Pinchot and utilitarianism
What is "the Greatest Good"?

"Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."

This statement is from a letter signed by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson on February 1, 1905.   It is addressed to "The Forester," or the man in charge of newly created Forest Service.  Gifford Pinchot was that "Forester" and it is generally assumed that he wrote the letter.

Pinchot's letter to himself is what we now call a "mission statement."  He outlines the purpose and goals of the Forest Service, but his formulation of "the greatest good" goes farther.  It expresses a political philosophy and a professional ethic that the agency has tried to uphold throughout its one hundred year history.

As the first federal land managers, the Forest Service faced many conflicting interests: cattle ranchers, shepherds, miners, loggers, homesteaders, developers of water for drinking, irrigation and hydropower, as well as those who favored no use of the national forests.  Forest officers, given broad authority to make local decisions, were instructed to use the "greatest good" as a moral compass.

The idea derives from English writer Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) whose philosophy is known as Utilitarianism.  Bentham is credited with creating the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number."   John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873) and others adopted the concept but Pinchot claims to have added "in the long run." As Pinchot biographer Char Miller notes, foresters are trained to think over long-time horizons.

At first glance, the idea of the Greatest Good appears democratic and egalitarian.  Society should make choices that best serve the most people over time.  Its appeal to early 20th century Progressives, like Pinchot and his mentor Theodore Roosevelt, is not surprising.   But a vital question remains: Who determines the greatest good? This core dilemma (some might say fatal flaw) of the philosophy did not upset the Progressives.

They trusted trained professionals, guided by science, to make the best decisions. Progressives viewed the unregulated destruction of the nation's forests and waterways as an enormous waste and they believed that converting the nation's wealth into vast personal fortunes was undemocratic and immoral.  Scientific management was the answer. Government would apply a business-like efficiency to the development of resources and guarantee fair and wise use.

"Use" is a key term of this philosophy. Utilitarianism implies "use."  The early Forest Service manual was called "The Use Book."  Conservation meant using nature for the benefit of people.  For example, although Pinchot empathized with those "who do not like to see a tree cut down", he noted, "you cannot practice forestry without it." Consequently, many environmentalists in the latter decades of the 20th century disparaged the Forest Service’s brand of conservation, now called "multiple-use", as just another form of development.

Historians have traditionally contrasted Pinchot's Utilitarianism with a strand of environmental thinking represented by John Muir.  Like the New England Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, Muir found God in nature; any exploitation of pristine landscapes was sacrilegious.  The two worldviews collided over the decision to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The split symbolizes the early and on-going rift between the conservation and preservation movements.

Is the idea of the Greatest Good still valid?  We posed this question to most of the 70 + interviewees for The Greatest Good documentary.  They expressed a wide range of opinions.  Some felt it has outlived its purpose, while others argued that as a general principle it adapts easily to changing circumstances.  For example, society may decide that the "greatest good for the greatest number" includes the entire biosphere, not merely human needs; and the current buzzword "sustainability" is just another way of talking about "the long run."

We invite you to ask yourself:  What is the greatest good? (tell us your thoughts by clicking here)

Selections from Interviews

Char Miller, Biographer of Gifford Pinchot/History Professor, Trinity University
"he's adopting Jeremy Bentham's language from the eighteenth century:  The greatest good for the greatest number.  What Pinchot adds is 'in the long run.'  That's what foresters do.  They think out across time.  Whose greatest good is it now?  Whose greatest good will it be later?"

Edgar Brannon, Director of Grey Towers National Historic Landmark
"The idea behind the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time is that you do things for the greater public good and benefit and that that's what matters.  I think what Pinchot was thinking about is the role [of] that-what he called the evils of concentrated wealth-or the using [of] the public resources for personal gain and that to him that was a sin, it was immoral, and it endangered our national democratic way of life."

"The conservation movement in some respects has two major themes.  And this was laid out very clearly by [historian] David Loewenthal.  The theme that Pinchot and the Forest Service are a part of, he calls "optimistic utilitarian conservationists." (They believe) there are serious problems but it doesn't have to be so - that through professional management, careful thinking, good science, the world can be made a better place and that the Earth can become a garden.  The other wing grew out of [the] Transcendental movement often exemplified by John Muir. Loewenthal calls them "apocalyptic, aesthetic preservationists," and the title tells a lot.  They are not optimistic, they are pessimistic.  Basically the belief is every place that man has been, they make a mess of it. The only hope is to preserve what we can, and that this would become a religious inspiration going forward."

Peter Pinchot, Grandson of Gifford Pinchot/Community Forester
"The greatest good for the greatest number made a huge amount of sense as a principle when you had a relatively small elite making the policy decisions who could stand outside the whole system and say, 'I know what's the greatest good for the greatest number.  And, by God, I'm going to do it.' Now in a modern democratic situation where everybody is competing for defining what the problem is and what the solutions are, it's never as clear as it was in those days what the greatest good for the greatest number really is."

"(Gifford Pinchot's) greatest contribution was coming up with a new social contract about the relationship between people and nature.  And that social contract included the idea of benefiting all people not simply the individual.  The Jeffersonian Contract was about individual liberty, individual rights.  Gifford Pinchot's contract was about social benefits and about this generation and future generations."

William Cronon, Professor of Environmental History, University of Wisconsin, Madison
"One of the things that it's easy to forget today is that the Forest Service was founded at a moment that we today call Progressivism, when a great many people were very enthusiastic and idealistic about the prospect of reforming American society and American life by applying expert knowledge, good science, democratic values in the spirit of improving the nation, improving the people, bringing benefits to all Americans.  And in many ways, the Forest Service was the ultimate Progressive government bureaucracy.  It was idealistic young people, trained as scientists, bringing their scientific knowledge to the forest, to the public lands and trying to bring the benefits of those lands to the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time -- that classic Gifford Pinchot utilitarian principle."