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Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services.

It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared.

Utilitarian ethics considers the balance of potential benefit and harm. If the potential benefits are sufficiently high to outweigh possible harms, then it is deemed to be ethical. But for this to apply, all must have a potential for gain, particularly those who may be explicitly harmed.

In ethics, for a utilitarian justification to apply, equal consideration should be given of the interests of all those affected, both those who may benefit and those who may be harmed; no one group should be sacrificed for the greater good without their consent. This criterion clearly is not being applied by the government.

From a utilitarian perspective, it has weak ethical credentials. So what is the government really about?

A clue comes from a comment made by Mr Ian Duncan-Smith in an interview with Nick Robinson on the BBC. Speaking of people on benefits, he said "I want to change your be a better person'. This clearly reflects a view held about those on benefits: they are not good people.  At best it represents an inadvertent viewpoint 'look we want to help you back to work'.  At worst it reflects a deep-seated attitude that stigmatises those on benefits as 'work-shy scroungers'.

I have commented on this in a previous post. To stereotype a group as 'scroungers', 'work-shy' or suffering from 'welfare dependency'  seeks to set them apart so they can be attacked and made to experience the most significant potential harm in the utilitarian equation.

It tries to win public support by turning them one against the other. It is profoundly unethical because it is applying judgement to a group as though it applies to all within the group.

To get people back to work is much more complicated than merely cutting benefits until it 'pays to work'.  Unemployment is contextual; being able to find work depends on location, age, how long someone has been unemployed, training and skills. Whether it 'pays' to go back to work depends on commitments, mortgages, transport costs, children's schooling.

The government position goes back to the 'get on your bike approach' to the unemployed in general. It represents an attitude that those on benefits don't want to work. In general, there is no evidence for this.

A decent government in times of austerity would consider a duty to protect the most vulnerable. This government is signally failing in this duty.


  1. Urrggh but WHERE are these jobs going to come from?

    If 3 million able bodied people can't find a job, where are all the ESA claimants going to find a job?

  2. Not sure why you are asking me. Would be better to ask IDS and Cameron. Certainly it needs change of strategy to stimulate growth. Cuts are counter productive as simply creates more unemployment and recession.

  3. I can't help thinking about the darker times in our collective history. The times where the rights of a relatively small group of individuals are put aside to satisfy the desires of a larger group. This situation we are facing saddens & angers me in equal.
    I'm not a militant person & I don't believe violence is necessary to effect change. Though if this country has managed to make me feel marginalised & I've always extolled the morality, civilised mentality & for our times an enlightened nature of our nation. Now I feel sick & angry at what our leaders are sound to our most vulnerable members.
    This is the first time I've felt shame to be British. Certainly we've done wrong before, but I always assumed that we've moved away from these wrongs. I always assumed that we learned a lesson from our conflict with the Nazis in WW2 & that lesson was tollerence & compassion. I hate the fact that it appears I'm wrong & that have a lot to be ashamed of.

  4. Greg, thank you for your comment. I never believed I would see food banks being used to such a degree or that we would adopt such a shameful disregard of the impact of austerity measures on the poorest and most vulnerable. I agree we need to bring back tolerance and compassion. We need a new approach that sets social objectives; decent housing,health and well being rather than selfish financial gain. Common interest matters, not unfettered self interest.

  5. idsmith yes thank you for ussing atos that the labour ops little tory party left for you to quietly get rid of those who langquished on benefits for ten or more years and to thank you now for no benefits as of now we out of time and now cant claim a penny yes thats a good move on your part taking away people benefits that have worked more them 40yrs ,and thank you for now keeping my house in cold as now we cant afford to heat it and aint i lucky as with one of my illnesses i dont eat much as my partner said sparrow eats more .yes ive got a lot to be thankfull for by you and your goverment who daily abuse the sick and disabled by taking away their benefits just so that you can ,why doesnt you and goverment do the right thing and put the money men in jail and not abuse those who didnt do a thing to you yess mr ids thank you for being you jeff3

    1. Thank you for your comment jeff3 which which I have great sympathy.


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