Sally Phillips is fighting back against the no-nonsense world

Smack the Pony’s Sally Phillips defends silly in the world of winners and losers, tests and measurements – and snakes and ladders

am waging a quiet campaign against Utilitarianism. Not that it’s noticed.

Utilitarianism was a philosophy introduced by a strange man called Jeremy Bentham who loved measuring things and thought you could calculate happiness. He reckoned that you could make your moral decisions based on how many people would be made happy by the result. If 19 people were made happy by course of action A, and 18 by course of action B, then you should choose Action A.

You only have to look at Brexit and Trump to see the flaw in this argument.

The takeover by stealth of Utilitarian thinking means that we are now a people that thinks the idea of society having winners and losers is inevitable. We measure everything from the number of steps we take to the length of our sleep and how many seven-year-olds can spell the word ‘turnip’ but are talking less about the things that cannot be measured.

I don’t want to engage in moral arithmetic like Jeremy Bentham

Like love. Part of this is very personal. My son has Down syndrome. The disability club is one nobody wants to join, but once you’re here, you realise all the best people in the world are in it with you. I’m surrounded by lots of folk with disabilities. They’re excellent, irrespective of whether they can get the grades, or a job. So I don’t want to follow Utilitarian thinking and end up coldly concluding that disabled people are not useful enough, too costly or surplus to requirements. I don’t want to engage in moral arithmetic like Jeremy Bentham.

Oscar Wilde writes about a character who ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, which feels like a summary of Utilitarian philosophy. No wonder Charles Dickens satirised Bentham’s thought system in the novel Hard Times.

I want us to do things for their own sake. I want children to study art and music and drama, whatever the government says. I want to make space for uncalculated joy and silliness. Because you only live once, and we are in danger of turning life into an instrumental, scheming sort of snakes and ladders crossed with cross-country running, when it should be a game of Twister, played with the nicest people you know.

I want to speak up for nonsense and trivia. I am proud to have built my career on these shaky foundations. I am fascinated by the absolute magnetism of useless things: slap bracelets, doughnuts, the iFart app, doggles, blowing bubbles out of your eyes underwater; and facts like: octopi spend three per cent of their time tidying up; the Dutch are the least hygienic Europeans.


I fight for the right to be useless and to enjoy life. What could be finer, for a middle-aged single parent, than three days of deftly curated idling beauty with no need to camp!

I am really looking forward to climbing the hill to Hampstead, home of John Keats, and the lovely Fenton House, home of the second oldest playable harpsichord in the world (it lives in a toilet and I want to inspect it). The Idler Festival has recruited some of my favourite silly people – Michael Palin and John Lloyd, together with the seriously disruptive Carole Cadwalladr, who blew the whistle on all the Cambridge Analytica nonsense. I can’t wait to hear, talk and loaf about, to celebrate uselessness.

Sally Phillips will be speaking about Utilitarianism at The Idler Festival, held at Fenton House, Hampstead, north London, on July 13-15.