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The History of Utilitarianism

Original text: The History of Utilitarianism

Summarized: 3 minute read

1. Precursors to the Classical Approach

Early utilitarians include Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Gay, and Hume, who took the insight that morally appropriate behavior will not harm others and instead increase happiness or ‘utility’ as their basis for moral evaluation and moral direction.

Theological utilitarians believe that promoting human happiness is incumbent on us since it is approved by God. This view is combined with a view of human motivation with egoistic elements, and is not theoretically clean in the sense that God is the source of normativity.

Gay’s influence on later writers, such as Hume, is noteworthy. He addresses some of the questions that concerned Hume on the nature of virtue, and he argues that our practice of approbation and disapprobation of action and character is due to God’s design.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, held that we possess a kind of “inner eye” that allows us to make moral discriminations. Hume would reject any robust realist implications, but he did liken moral discrimination to the perception of secondary qualities, such as color.

Shaftesbury held that in judging someone virtuous or good in a moral sense we need to perceive that person’s impact on the systems of which he or she is a part. It can be hard to disentangle egoistic versus utilitarian lines of thought in Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury approached moral evaluation via the virtues and vices, and his utilitarian leanings are distinct from his moral sense approach, and his overall sentimentalism. His approach highlights the move away from egoistic views of human nature.

Scarre notes that the moral sense approach is not incompatible with a model in which we need to reason to determine what morality demands.

Hutcheson was committed to maximization, but added a caveat that the dignity of persons may compensate numbers. He also added a deontological constraint that we have a duty to accord others fundamental dignity regardless of the numbers of others whose happiness is to be affected by the action in question.

2. The Classical Approach

The Classical Utilitarians were concerned with legal and social reform. They used a normative ethical theory as a critical tool to change useless, corrupt laws and social practices, and they were also influenced by strong views about what was wrong in their society.

2.1 Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham held that humans are ruled by two sovereign masters – pleasure and pain. He also held that the principle of utility should be the standard of right action for governments and individuals, but this is incompatible with psychological egoism. Bentham’s commitment to psychological egoism generates a serious tension with his commitment to ethical egoism, and he sometimes seemed to think that he could reconcile the two commitments empirically. However, this claim only served to muddy the waters.

Bentham benefited from Hume’s work, but his approach to moral philosophy was completely different. He focused on act-evaluation, while Hume focused on character evaluation, and there was a tendency to move away from character evaluation after Hume and towards act-evaluation.

Bentham takes from Hume the view that utility is the measure of virtue, but he makes a distinction between pleasure generated by a trait and the benefits it generates for society. This allows Bentham to account for mistakes made in evaluating virtue and vice. Bentham was a social reformer who felt that people’s responses to certain actions did not reflect anything morally significant.

Bentham notes that people are prone to use their physical antipathy as a pretext to transition to moral antipathy, but that this is illegitimate because it would result in runaway punishments. He also notes that if a pain can be demonstrated to be ill-grounded then it can be altered.

Bentham recommends using experience to guide moral deliberation, rather than calculations, and that rules of thumb should be overridden when they conflict with the promotion of the good.

Bentham’s view was surprising to many at the time, because he viewed the moral quality of an action to be determined instrumentally. He would view any action deemed wrong due to a violation of autonomy as derivatively wrong. Bentham argued that the law is not monolithic and immutable, and that the moral quality of a given policy may change as a result of changing social circumstances.

2.2 John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was a follower of Bentham, but disagreed with some of his claims, particularly on the nature of ‘happiness’. Mill sought to amend Bentham’s theory to accommodate his view that simple-minded pleasures were just as good as more sophisticated and complex pleasures.

Mill’s hedonism was influenced by perfectionist intuitions, and he argued that intellectual pleasures are better in kind than others. He also argued that the principle could be proven, using a rather notorious argument.

Mill’s version of utilitarianism differed from Bentham’s in that it placed weight on the effectiveness of internal sanctions, like guilt and remorse, which serve to regulate our actions. These emotions are centered on the self and are caused by social feelings.

Mill believed that utilitarianism should be used to inform law and social policy. He argued that if a right or duty is harmful, then it is not genuine, and that denying women the opportunity for education, self-improvement, and political expression is forgoing a significant source of happiness.

Mill argues that virtue is not only instrumental to maximizing utility, but is also constitutive of the good life. However, he seems to associate virtue with aesthetics, and morality with ‘right’ or ‘duty’.

3. Henry Sidgwick

Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics is a well known work in utilitarian moral philosophy, and offers a defense of utilitarianism. It is also an exploration of the theory as it had been presented before Sidgwick, as well as a defense of utilitarianism.

Sidgwick concluded that the best way to maximize average happiness is to maximize the number of people who are currently alive.

4. Ideal Utilitarianism

G. E. Moore believed that beauty is an intrinsic good, and that following beauty is not a mere indulgence, but may even be a moral obligation, and that this view provides the resources for dealing with what the contemporary literature has dubbed “admirable immorality” cases.

Moore criticized the view that pleasure itself was an intrinsic good, since it failed a kind of isolation test for intrinsic value. The pleasures of sadists are discounted – they are not good, even though they are pleasures.

Moore put forward an organic unity view of value, in which a whole has an intrinsic value different in amount from the sum of its parts. This view is based on the idea that experience of beauty is better when the object of the experience exists.

5. Conclusion

Since the early 20th Century, utilitarianism has undergone a variety of refinements, but the question “What use is it?” remains a cornerstone of political philosophy and social policy.

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