History Of Utilitarianism Research Paper

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Standard utilitarian theory encompasses two essential elements: (a) the rightness/wrongness of an action is determined by the goodness/badness of its consequences, and (b) the only thing that is good in itself is pleasure and the only thing bad in itself is pain, and happiness is taken to be the sum of particular pleasures (Quinton 1988, p. 1). Implicit in this ethical hedonism is the premise that the motives to action are rooted in self-interest. Based on these elements, the doctrine is then expressed in the form of the greatest happiness principle or the principle of utility. In A Fragment on Government (1776) the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) declared it ‘a fundamental axiom’ that ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,’ and that ‘the obligation to minister to general happiness, was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other’ (Bentham 1977, pp. 393, 440–1). In 1781 Bentham coined the name utilitarian for this theory.

1. Origins Of The Theory

Although Bentham is usually cited as the founder of utilitarianism, the antecedents of utilitarian principles have a far older vintage in the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, and in early Christian thought (Scarre 1996, Chap. 2). Other significant dimensions of the theory can be traced to the seventeenth century writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Richard Cumberland. It was the ‘moral sense’ philosopher Francis Hutcheson who first spoke of ‘the greatest Happiness of the greatest Numbers’ as a principle of moral conduct in An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good in 1725 (Shackleton 1972).

1.1 Religious Utilitarianism

In the eighteenth century, utilitarian social thought began to assume its classic form in the moral philosophy of the religious advocates of the utility principle. Advocates of religious utilitarianism included John Gay (1699–1745), John Brown (1715–66), Edmund Law (1703–87), Abraham Tucker (1705–74), and William Paley (1743–1805). The ethical hedonism developed by these moralists was premised on the existence of a God who would punish and reward in the afterlife according to the degree to which individuals acted to enhance general happiness in the present life (Albee 1902, Crimmins 1998). Among the religious exponents of the theory, only Paley offered a comprehensive and systematic social philosophy founded upon the utility principle, encompassing morals, government, law, and political economy, in his popular Principles of Morals and Political Philosophy (1785).

1.2 Secular Utilitarianism

Bentham’s secular version of the theory was derived from a more progressive strain of enlightenment thought: empirical, analytical, and antagonistic towards organized religion. Unaware of Hutcheson’s formulation of the utility principle, Bentham attributed it to the Italian law reformer Cesare Beccaria (1738–94) and sometimes to the dissenter and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733–1804). Other progenitors to whom he traced his intellectual inheritance included David Hume (1711–76) and Claude Helvetius (1715–71). In Hume’s secular moral philosophy the source of the rules of justice were located in general utility, but he explained the psychology of moral conduct in terms of a theory of ‘moral sentiments’ rather than motives supplied by pleasures and pains. Helvetius provided a systematic if rudimentary explanation of human motivation in terms of utility perceptions and expectations and some useful suggestions for the application of this knowledge to law and other social questions.

2. Bentham’s Science Of Morals And Legislation

In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham delineated the component parts of his ‘science’ of morals and legislation founded upon the utility principle. The general purpose of the science was ‘to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.’ (Bentham 1970, p. 11) The Introduction was then considered by Bentham to be the foundational text of his philosophy and his plans for future works were intended to elucidate the practical application of the utility principle in the areas of civil and penal law, judicial procedure, legislative reward, constitutional law, legislative procedure, international law, finance, political economy, and ‘universal jurisprudence’ (Bentham 1970, pp. 5–6).

2.1 The Principle Of Utility

At the base of Bentham’s theory was the assumption of ‘the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do’ (Bentham 1970, p. 11). As a first principle used to establish everything else, the utility principle was not itself subject to proof, but Bentham claimed there was sufficient testimony to the fact that it had always been generally accepted as the standard of right and wrong (Bentham 1970, p. 13). This foundational principle referred to a feeling or sentiment which served to approve the utility of an action. As Bentham explained, ‘The principle here in question may be taken from an act of the mind; a sentiment; a sentiment of approbation; a sentiment which, when applied to an action, approves of its utility, as that quality of it by which the measure of approbation or disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed’ (Bentham 1970, p. 12). Utility also meant public utility, and the utility of the individual was a part of the public utility in which the individual shared. Thus a person approved of an act or law to the degree to which the happiness of all the individuals affected by it was advanced. For Bentham, the relationship between happiness and pleasure and pain was straightforward and did not require elaboration: pleasure contributes to happiness, while pain detracts from it. In these terms the public interest is constituted of the aggregate of individual interests, construed in terms of the balance of pleasures and pains experienced by each person.

2.2 Motives And Consequences

All motives have their source in the anticipation of pleasure or pain. Bentham delineated four sanctions or sources of pain and pleasure, which he may have learnt from John Gay: physical, political, moral, and religious. These sanctions are available to the moralist and to the legislator in guiding and determining an individual’s moral conduct, and explain how an essentially self-interested individual can be directed to perform actions which enhance general happiness. In Bentham’s theory of motives the dictates of utility were neither more nor less than the dictates of the most extensive and enlightened benevolence. Other motives were categorized either as ‘semisocial’ motives (such as love of reputation, desire of amity, and religion), which may or may not coincide with the principle of utility, and purely ‘self-regarding’ motives (such as physical desire, pecuniary interest, love of power, and self-preservation), which were the least likely to coincide with utility. All motives, including the most extensive benevolence, are rooted in self-interest in one form or another; in these terms, the notion of a disinterested motive is implausible.

While the consequences of an act are partly dependent on the motives which give birth to the act (and partly on the empirical circumstances in which the act is performed), in Bentham’s theory the utility of an act is not dependent on its originating motive(s). The relative utility of an act is determined solely by its consequences: the advantages and/or disadvantages that result. When deciding whether to act or which act to perform the individual must calculate as best as he or she can the pleasures and pains which may reasonably be expected to accrue to the persons (including him-or herself) affected by the acts under consideration. Bentham’s hedonistic or felicific calculus, by which the value of pleasure and pain may be measured was constituted of the following elements: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent. A similar calculation should guide the legislator in formulating laws. However, Bentham recognized that it was not normally feasible for an individual to engage in such a calculation prior to acting, hence he spoke of the general tendencies of actions to enhance happiness as a sufficient guide. The consequences of acts were central to Bentham’s theory of punishment, in which the utilitarian objective was to ensure that the punishment was in proportion to the mischief produced by a crime and sufficient to deter others from committing the same offence. To this end Bentham developed a series of rules to guide the lawmaker in the construction of a utilitarian penal code, including the elements involved in the calculation of the mischief caused by an offence and the appropriate punishment.

3. John Austin

Although sometimes described as an act utilitarian, it is generally acknowledged that for Bentham properly constituted rules, based on calculations of general utility, ought to be the guides for human action (Baumgardt 1966). John Austin (1790–1859), a disciple of Bentham’s jurisprudence, is usually cited as the first explicit rule utilitarian. However, in The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (1832), he made it clear that he learnt the significance of rules from Paley, from whom he also borrowed the theological elements of his theory.

4. James Mill

James Mill (1773–1836) has often been credited with influencing Bentham’s conversion to democratic principles in 1808–9; however, Bentham had already developed utilitarian arguments for democratic reform in manuscripts written around the time of the French Revolution. What Mill certainly brought to the political cause of utilitarianism was clarity of thought and expression, which he demonstrated to telling effect in his Essay on Government (1819). Based on the premise that government has the purpose of producing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, in this essay Mill made a succinct case for the radical reform of British political institutions (universal manhood suffrage, secret ballot, and annual parliaments). The essay was roundly criticized by T. B. Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review in 1829, largely for its narrow view of human nature and the a priori science of politics that it contained.

5. John Stuart Mill

It was largely through the sympathetic criticism of John Stuart Mill (1806–73) that Victorian moralists became acquainted with Bentham’s utilitarian theory, though Mill’s own moral philosophy was also influenced by Austin. Partly in response to the challenge of Macaulay’s criticism of his father and partly the result of his own reflections on his intellectual inheritance, Mill developed a revised version of utilitarian theory. This revisionism took concrete form in his essay ‘Bentham’ (1838) and received definitive expression in Utilitarianism (1861). In the latter, Mill sought to defend the basic hedonism of utilitarian theory while offering refinements designed as responses to critics of the doctrine. The most problematic of these is the distinction between the qualitative differences of types of pleasures. While adhering to the basic Benthamic analysis of motives, Mill introduced the concept of higher pleasures, by which he meant the pleasures of the intellect, which he claimed were intrinsically more desirable than other pleasures. However, this qualitative distinction undermined the aggregative dimension of the theory and introduced questions concerning the appropriate judge of which pleasures were preferable. Mill only raised further questions about the integrity of the theory by arguing that the constituent elements of an individual’s happiness might encompass objectives such as the pursuit of truth, beauty, and virtue, without consideration for the utility they may bring. This was a view later adopted by G. E. Moore (1873–1958) in the Principia Ethica (1903). Rejecting the hedonism of Bentham and Mill, Moore set forth a ‘consequentialist’ theory now known as ideal utilitarianism, in which the ‘good’ to be attained is more expansive than the summation of pleasures, and contains within itself certain objective features of the universe, pre-eminently the beauty of its constituent parts (Scarre 1996, p. 114).

To the criticism that utilitarianism sacrificed principles for expediency, Mill replied that it was expedient to observe the rules associated with general utility and implied that only saints could be utilitarians, able to calculate continually the consequences of their actions. Finally, the supposed conflict between utilitarianism and Mill’s commitment to individualism and individual liberty in the essay On Liberty (1859) is resolved when liberty is defended, not for its own sake but on the utilitarian grounds of the benefits which accrue to the individual and to the society of which the individual is a member.

6. Liberal Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism has enjoyed a sustained if ambiguous presence within the liberal tradition. Bentham’s ‘liberalism’ is largely based on his writings on civil law and political economy, where he introduced subordinate principles to guide the legislator in giving effect to the utility principle: security, subsistence, abundance, and equality, in this order of priority. The stress on the security of the individual and security of expectations gave a priority to individual liberty when crafting law and tended to introduce a conservative element into the legislator’s reform agenda, while the egalitarian principle held out the prospect of redistributive policies. Which of the subordinate principles was most in accord with the dictates of utility at any one point, and therefore should be acted upon by the legislator, depended on the particular context and particular issue. To the ‘security-providing’ principle Bentham later added the ‘disappointment-preventing’ principle, based on which disappointed expectations (loss of public office, for example) were to be compensated in the reform process.

Commentators who emphasize the importance of these subordinate principles tend to view Bentham as a liberal utilitarian, who intended that laws should be modeled to facilitate individuals in the pursuit of happiness in ways they, rather than the legislator, thought appropriate (Kelly 1990). This interpretation contrasts with the traditional view of Bentham as an aggregative legislative utilitarian (Crimmins 1996). Mill is also interpreted as a liberal utilitarian, whose theory of justice stressed the utility value of security (Riley 1998). This placed definable limits on the functions of law and implied a gradualist approach to achieving optimal utilitarian outcomes through social and political reform. Nevertheless, in a society of literate people neither Bentham nor Mill saw any barriers to the introduction of democratic institutions, including the extension of the suffrage to women on equal terms with men. Moreover, in later life Mill inclined toward collectivist solutions to social problems (Riley 1996).

In Man versus the State (1884) and other writings Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) employed the utility principle to enhance the liberty of the individual, defend the existing social order, and attack the drift towards socialism and ‘slavery.’ James Fitzjames Stephen (1829–94), Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), and A. V. Dicey (1835–1922) all advocated versions of utilitarian individualism, although Sidgwick occasionally gave voice to ‘socialist’ sentiments in developing his intuitional utilitarian theory in The Methods of Ethics (1874). Reform-minded liberals such as J. A. Hobson (1859–1940) and L. T. Hobhouse (1864–1929) found in the protean nature of utilitarianism a justification for distinctly nonindividualist policies. Thus Hobhouse in Liberalism (1911) incorporated utilitarianism into a new liberal discourse that, in addition to laissez-faire economics (and notwithstanding Herbert Samuel’s quasi-Benthamic motto ‘the greatest liberty of the greatest number’) also bridged elements of socialism, social Darwinianism, and the idealism of T. H. Green, and out of which emerged the beginnings of Britain’s welfare state.

7. The Modern Debate

One of the most effective critiques of utilitarianism was mounted by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls argued that in counting only interests and aggregating across persons to arrive at the appropriate action or policy the utilitarian fails to ‘take seriously’ the distinction between persons. In reply it could be argued that at the level of private ethics utilitarian calculations implicitly acknowledge that different and distinct persons are involved in most situations about which individuals have to make moral judgements. This means that a consistent utilitarian will treat the interests of different people affected by his or her actions as of equal importance. However, the problem with this reasoning is that it risks making utilitarianism primarily a theory of equal consideration and effectively relegates the aim of maximizing utility to the status of a byproduct, not the ultimate ground of the theory.

The implications of an aggregate-utilitarian calculation for societies in which unpalatable sacrifices appear to be determined by simple calculations of optimal utility are frequently noted by critics of the theory. In an indiscriminate calculation where only total quantity of pleasures count, minorities are especially vulnerable to risk. Although Bentham was aware of the problems associated with the potential exclusion of minority interests under the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ the literature on utilitarianism abounds with discussions of the potentially negative consequences of employing a rigid act utilitarian calculation to determine the individual’s appropriate course of action or the legislator’s policy choice. This debate is represented in the exchange between the modern act utilitarian J. J. C. Smart and his critic Bernard Williams in Utilitarianism: For and Against (1973). Other modern utilitarians who defend the theory as a practical guide to moral conduct and to public action include Robin Barrow in Utilitarianism: a Contemporary Statement (1991) and Richard B. Brandt in Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (1992).


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