After reading this article you will learn about Utilitarianism:- 1. Definition and Nature of Utilitarianism 2. Origin of Utilitarianism 3. Acceptance and Revision.
Definition and Nature of Utilitarianism:
In C. L. Wayper’s analysis of utilitarianism we find the following observation:
“perhaps it was neither Hobbes nor Locke, but a school which owed something to both of them, which made the greatest English contribution to political thought, though paradoxically it never produced a thinker as great as typically English as the other. This was utilitarian school which for over hundred years from the middle of the eighteenth century to that of the nineteenth, dominated English political thought”.
The term ‘English utilitarians’ is slightly a misnomer because there were utilitarian’s in other countries. But the main theory of utilitarianism was assiduously propagated by Bentham and J. S. Mill and for that reason it is so called.
It is to be noted that all the utilitarian’s did not propagate the same or identical principles. There are wide varieties which cannot be faithfully reconciled. Again, though the doctrine is associated with the names of Bentham and J. S. Mill, there were also a number of thinkers who directly and indirectly advocated the principle of utility and also its application to politics and government. First we shall deal with the definition of utilitarianism.
The term utilitarianism has not been clearly defined. However, it is not difficult to understand what it means. The COD says; the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of the majority.
It also says that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the’ guiding principle of conduct.
Plamenatz in his The English Utilitarians makes an attempt to elaborate the idea in the form of four propositions:
(i) Pleasure is alone good or desirable-for its own sake; or else men call those things good that are pleasant or a means to what is pleasant,
(ii) The equal pleasures of any two persons or more are equally good,
(iii) No action is right until it produces greatest happiness to the person for whom it is made,
(iv) The obligation to the government is not related to its power, but its capability to produce happiness.
The interpreters and critics of utilitarianism have found out two meanings of the doctrine. One is it is an ethical theory and the other is it is a practical movement. As an ethical doctrine it means universal Hedonism.
It is unethical or immoral in the sense that since individual is the sole authority to decide his own course of action, he cannot be forced to act against his will.
If anything is painful or undesirable nothing can compel a man to do or accept that. Every man has full freedom and authority to do something which is useful to him and not painful. To sum up, an individual is the sole determiner of everything. Pain and pleasure are his personal concern.
It is also a practical movement in the sense that before enacting a law or taking a decision the government must see its utility to its subject. If the government fails, it shall be the duty of the citizens to oppose the measures adopted by it. Throughout their analysis the utilitarian’s have emphasized that utility is the determiner of every action the authority proposes to take.
Utilitarianism thinks that there are two opposite concepts in the mind of man- idealism and realism. Man adores idealism and tries to follow it. But in practical life he gives more importance to realism.
He judges everything in the light of his own practical experience and the ability of a thing or piece of legislation to give pleasure. When there is a conflict between idealism and realism he gives precedence to realism. In the opinion of utilitarians man is always practical and highly conscious of his own interests.
Utilitarians have also been called Philosophical Radicals. The purpose of the Philosophical Radicals was to prepare a scheme of legal, economic and political reforms aiming at the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
The Philosophical Radicals thought that this principle must guide both the public and private affairs as well as the politics of the government.
The chief purpose of the Philosophical Radicals was to bring about radical or overall changes in economic and political sectors of society as well as to solve the problems of public administration through the implementation of a policy known as the greatest good of the greatest number. For the first time the utilitarians emphatically suggested this principle.
The Philosophical Radicals provided the intellectual structure of early liberalism and also its programme. The Philosophical Radicals were more interested in practical programme and less in doctrines and idealism.
Prof. Sabine says, “The early liberals, though they were often provincial and doctrinaire, were also profoundly and sincerely public-spirited men who turned a defective social philosophy to purposes which in a large measure were socially beneficent and were never in intention merely exploitative. It was for this reason that liberalism could transform itself into an intellectual bridge between individualism of its earlier period, which was the heritage from the philosophy of the Revolutionary Era, and recognition of the reality and the value of social and communal interests, which tended in general to put themselves forward anti-liberal forms.”
Though the utilitarians were very few in number, it is surprising to note that these few persons dominated the political thought of England for a long time and stimulated the thought and ideas of subsequent periods.
They, in the opinion of Wayper, were too coldly intellectual too frigid and scholastic, and men were not flattered by their view of mankind. But for long they were without competitors. Because of the overwhelming influence of utilitarians over the intelligential great contemporaries—Rousseau, Kant, St. Simon and Marx were unhonoured in England.
Utilitarianism never thinks that man is the symbol of a single interest or attitude; he is the bundle of diverse interests, attitudes and principles. Very often these are self-contradictory. This is due to the fact that man’s actions are caused by real situation and he is a pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creature.
Naturally it is useless to make any attempt for finding out consistency in his behaviour. The utilitarianism does not take seriously the contradictory behaviour of man. To the contrary, they hold the view that behind every human action there is reason and rationality. In its opinion man is the embodiment of these two qualities.
The utilitarians were also individualists. They treated every individual as a reasonable unit and all the units are equal. The society consists of these units and if each unit is allowed to pursue his own interest and welfare that will pave the way of general welfare of the society.
This individualism of utilitarians is also called liberalism. But is to be noted at this stage of analysis that utilitarians’ individualism makes a compromise with the need of the society. The individuals shall pursue their own interests but not at the cost of others’ interests. So utilitarians’ liberalism is enlightened individualism.
For the first time the utilitarians strongly advocated that any administrative policy—big or small—must take into account the issue that individuals’ interest cannot be neglected. This stand of the utilitarians appealed to the large number of people—specially the members of the middle class. Both Bentham and J. S. Mill had sympathy for the middle class people and primarily for that they argued for them.
Origin of Utilitarianism:
The utilitarian philosophy (though found its best treatment at the hands of Jeremy Bentham) is not his discovery. Even Bentham did not use the terminology. It is described as the nineteenth century revival of classical hedonism of Epicurus.
“Benthamite cult was a revolt against the vapoury idealism of eighteenth century rationalism. For an absolute idealism it sought to substitute an absolute empiricism. Its leading expounders were individualists who, convinced of the utter sterility of such concepts as absolute right, absolute sovereignty and absolute justice, and come to believe that in human affairs there was one possible absolute, namely absolute expediency.”
The interpreters of Western political thought say that utilitarianism is both a movement and protest movement because the political ideas of earlier century were not capable to meet the intellectual and other demands of quite large number of people whose thoughts and outlook had undergone radical changes due to the economic, social and other factors.
Political institutions were not according to the people’s choice and needs as well as to the proclivity of their mind. So a new philosophy was needed which would be based upon reason, rationality, experience and ambition of individuals. The rising magnates, products of Industrial Revolution, were sore with the old aristocratic order of society.
They were not getting any avenue to express their displeasure and, ultimately, a scope was offered by the utilitarians. They found in the concept of utility a splendid weapon of attacking the old order. They did not directly attack the absolutism of monarchy, but said that achievement and utility would be the guiding principle of every action of government and every piece of legislation.
From the social, economic and political history of Europe we come to know that the Industrial Revolution completely transformed the society. Technological progress and scientific discoveries enabled men to harness the untapped resources of nature.
A new professional and wealthy class appeared in the society. Simultaneously there was created a middle class. In the scientific and technological fields this class always assumed the leadership.
In fact, the acceleration of growth was possible because of the hard as well as intellectual work of this class. But unfortunately this class did not find any recognition either in the economic sphere or in the field of general administration.
Its zeal to mould the policies and principles of government made it restless. It is better to describe in the words of Sabine:
“More influential than any theoretical consideration were no doubt the changes that naturally occurred in the outlook of the commercial and industrial middle class as its position and influence became more assured. This class everywhere formed the spearhead of liberal political reform in the nineteenth century and the trend of industrial and commercial development made the expansion of its political power a foregone conclusion”
The emergence of the middle class was to some extent acted as a potent factor behind the rise and growth of utilitarianism. Its main interest fell on the management of state affairs and not on ideology.
The members of this class were practical men and they wanted to see new institutions which would be able to cater to the demands and needs of the new age and new society having new values and outlook.
Economically the capitalists formed the dominant class. But the proletarians—in the Marxian sense—were yet to emerge as a conscious and well-organized powerful class. The middle class was, therefore, the most important element of Britain’s industrial society.
Having both money and energy it was determined to ascertain its inroads into the political fabric of the society. It threw its full weight for the propagation of constitutional government and personal liberty.
The middle class took no time to realize that without comprehensive reforms the political fate of this class could not be changed at all. It channelled its advocacy towards the improvement of legal procedures, reorganization on the judicial system, creation of judicial system, creation of sanitary code and expansion of suffrage system.
Ebenstein says “The rising middle class in Britain inevitably developed a new social and political philosophy that was clearly distinct from Burke’s adulation of landed aristocracy as well as from Paine’s radicalism and Godwin’s anarchy. Burke was too conservative, pessimistic and traditional, whereas Paine and Godwin were too radical Utopian and revolutionary.” The middle class had no interest in ideology and philosophy.
Its chief aim was to protect its interests through the participation in the affairs of state. It also observed that the rising bourgeoisie played the active role in the industrial and economic sectors. The middle class selected the administrative and political affairs as its target.
It would be an erroneous conception if we treat the Industrial Revolution as the solitary source of utilitarianism. Thomas Hobbes and David Hume are also great exponents of utilitarianism. Both Hobbes and Bentham have held that man of intelligence and virtue is the best calculator and judge of the events with which they are faced.
Again, his calculations are not different in nature. Bentham’s legislator will enact law to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But the legislator cannot destroy the selfish motives of man.
The purpose of Hobbes’s sovereign is to ensure that every individual shall get the opportunity to maximize happiness and his happiness will remain unmolested by others. The terms and the language of the two philosophers are different, but the purpose of them is the same.
In the sphere of political philosophy Hobbes has direct and obvious influence upon the utilitarians. The utilitarians—like Hobbes—regard the state as a means of reconciling man’s selfish interests. Apparently the purpose of Hobbes’s state is to protect the natural rights. But the ultimate objective is to augment the happiness and raise it to the maximum level. On this point Bentham’s view is akin to Hobbes’s. It is true that Hobbes does not state all these things clearly. In the opinion of Plamenatz1 Hobbes does not use the concept of natural rights in the traditional sense.
According to Plamenatz the Hobbesian theory of contract is a convenient fiction and the convenience is this. People assembled together to set up a body-politic for the purpose of preserving their interests.
Hobbes has compared the body-politic with the state of nature and he has found the superiority of the former over the latter. So the political association has utility or, to put it in other words, political society in all respects is more convenient than the state of nature. Therefore, the difference between Hobbes and utilitarians is matter of language and use of terms and not of content.
The difference between Hobbes and the utilitarians is that the former supported the absolute government as the most effective weapon for the realisation of people’s interests. The latter did not share this view.
They wanted to limit the power of the government. Hobbes was afraid of anarchy and the utilitarians were afraid of misgovernment.
“The utilitarians argued that because men are selfish, vain and naturally abusive of power, only a democratic government could secure them against each other’s ill-usage. They accepted the opinion of Hobbes that the great function of government is to conciliate interests and they did not quarrel with his estimate of mankind. But they did not share his fear of anarchy …Hobbes used a traditional vocabulary …and it was precisely this vocabulary the utilitarians abandoned”.
We shall now discuss the contribution of Hume to the development of utilitarianism. John Plamenatz says that David Hume is rightly regarded as the founder of utilitarianism. In support of his view he quotes from Leslie Stephen’s History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century.
“Essential doctrines of utilitarianism are stated by him with a clearness and consistency not to be found in any other writer of the century and that from Hume to J. S. Mill the doctrine received no substantial alteration.”
Utilitarianism has a number of varieties in its formulation. But the essential form of the doctrine narrated by different adherents is the same. In our definition we have clearly stated the essential doctrines under four different propositions.
Hume’s concept of utilitarianism can be briefly stated in the following words. He maintains that men normally approve of those states of mind or actions that are pleasant or a means to pleasure, and disapprove of those that are harmful or a means to pain.
The simple implication is man is a pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creature. Hume observes that man has many motives or feelings, but he always attaches primary importance to pleasure and pain. Pleasure is good and pain is evil.
To Hume the status and qualification of person, so far as pain or pleasure is concerned, are not a matter of importance. From most ordinary person to most famous one this concept is universally correct.
Every quality that gives pleasure is virtuous and that produces pain is vicious. According to Hume this pleasure and pain may arise from different sources. Such as—we get pleasure from the view of a character which is naturally fitted to be useful to others, or to the person himself, or which is agreeable to others to the person himself.
Besides Hobbes and Hume there are also others in whose writings the traces of utilitarianism can be discovered. For example, in Locke’s theory of morality there are certain hints of utilitarianism. Locke asserts that there are no moral laws whose validity is immediately recognized without regard to their consequence.
Plamenatz even goes far by saying that Locke’s political doctrines contain a lot of utilitarianism. His social contract theory is a strong hint to that direction.
Its utility whatever its form is induced men of the state of nature to build up the foundation of a civil society. In the ideas of Priestley, Hutchison and Helvetius some direct hints of utilitarianism are also available.
It is, however, unnecessary to bring them under an elaborate discussion. The fact is that, except Hume, none of them directly and clearly stated the doctrine. In a roundabout way the critics have discovered the source of utilitarianism. We shall now turn to Jeremy Bentham the real ‘father of the doctrine’.
Acceptance and Revision of Utilitarianism:
It is admitted by all critics that J. S. Mill had a sincere intention to vindicate Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism. But ultimately his theory has rejected the main tenets of utilitarianism advocated by Jeremy Bentham.
“The importance of Mill’s philosophy consisted in its departures from the system which it still professed to support and hence in the revisions that it made in the utilitarian tradition”. Almost the exact opinion has been expressed by C. L. Wayper.
He says – “In his desire to safeguard utilitarianism from the reproaches levelled against it, Mill goes far towards overthrowing the whole utilitarian position”.
However, it is a fact that he accepted the principle of utility propounded by Bentham and few other thinkers. Particularly he lent his full support to Bentham’s ‘greatest happiness’ theory.
In Utilitarianism Mill has said:
“The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain and privation of pleasure. To give a clear view of the moral standard set-up by the theory much more requires to be said, particularly what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure.”
The above opinion of Mill reveals that he accepted the central idea of utilitarianism but he did not accept all the aspects of the theory. He revised it so much that the theory has assumed new forms and for that reason many critics doubt whether Mill’s utilitarianism and Bentham’s utilitarianism are same. This doubt is quite reasonable and, on that ground, many argue that Mill has revised utilitarianism.
Now the question is why did he try to include certain things into the original theory? It is a small point and we shall now deal with it. So long James Mill was alive he could not come out of the gripping influence of his father. He felt suffocation, but he had no courage to revolt against his father.
The death of James Mill in 1836, four years after the death of Bentham, opened to him the floodgate of new light and opportunity and he did not hesitate even for a moment to view and review Benthamism in new light and perspective. This is the primary cause of his change in a attitude.
Berki has supported the idea that J. S. Mill has considerably revised the Benthamite theory of utilitarianism and in this connection he makes the following observation:
“Bred on the utilitarianism of Bentham and his father James Mill he came later to be influenced by the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle, through whom he got to know about and appreciate German philosophy, with particular reference to Germanic historical approach”
In 1838 and 1840 he wrote several articles in London and Westminster Review. These articles were the starting points of his attempt of emancipation from the influence of James Mill. Therefore, though bred in the tradition of Bentham and James Mill, ultimately he succeeded in freeing himself.
In Utilitarianism Mill says—it is compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.
Mill wants to say that the qualities of all pleasures are not identical. Some pleasures are more desirable and valuable.
While others do not fall in this category. That is, their quality is doubtful and, on that ground, their desirability is not high. Thus Mill makes a difference between the qualities of pleasure and this single criterion utilitarianism propounded by his father’s friend. This we call the revision of utilitarianism. But Wapyer thinks that Mill’s view on utilitarianism is to be termed non-utilitarian. Hence the entire issue is complex and controversial.
Mill says that men who have experienced higher and lower pleasures will agree that there is difference and they will always prefer higher pleasure. In Mill’s own words:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool or the pig is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
Here we fully agree with Mill’s view. There is a difference between different types of pleasures. In comparison with Bentham, Mill is more practical.
If pleasures are qualitatively different then people will always want higher or better pleasures and the principle of utility falls on the ground. Mill has observed that pleasures are different both in quality and in quantity and by saying this he has not only revised Benthamite theory of utility, he has established his own theory.
Even man cannot get equal amount of pleasure from all articles. He makes gradations of them.
“The distinctive characteristic of Mill’s utilitarianism was that he tried to express a conception of moral character consonant with his own personal idealism”. Hence Bentham’s pronouncement that pushpin is as good as poetry; if it gives the same pleasure is “simply vulgar nonsense.”
One important difference between the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill is the former gave egoism the central place—egoism is the determiner of happiness. But in Mill’s concept there is hardly any place of egoism and it is evident in the following comment of Mill.
“Assumed social welfare is a matter of concern to all men of goodwill and regarded freedom, integrity and self-respect and personal distinction as intrinsic goods apart from their contribution to happiness. Moral convictions of this sort underlay Mill’s whole conception of a liberal society”.
Mill has made two wide breaches in his father’s and Bentham’s system. He has asserted that some pleasures are qualitatively superior to others and he has implied that the felicific calculus is absurd.
Men have always relied upon the testimony of those most competent to judge. “There is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains or the interest of the two pleasurable sensation except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both” (Mill).
Here Mill asserts that the felicific calculus is really an absurd concept. If we accept Mills contention then we must say that he has abandoned Bentham’s theory. Mill is right in his view but the breach in Bentham’s system is clear beyond doubt.
Bentham’s theory of utility is not a separate concept. It has close relationship with politics. It is the duty of the legislator to enact laws which will help the people to get pleasure. But laws alone cannot help. The government must take steps to implement the laws. So we find that Bentham’s utility is primarily a political concept. If the law, legislator and government do not appear in the picture, pleasure will remain beyond the reach of public. But J. S. Mill considers the idea of utility in ethical terms.
It is more a guide of personal activities in the field or morality and less a political guide.
In his essay on Utilitarianism Mill makes the following observation:
In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.
As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness or interest of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole.
Here J. S. Mill makes it clear that apparently happiness is a personal matter, but in ultimate analysis it is not so. On the part of an individual it is immoral and unethical to be happy at the cost of happiness of others.
Bentham treated pleasure of a man as completely separate issue. But at the hands of Mill it is not an individual or isolated matter but a social issue. The happiness of one is connected with the happiness of others.
According to Mill the spread of education and the proper cultivation of mind can change the character and outlook of man.
The education established in the mind of man is an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole society.
Bentham was a social reformer and he thought of reforming the society from various angles. But he could not see the concept of happiness from the broader perspective of the whole community.
Man can be educated so as to improve his idea of happiness and to enhance his power of adjustment with the rest of society. Only the rare personality of Mill can think in that term. Man is not alone; he is part of a great society. Education inculcates this idea in his mind.
Wayper says that Mill’s treatment of moral obligation converts him into a non- utilitarian. Bentham had conceived of moral obligation as the product of past association of the selfish desires.
According to Mill the idea of moral obligation is a quite different thing. Fear, memory, self-esteem play their part in its composition. Moral obligations cannot be explained in term of utility. Wayper concludes “Thus while his ethics are certainly more satisfying than Bentham’s, Mill is responsible for yet another important alteration in Benthamism.”
Bentham’s utilitarianism is individualistic. But Mill’s utilitarianism, if it is at all utilitarianism, is less individualistic. Barker says – “in his hands utilitarianism begins to be less individualistic and assumes more and more socialistic quality. Social utility is the goal, and to this it may be the supreme duty of the individual to sacrifice himself”. That is why Mill emphasizes upon education and cultivation of social consciousness.
According to Bentham and his followers that state or society is happy which succeeds in maximizing the happiness of its subjects. To put it in other words, the chief function of the state is to make its largest number of citizens happy and that happiness must be maximum.
If the citizens receive maximum utility from the actions of state then it will be taken for granted that they are happy. On this fundamental question of utilitarianism Mill differs from Bentham.
Not only this, Mill criticizes the argument of Bentham. Mill treats the state not simply in terms of happiness but in terms of ethics and morality. A moral state can make its citizens happy and the citizens will be happy if they get their own dignity.
In elaborating his view on utilitarianism Mill upholds his original stand—the quality of a state depends on the mental and ethical standard of individuals. If this is low or unacceptable the state can never be of high standard. Again, on this very important issue, Mill never makes any compromise. Emphasis on ethics and morality undoubtedly makes him an idealist utilitarian philosopher.
On Liberty he has been found to give stress. Moreover, Mill was a socialist-minded thinker. Naturally he did not treat individuals separately from each other. He was led by a noble view—an individual must not think his own pleasure as absolute, but relative. If it is strictly followed the pleasure of the individual and the progress of the state both will be achieved.
Bentham has thought that the justification of the state lies in its ability to maximize utility. But Mill does not agree with the view of his father’s friend. The justification of the state lies in its capacity to develop the personality of its subjects. Hence it is the duty of the state to take into account of that.
Only a liberal state having representative government can ensure it. “He did not defend popular government because it is efficient. He had grave doubts whether it always is, and he had quite lost his father’s confidence that the apparatus of liberal government, such as the suffrage, would always be rationally used for beneficial ends. The real argument for political freedom is that it produces and gives scope to a high type of moral character”.
Harmon raises a pertinent question – Is Mill’s argument for freedom truly a utilitarian one? He further observes that J. S. Mill at least claims that. But his claim is not justified.
“But Mill belongs to an old tradition, though he gave that tradition a deeper and more spiritual interpretation and he must be regarded as the last of the great utilitarians, rather than as the first among the new prophets who have arisen since 1848.”
His revision of utilitarianism has created a new theory which is not utilitarianism in the strictest sense of the term. Wayper calls it non- utilitarianism. “In all these alterations” comments Wayper “that he makes in Benthamism, Mill may think he is defending it, but in fact he is destroying it.”
“In this interpretation of utilitarianism very little of Bentham remains. Bentham was concerned not with the ought but he is in human motivation and behaviour. His objective was a rule of legislation that could be applied to things as they are level of morality or any stage of civilization.” Mill saved the face of Benthamism, but confessed its essential fallacy.
There is not much left to Benthamic utilitarianism when J. S. Mill has completed his defence of it. What is left is not utilitarianism at all Plamenatz, Mill borrowed the concept of utility from Bentham and completely idealized it with the precepts of ethics and morality borrowed from Greek thought and philosophy. In the hands of Mill utilitarianism has become a new concept.