In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: “[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as “good” meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. “Good” has, however, become associated with “goods,” that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his “fundamental axiom” is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that “goods” are good for us and so more “goods” will always bring more good in their wake.

But now I want to examine the second part of this phrase: “the greatest number.” It just makes sense to most of us that a right-thinking person would endorse the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number. Doesn’t such a framework maximize the life chances of the greatest number of people? Of course, it all depends on what one means by “life chances.”

What I want to point out is that “the greatest number” implies a doctrine of “acceptable losses.” If the net benefits of any course of action are measured for society as a whole instead of for every individual, then actions which kill many people are justified on the basis of the benefit to those who remain living. Such benefits are presumed to outweigh the loss incurred by those dying and those related to the deceased.

This is the bargain we have made, and it has led to mayhem everywhere.

A friend and colleague remarked that the modern corporation seeks to increase its profits by either raising prices or lowering quality or both. One frequent side-effect is that new hazards to human health and well-being are created. These are not intentional, but rather the result of lowering quality or of adding features or functionality that command higher margins, but which also cause harm.

The precautionary principle is an alternative which calls for careful evaluation of risks before releasing any potentially dangerous technology into society. The European Union has adopted this approach in some areas.

But, because so much of modern society runs on what is operationally the greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number principle, we are now faced with multiple categories of “acceptable losses.” Each purveyor of hazardous products or practices tries to play down the losses and ridicule the victims.

Much on my mind these days are the suffering souls who are sensitive to microwave radiation from cellphones, cellphone towers and other sources. Their numbers are growing as we continually increase the amount of such radiation spewing out into the environment. Many must leave the city and literally head for the hills or any areas poorly served by cellphone antennas. (Full disclosure: I am currently working as a consultant to organizations concerned about the health effects of microwave radiation.)

Until relatively recently, the symptoms of such people were dismissed as mere psychosomatic reactions or at the very least not related to microwave radiation. As the evidence grows about the effects of this radiation on living cells—the release of the National Toxicology Program study late last year showed a clear link to cancer and DNA damage—the “acceptable losses” are mounting.

The next generation of cellphone deployment, called 5G, has run into opposition, in part, because it means close-up exposures from cellphone antennas placed on utility and light poles in neighborhoods—exposures that can be several orders of magnitude higher than current exposures from such antennas (which are usually mounted high up on what are called macrotowers).

Expect the number of sensitive people to skyrocket as the hidden thresholds of those not yet sensitive are quickly breached for one large cohort after another.

We are told that all of this is being done to allow such whiz-bang technologies as driverless cars and the so-called Internet of Things. But these are just stalking horses for the real agenda of the wireless giants. They want to avoid regulated pricing that comes from bringing fiber-optic cables all the way to your home—where you can decide whether to deploy a wireless system or not.

Rather these companies bring the cable to a utility pole near your home, put up a powerful cellphone antenna on that pole, and then beam a signal 24/7 into your home. They call it fixed wireless broadband, and they seek to build it because they can charge you anything they want. Wireless service prices—in the United States, at least—are unregulated. (Fun fact: 95 percent of the “wireless” system is wired because wires are the most energy-efficient, cost-effective way to move data around.)

For this less-than-worthless bargain, you get around-the-clock exposure to far more intense cellphone antenna radiation even if you don’t buy the overpriced services. This is because many of your neighbors will be offered the service, and some of them will foolishly take it leaving you exposed no matter what you do. And, the wireless companies may put in these 5G antennas anyway just to gain full coverage for their system.

The industry will attempt to sell you on how wonderful it will be to have an entirely wireless system. But you can have that with far less radiation from your Wi-Fi system (which still poses some danger for you, but not nearly as much when it is on and, of course, you have the power to turn it off when you are not using it).

The industry claims 5G and its predecessors are all safe. It is reminiscent of the claims for asbestos, the miracle fiber that allowed us to make fireproof building materials, but which became the source of widespread cancer.

It also reminds me of the argument over cigarettes. After all, cellphone use is voluntary just like smoking cigarettes. Alas, the ravages of second-hand smoke finally awakened the public to the widespread dangers of cigarettes. I believe that in the same way involuntary exposure to increasingly intense cellphone antenna radiation will awaken the public to a danger that is far more widespread than asbestos or second-hand smoke ever were.

The Surgeon General of the United States told the public in 1926 that leaded gasoline was safe. Today, the scientific arm of the U.S. government isn’t even making a pretense anymore that cellphones and cellphone antennas aren’t going to result in “acceptable losses.” Instead, we are told that the damage won’t be that bad.

We could blame all of these tragedies on unscrupulous individuals. But it was no secret to my father who grew up during the Great Depression that smoking was bad for his health and very addicting. Early production of lead in gasoline resulted in many workplace deaths and poisonings. And yet, these were ignored because the lead in the air from automobile exhaust was thought to be so diffuse that it would never hurt humans—and, not surprisingly, that the benefits of lead would outweigh any ill effects. So, too, we are told that cellphone antenna radiation is too diffuse to hurt humans, even the amped up 5G version.

As we pile on more and more products and processes which undermine the health and well-being of segments of the population, we are certain to end up assaulting the health of every single human on the planet, probably in multiple ways. And, we will be doing this in the name of the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s hard to see how this kind of thinking has done anything but the provide the most widespread damage to human well-being in pursuit of dubious benefits, benefits that are almost always about making more money and not about protecting and enriching human life.

Photo: A cell phone tower in Leh, Ladakh, India, surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags (2009). By Stan Dalone. Via Wikimedia Commons.