by Robert Henderson
“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 the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure”. J.S.Mill
Utilitarianism is a transparently bogus philosophical theory because it poses as a moral philosophy when it is disqualified from being so because it deals not with the individual but the group. This means any moral enormity, for example the murder of one person to save the life of two people, can be sanctioned against individuals or minorities on the grounds that the overall effect of a policy will be beneficial to the group. Nevertheless, it has greatly influenced British politics over the past two centuries is worthy of study, as is Marxism, for that reason alone.
How did Utilitarianism arise? It was a theory born of the self-conscious rationalism which gripped the world after the definitive mental shift caused by Newton, a change of intellectual outlook which drove some to mistakenly believe that the behaviour of men could be reduced to laws as certain as those of motion.
As an individual doctrine it originated with the eighteenth century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. He first outlined the basics of Utilitarianism in his Fragment of Government published in 1776. This was an attack on Blackstone’s Commentaries (on English law), which Bentham viewed essentially as an apologia for English law written as ruling class propaganda. Bentham’s interest in the reformation of the law remained one of the strongest themes of his life and it was the field in which he had most practical effect. Most of the British judicial and penitential reforms of the nineteenth century originate from his ideas.
Treated purely as a philosophical construct, Utilitarianism is a literal nonsense, because the premise on which it is predicated – the greatest sum of happiness as determined by the pain pleasure calculus – is in principle impossible of any practical application, for manifestly no objective quantification of the determination of the qualities such as happiness, pain and pleasure can be made. However, even if that were not so, there are other grave objections.
As described by Bentham, Utilitarianism was essentially nothing more than a matter of social function. Indeed, because the theory is concerned with the sum total of happiness rather than the happiness of the individual, its claim to be an ethical system is objectively invalid. From this arises one of the main objections to Benthamite Utilitarianism, namely how may the tyranny of the majority be prevented? If the greatest happiness of the group is all that is required, any amount of individual unhappiness less than the sum of the group happiness could be inflicted in search of the greater happiness of the group.
The other primary objection was that motivation became irrelevant. Thus, under the Benthamite regime, if I kill you by accident in the course of attempting to do you a favour, that is irrelevant in assessing the amount of pain I have inflicted on your relatives and friends. I might as well have murdered you. The only criteria by which Bentham attempted to calculate pleasure or pain were its four “dimensions”: intensity, duration, the certainty of an event happening as a consequence of a particular action and the length of time before it occurred. These again are obviously not capable of quantification.
J.S Mill, the son of a prime disciple of Bentham’s, James Mill, recognised those weaknesses in Benthamite thought and attempted to introduce a genuinely moral aspect into Utilitarianism by making the effect of actions upon others a cornerstone of the theory. However, in doing this, he made a nonsense of the idea of a neutral and objective test of actions which was at the heart of Bethamism. That test although impractical was in principle objective. Having introduced the idea of consequences for others. Mill then compounded his destruction of Benthamism by assigning values (to be treated as benchmarks by Utilitarians) to actions and things. Whereas Bentham had famously said that ”pushpin is as good as poetry” (one rather feels he might have felt at home in New Labour), Mill held that “it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
In the course of his philosophical contortions, Mill developed the mentality which is essentially that of the modern liberal bigot. Mill produced a philosophy which purported to still provide an objective means of testing the moral content of an action, but which in reality was merely a disguised wish list of Mill’s own desired moral outcomes. That is the position liberal bigots adopt today: they attempt to enforce their own ideology on everyone, while claiming that they are merely following universal objective moral principles which they call Human Rights.
After Mill, Utilitarianism was further significantly developed by Henry Sidgwick who enlarged on Mill by asserting that the obligation to follow the Greatest Happiness Principle only made sense if it was regarded as a fundamental moral intuition and from that general premise specific moral rules could be justified.
These days Utilitarianism is divided by academic philosophers into Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is concerned with the outcome of individual acts. Rule utilitarianism does not evaluate individual acts, but rather attempts to produce rules which can be generally used to guide behaviour, for example “Everyone should pay their debts” or “Everyone should refrain from initiating violent assault on another”.
Human beings are often placed in situations where they do have to make utilitarian choices. A recent example was a mother who was driving her two young children when she crashed and ended up in deep water. She had to choose which child to attempt to rescue first, knowing that the unlucky child might well die. Sure enough, the choice meant that the first child was saved and the other drowned. Anyone would feel great sympathy for a mother placed in such a situation. Nonetheless, the choice she made was not essentially a moral one. She had to decide who decided saving first. That choice may well have been made on practical grounds such as who was closest to her in the car or who was youngest, but who would doubt the possibility that the favourite child was chosen? If so, that would not be a moral choice but one of personal predilection. Moreover, even if the choice was made on practical criteria, who is to say that a younger child is more deserving than one who is older. It could be argued that the moral choice in this instance would have been extricating one child from the car then remaining underwater while trying to help the other child as well. That might well have resulted in the death of all three, but it would have been a moral decision pure and simple.