Meaning of Utilitarianism:
Utilitarianism was basically an ethical theory. The original basis of this theory was Hedonism, a psychological theory. According to Hedonism, the main aim of life is the achievement of maximum pleasure. According to this theory, the value of an act is to be assessed on the basis of pleasure and pain which it gives. The act which gives maximum pleasure is good and the act which gives pain, is bad. Therefore, the criterion of each act is pleasure and plain.
The actions which cause pain should be avoided by the individual and the state, and the action which brings pleasure should be performed by the individual. The actions which bring pleasure for the individual are useful, and those which bring pain to him, are useless.
The form of utilitarianism and state:
As a school of political thought, utilitarianism owes its origin to Jeremy Bentham, an English thinker of the nineteenth century. According to this theory, the government should promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”, or maximum welfare of maximum people. Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill were the main supporters of this theory.
The utilitarian’s opposed the principle of natural rights and the theory of social contract. They said that the people created state for their own benefit. They were not prepared to accept the divine right concept of the state.
The state is there, because it is a useful institution. The basis of the functions and rights of the state is ‘maximum welfare of the maximum number’. Which functions should or should not the state perform, will be decided by the fact as to which functions guarantee the maximum welfare of the maximum number.
The utilitarian’s were reformists. Therefore, they supported the interference of the state in the reforms of certain social evils and defective laws because it will ensure maximum welfare of the maximum people. Thus they adopted a middle course between idealism and individualism.
They were not in favour of idealism because it absorbs fully the individual’s personality in the state. Nor were they wholly in favour of individualism, because according to it, the functions of the state are only protective.
Though the amalgamation of utilitarianism and individualism was never complete, yet the utilitarian’s leaned towards individualism to a great extent. It was so because John Stuart Mill was both utilitarian and individualist. In its early stage the nature of utilitarianism leaned towards the view that the society should be evaluated from the point of view of individual comfort.
Besides, like individualists, the utilitarians were the supporters of private enterprise. They agreed that the maximum welfare of the individual is possible only when in the economic field, the individual is left free. It means that the state should have minimum interference in his functions.
The utilitarians, inspired by the feeling of the public welfare, organised campaigns for improvements in public health, education and reforms in the systems of jails and administration. They were successful in their aim to a great extent. The utilitarians wanted progress. Their aim was public-welfare.
They said that everything of the individual depends upon the organisation and existence of the state. The aim of the law should be the maximum welfare of the people. The existence of the state and other institutions depends upon their utility.
Development of Utilitarianism:
The seeds of the theory of utilitarianism which is based on Hedonism can be discovered in the ancient times. In ancient Greece, the Epicurian philosophers, and the ‘Charwak’ philosophers in India also, had faith in Hedonism. We see a glimpse of this philosophy in the views of Hobbes and his contemporary critic Richard Cumberland.
After this, certain simple hints are also available in John Locke’s books, “Essay on Human Understanding”. Francis Hutcheson has also expressed his views on this subjects as he says, “The action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
First of all English philosopher David Hume explained this theory in a clear form. David Hume said that the basis of the state is utility and he condemned the theory of Social Contract. He emphasised the fact that the state should perform such functions as help in creating the maximum welfare of the maximum people.
David Hume’s influence was also seen in France and in the latter half of eighteenth century. Helvetius (1715-1771) and Holbash supported these views. They also made pleasure and pain as the criterion for public functions and said, that only those functions are proper through which the maximum welfare of the individual is achieved.
View of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832):
Bentham developed the views of the philosophers mentioned above and the explained utilitarianism in a clear, detailed and systematic manner. Bentham, in his first book, ‘Fragment on Government’ criticised bitterly Blackstone’s ‘Commentary on the British Constitution’.
This book was published for the first time in 1773, which made him popular. His second book, ‘introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ was published in 1789. In this book much light has been thrown on the philosophy of utilitarianism.
Their slogan was, “Nature has placed mankind under the governors of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”. According to Bentham, the only criterion to measure virtue and vice is pleasure and pain. If we derive pleasure from an action, that will be a good action and if we derive pain from it, it will be a bad action. Good work is worth doing, while a bad action is to be discarded.
Bentham has given a list of 14 pleasures and out of those 14, important pleasures are- reason, wealth, proficiency, friendship, reputation, strength, magnanimity, and religious mindedness. He along-with fourteen pleasures, counts twelve pains also, among which ill-fame, enmity, malice, vulgarity, want, etc., are the main pains. According to Bentham, the theory of utility is the direct result of pleasure and pain.
Bentham said that the basis and origin of law can be traced in utility. Thus all new laws should be useful for human society. Therefore, he laid special emphasis on the maximum welfare of the maximum people. He accepted the superiority of democratic rule, as maximum welfare of maximum number is possible only in this rule.
He refused to endorse the theory of natural rights, because he said that rights were possible only in state. He also criticised the Social Contract theory, because according to it the basis of the state was contract and not utility. He said that we acted according to the orders of state, because those orders were useful. His aim was public welfare and thus he tested all the functions and policies of the state on the basis of utility.
Bentham considered it unreasonable to impose any type of control of the constitutional sovereignty of the state. He said that the will of sovereignty in the form of order was law. He was not in favour of any law or constitution which imposed restrictions on the powers of a sovereign.
He said, that if the powers of the sovereign were not limited through any agreement or rule, they would be unlimited. However, he wanted that the sovereign should see, before issuing any order, whether it was in conformity with the public interest or not. If the order went counter to public interest, the people would revolt against it.
James Mill (1773-1836):
James Mill supported Bentham’s utilitarianism. He said the state should not make such laws as to encourage anyone to achieve his own pleasure, and harm the pleasure of others. Therefore, the state or government should impose a check on the improper actions of the individuals. It should strive for the maximum welfare of maximum people.
He was not opposed to monarchy. He wanted a reform in bad laws. Bad laws were those laws which proved harmful for maximum people. He did not want to abolish the House of Lords, but he wanted to impose a check on its powers. He was a supporter of democracy, and for this purpose, he was in favour of giving more power to the middle class people.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873):
John Stuart Mill was the son of James Mill. He was a great logician, economist, philosopher and politician. Though he accepted the basic tenets of Bentham and also of his father James Mill, yet he made some amendments according to the needs of the times. For instance, according to Bentham, all pleasures are equal and there is only a difference of degree and not of quality. Mill disagreed with this notion and said that there is a difference of degree as well as quality in pleasure.
For example, the pleasure that a mean person derives from sexual act, gambling or drinking is inferior to the pleasure that a poet derives from his poetic creation. Thus John Stuart Mill has said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. Mill also did not agree with Bentham on another point. He supported public interest instead of individual interest.
He writes, “The utilitarian standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether….As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the Golden Rule of Jesus of Nazareth„ we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do so as one would be done by and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality”. Therefore, Brown writes that John Stuart Mill made Bentham’s dry morality generous and in this way made utilitarianism more human, though there was deficiency in his pure logic.
John Stuart Mill was a great supporter of individual liberty. He expressed his views about liberty in his book ‘On Liberty’, which was published in 1859. He also supported the holding of differences of views and the toleration of those differences of opinion.
He writes, “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”.
He further said, “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.
Mill expressed his views about the administration in his book, ‘Representative Government’ which was published in 1861. Mill was the supporter of democracy, but in democracy, too, sometimes, we discover the atrocities of majority over the minority.
Therefore, for the safeguard of the minority interest, he supported the system of Proportional Representation. He said that the majority had no right to suppress the feeling of the minority. He supported the system of Plural Voting for the protection of minority interests.
He considered character and education as the main basis of democracy. Therefore, he suggested that prior to granting Adult Suffrage, every adult should be properly educated. He was a staunch supporter of women franchise. In spite of all this, it strange that he did not support secret ballot.
Mill has not used the word ‘state’ in his political philosophy, but according to his need, he used the word ‘society’ or ‘government’. According to him, an ideal government was one in which the sovereignty lay in the entire society. Each individual should not only be given the voting right in the expression of sovereign will, but in practice he should also be given the right to take part in public affairs.
John Stuart Mill was a radical member of the British Parliament from 1866 to 1868. Therefore, he fully supported the interests of the labourers and also the Land Reforms in Ireland. In the economic field, he was a blind follower of individualism.
He said that if the government, expanded its activities in the public interest, it was not objectionable. In his later life he seemed to be inclined towards socialism, because he wanted that the entire human society should have a control over the raw material of the world, like the socialists. But the basis of Mill’s socialism was the theory of individual interest. Mill was a political liberal. He wanted to protect the individual’s interest and he wanted to encourage the social interests to the maximum.
As a good utilitarian, he accepted pleasure as the final criterion of human behaviour. At the same time, he laid stress on individual liberty. After John Stuart Mill, there was no change in utilitarianism and many of his supporters like George Great, John Austin and Alexander Ben continued propaganda in favour of utilitarianism.
Criticism of Utilitarianism:
Utilitarianism has been criticised as follows:
(1) The moral and psychological basis of utilitarianism is not real:
Utilitarianism is based on the notion that whatever functions should or should not be performed by the individual should be tested on the touch-stone of utility. If this notion is accepted, each individual will work only for his own pleasure.
He will ignore benevolence, renunciation, service and sacrifice. This is the main drawback of Bentham’s theory. That is why Carlyal said angrily, “Bentham’s theory is the theory of the pigs”. He thought that “man is also a fleshy body, who need only physical pleasure and nothing else. There is no place for a thing like moral consciousness in his conscience”.
Robert A. Murrary writes, “If we take away conscience, as Bentham does, there is no such thing as moral or immoral action, though there may remain acts that are generally useful of the reverse. As there is no individual conscience, so there is no collective conscience. The culprit does not feel the censure of the community”.
(2) Against human nature:
The utilitarian’s are of the view that the individual does every work for the attainment of pleasure and for the avoidance of pain. But this analysis of human nature is one-sided. The fact is that human nature is complex. He has qualities like pity, faith, service, benevolence, love, sympathy, sacrifice and forgiveness in him.
He fixes his high ideals on the basis of these qualities and bears every type of pain smilingly. For instance, when India was under the foreign rule, many people faced many hardships at the hands of Britishers. They did all these not for their personal pleasure but for their high ideals.
Similarly, when in 1962 China invaded India and later on when in 1965 and 1971 Pakistan invaded India, thousands of heroes displayed exemplary courage and also sacrificed their lives. They did all this not for their personal interest but for the high ideal of the protection of their country.
Buddha, Christ, Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh, V.D. Savarkar, B.G. Tilak, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi sacrificed everything not for any personal pleasure but for high ideal of benevolence.
(3) The utilitarian’s laid emphasis upon the material comforts only and ignored the spiritual happiness:
The utilitarian’s have cared only for physical comfort, and have ignored the suppression of sense and self-control. They have also no cared for the spiritual comfort which one derives from self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity.
(4) It is improper to lay emphasis solely upon the quantity of pleasures:
Bentham has stressed only upon the quantity of pleasure. He has not taken up the qualitative difference; therefore, John Stuart Mill has taken up the qualitative difference, which is appropriate.
(5) Bentham did not establish any reconciliation between the interests of the individual and those the society:
Maxy has written, “Nor was Bentham able to cross the chasm between individual and social utility”. He did not agree that it was difficult to make any difference between the individual interests and social interests. C.L. Wayper has rightly said, “Besides in his portrayal of the hedonistic individual, Bentham seems to have left life out of the picture……..in his study of the atomic individual, he has left out both society and history”.
(6) The doctrine of maximum welfare of the maximum number is not free from complications:
Sometimes it is possible that the majority may become selfish and in the name of maximum welfare of maximum number; it may suppress the minority. For instance, the Muslims of Pakistan have turned out the Hindus from their country. This is altogether unfair. Therefore, many atrocities can be committed in the name of this doctrine.
(7) This theory ultimately leads to the theory of Laissez Faire:
A majority of the utilitarians were in favour of the view that the government should not interfere in the affairs of the individual, so that the individual should be in a position to achieve maximum welfare. Though, in public interest, John Stuart Mill accepted some control of the state, yet he was chiefly a utilitarian. The policy of Laissez Faire harms the interests of the poor and the weak sections of society. Thus this theory suffers from many weaknesses.
The theory of utilitarianism has been bitterly criticised and many difficulties will crop up, if it is given a practical shape. However, the main advantage of this theory was that many speculative theories regarding the state received a severe set-back. The utility became the criterion for the test of the values of state and institutions.
The aim of state was settled as maximum welfare of maximum number of people. Therefore, the function of the state was limited only to the maintenance of law and order. But it was also expected to work for the public welfare.
All the reforms of the nineteenth century are attributed to the demands of utilitarians. Thus the utilitarianism, for the reforms of its own time and for its being connected with public welfare, proved to be a progressive theory.