism (Christians, 2007).

However, the public service broadcasting that emerged from this goal was recognized as a system demonstrating elitism (e.g., in the UK) and populist-paternalism (e.g., in Holland) (Ang, 1991), a critique that led to the privatization of the airwaves and the introduction of licensed and heavily regulated commercial broadcasters. These commercial broadcasters were to use the limited spectrum in a way that would promote diversity, among other public service goals; hence, the utilization of a scarce resource was awarded to a few in the hope that it would serve the collective and augment its “happiness.” Yet, twenty years after European broadcasting opened to market policies, in a move designed to put the control of media in many hands, the trend is toward the “concentration of capital and control of information flow in an ever-smaller number of multinational conglomerates” (Iosifidis, 2005, p. 103).

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