After reading this article you will learn about the relationship among utilitarianism, idealism and democracy.
It is generally believed by utilitarianism though not fully correct that both the state and society are fictitious organisations.
Even the utilitarian philosophers did not hesitate to call the state a necessary evil. Because of this attitude of the utilitarians, it was propagated that such a state was incapable of doing any commendable work for the welfare of public.
For this attitude it was held that the interventions of state should be reduced to the minimum level. It has been the conviction of utilitarianism that the removal of restrictions will facilitate people in getting the required amount of pleasure. On this point idealism and democracy differ from utilitarianism.
By arguing the removal of state restrictions the utilitarian thinkers have neglected the case of democracy. Real democracy needs state intervention in the affairs of individuals. A great evil of Industrial Revolution is the gross inequality of income.
A larger part of wealth produced by this Revolution is in the control and use of few people who have constituted a class. We do not like to jump to the conclusion that the utilitarians had no sympathy for the poorer section of the community. But the fact is that if their doctrine is implemented that will fail to alleviate the growing poverty and sufferings of common people because this can be done only by proper state intervention. Utilitarianism cannot ensure democracy.
One of the main concerns of idealists is the emancipation of poor people from sufferings and they have favoured state initiative. Green was not simply an idealist philosopher; he was also a practical man.
He was moved at the sight of the impoverished and miserable condition of the poor people of various parts of London. The poverty was a positive factor of the deteriorating conditions of the dignity of man which is not conductive to real democracy.
By giving utmost priority to the reason and rationality of individuals and advocating restrictive state activity the utilitarians have endeavoured to build up an unsound political theory.
A new role of the state conducive to the enhancement of the dignity of man and establishment of social justice through the alleviation of poverty is to be emphasized through the construction of an adequate political theory.
This has been provided; it is claimed, by the idealists of Oxford Group. Idealists argue that if each man pursues his happiness and if each counts one and not more than one that will never succeed in establishing justice.
Here is a difference between utilitarianism and idealism. Idealism gives proper importance to the dignity and requirement of each individual and simultaneously acknowledges the role of the state.
Lindsay has drawn our attention to another aspect of difference between utilitarianism and idealism and their approach to democracy. Utilitarianism believes that if the individuals are left to themselves and if no restrictions are imposed that will generate harmony among the individuals. In this way unity and integrity will be achieved.
This doctrine further believes that if each individual is permitted to pursue his own happiness that will ensure the happiness of all. But idealism rejects .This stand of utilitarianism – Its standpoint is-some people may be intelligent and better equipped than others and these persons may be able to ensure their happiness.
But what about the others? These people will be deprived of happiness because they are ill-equipped and the state intervention is essential for these persons-which utilitarianism does not permit.
Hence utilitarian democracy is only for a section of people and not for all persons; and idealism says that this is not real democracy. By advocating state-interference for the greatest good of all individuals, idealism has endeavoured to establish real democracy in the society. This is especially evident in T. H. Green. A true democracy says that it is the purpose of the state to serve the ordinary citizens and all citizens and not part.
A D Lindsay observes:
“T. H. Green and his school were idealists, but they were under no illusions about the human nature. Their idealism consisted in regarding the state from the point of view of what could be made out of it. They had learned from Plato that the nature of any social organization is best understood by looking at it from its highest realization downward rather than from its rudimentary beginnings upward. The justification of the state, and indeed, of any institution, depended for them on the opportunities which it awarded men for their good use of it”.
We have inserted a long quotation from Lindsay with the sole purpose to show that utilitarian thinkers were under a great influence of illusion. That the individuals are intelligent and scientific minded. But this is far from reality. This illusion has built up a theory and, naturally, the theory cannot be real. There is justification of any organization because of its services to people.
The comparison between utilitarianism and idealism may be viewed from another angle. The former is of opinion that obligation to law is due to its ability to generate pleasure. But the idealism of Green and other English idealists says that there is a moral function or purpose of any law. By compulsive measures the state cannot make persons moral because it is contradictory. But Green has said that the business of law is to maintain certain conditions of life and, through the maintenance of these conditions, the individuals can lead a moral or virtuous life.
However, on one vital issue both utilitarianism and idealism agree and this is the state or any other organization cannot make men happy or moral by resorting to compulsive measures. The primary responsibility is to remove the hindrances which stand on the way of achieving happiness or being moral. In other words, both doctrine, want liberty of thought and action.
If we look at the real world of state activities and their relation to human welfare we shall find that idealism is more relevant (idealism of Oxford idealists) than the utilitarianism of Bentham and J. S. Mill. Government policies and decisions are never decided by their ability to produce utility.
Moreover, the term utility is abstract and ambiguous. By reducing the state interference to a minimum level the greatest welfare of human society cannot be achieved and democracy cannot be established.
The presumption that some people are rational and reasonable cannot be the basis of state activity. In the words of Lindsay this is definitely an “illusion” and this should be abandoned. It is a matter of great gratification that idealists reject this.
The utilitarians were guided by a misconception. Non-interference of state can never be the surest guarantor of greatest happiness of the greatest number. The view of English idealists is a ground-to-earth real approach to the problem.
The English idealists are democrats and moralists. We know that the impractical approach of Bentham was revised by J. S. Mill and towards the fag-end of life he recommended state intervention which, we think, brings him near to T. H. Green. For the greater benefit of the whole society the intervention of the state is being felt strongly and this feeling is multiplying day after day. So we can say that in the background of the present day situation utilitarianism has very little relevance.
We are of opinion that utilitarianism and idealism are parts of liberalism. The former wanted to restrict the functions and role of the state for the benefit of individual. Utilitarianism feels the less the intervention of state, the more is the freedom of individuals in their choice of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Green’s idealism prescribes for state intervention for the general upliftment of the people. Needless to say, democracy wants this.
The utilitarianism has depicted the self- interest seeking character and nature of men which is not always correct; on the contrary a state in a class society cannot do justice to all types of men. This lacuna of Green’s idealism cannot be ignored.
Neither utilitarianism nor Green’s idealism did utter a single word against the class structure of society though it was quite prominent in Mill’s days or Green’s time. Both Mill and Green accepted the ascendancy of the capitalists as an integral part of British society. Democracy should be viewed in this backdrop.