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The Utilitarians

 The Auto-Icon - Bentham's body at University College, London. (yes, that's his real head!)

Utilitarianism is the social philosophy, legal theory and ethical system, primarily associated with Jeremy Bentham and his followers in 19th Century Britain.  

Utilitarianism is founded on the an underlying hedonistic philosophy.   This philosophy identifies pleasure as beneficial and pain as detrimental to a person's "well-being".  This is not a tautology.  Many philosophers have quite a different idea about what constitutes a person's "well-being".  

It is common to distinguish between psychological hedonism and ethical hedonism.  Psychological hedonism argues that the pursuit of pleasure and/or avoidance of pain are the principle drivers of all human behavior. Ethical hedonism, in contrast, argues that people should pursue pleasure and avoid pain, even when they are not inclined to do so.  Although they are conceptually distinct - the first is an "is", the second is an "ought" - utilitarian philosophers often slip seamlessly from one to the other.

The Cyrenaic and Epicurean schools of ancient Greece were perhaps the first to explicitly uphold ethical hedonism.  Both of them saw pleasure as the highest virtue, and pain as the highest vice, but they had their differences.  The Cyrenaics saw pleasure and pain in terms of bodily sensations, and thus as distinct feelings. The Epicureans, in contrast, were inclined to see them both sitting on the same continuum on the mental plane.  As a result, the Epicureans readily defined pleasure as the absence of pain and, conversely, pain as the absence of pleasure.  

Hedonism (particularly the Epicurean kind) re-emerged in 17th Century Europe through Gassendi (1624) in France and Thomas Hobbes (1651) in England.   Hobbes, in particular, is most responsible for articulating the strictest version of psychological hedonism.  For Hobbes, there was no need to tell people that pursuing pleasure is a virtue -- that is what they do all the time anyway.  And he asserted it strictly.  Any actions that could be deemed benevolent or social, Hobbes always found a way to reduce them to crass self-interest (e.g. expectation of reward, self-glorification, etc.). Hobbes was very proud of the fact that he had found, in the pleasure-pain calculus, the single underlying spring for all human action.  Alas, the very generality of Hobbes's psychological hedonism was its very drawback - how can we ever prove that someone is not pursuing pleasure/avoiding pain?  Being unfalsifiable, Hobbes's theory was therefore a truism.   On the wider front, Hobbes saw self-interest as socially destructive, and believed the power of the State must be invoked to control it.

Hobbes wrote at a time when England was still very much possessed by the Calvinist Puritan spirit, with its underlying currents of asceticism and moral struggles of the soul. Hobbes thesis provoked a reaction from contemporary moral philosophers notably the Cambridge Platonists, who insisted on abstract concepts of justice and the good, and that moral law rests on human consciousness and soul, to be discovered by contemplation.  The animalistic struggle between Hobbesian beings, driven purely by external sensations, leaves no room for an inner consciousness. 

Richard Cumberland (1672) expanded Hobbes's narrow meaning of hedonism into a more general ethical precept.  By recognizing that our own pleasure and misery is tied up with that of society around us, Cumberland argued, the primary law of nature is not Hobbesian "self-preservation", but rather the preservation of the "common Good of the whole system of rational agents" (Cumberland, 1672: p.16).   He dismisses the Platonists' insistence that moral law comes through contemplation - or rather, he agrees with the Platonists that there is an natural moral law beyond Hobbesian instincts, but it is to be discovered empirically, informed by sensations from the world around us.  The hedonic calculus is consequently an instrument for the discovery of moral law, and not necessarily socially destructive. He lauds the equilibrium of forces, forcing man to enter into contracts with each other, as the very key to the preservation of order and the promotion of public welfare and the social good. For his attempt to shoehorn the idea of ethical principles into the hedonic axiom, Cumberland has been rightly regarded as the "father" of English utilitarianism. 

While John Locke is usually not considered a utilitarian, his inheritance of Shaftesbury's notions is perceptible.  But in his 1690 Essay on epistemology, Locke goes further than Hobbes and Shaftesbury in his assault on Platonism, rejecting inner consciousness and innate ideas altogether, and imposed a strict empiricism.  Locke's philosophy, taken from a moral angle, seemed to be paving the way to ethical relativism.

Locke's student, the Earl of Shaftesbury (1699) set aside his tutor's philosophy, and returned to where Cumberland had left off.  Shaftesbury tied it together more firmly with Divine Providence and Design.   The human soul, like the world around it, are part and parcel of the nature, and consequently part of the same design.  Shaftesbury insists man has multiple human motives - man has "passion, caprice, zeal, faction, and a thousand other springs which are counter to self-interest".  Hobbesian private egoism is only one among many motives, but there are others, and all have their role to play in the same design.  Shaftesbury gives human consciousness some room - indeed, one can argue he internalizes the external Hobbesian struggle. Internal equilibrium, the balance of motives in the human mind and soul, is no less important than the other balances of natural forces.  The balance of motives is essential, as focus or emphasis on one at the expense of the others becomes internally destructive - e.g. excessive self-interest degenerates to immobilizing fear,  excessive anger into criminal self-destruction, etc. 

The early attempts by Cumberland, Shaftesbury and others to show that the individual's self-interest coincides, or is compatible, with social virtue was given a shocking blow by Bernard de Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees (1714).  Mandeville cheekily pointed out that there were more "public benefits" attendant to moral vices (e.g. vanity, etc.), than there were to moral rectitude.

The Scottish moral philosophers, such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume  and Adam Smith, contended with Mandeville's challenge, and tried to pin down the origins of human moral sentiments, recognizing they must be made compatible with the animalistic hedonism.  Hutcheson (1725) turned to an innate moral sense, Hume (1740, 1751) to the natural artefact of sympathy and gave moral sense an evolutionary (and relativist) history.  Smith (1759) sought the middle ground, and deployed a more subtle artefact, the internal judge (the "impartial spectator").  In France,  Helvétius (1758) denounced any innateness moral sense, and posited it all was entirely socially-conditioned behavior, driven by the pleasure-pain calculus.  Helvétius enjoyed (?) a bit of a  succès de scandale.

Although many philosophers would later jeere utilitarianism as a purely English phenomenon, the roots of utilitarianism, as a program of political and social reform, actually emerged on the continent during the Enlightenment era of the late 18th Century.  It was during this period that the idea of the State as a purely parasitic entity was abandoned. Enlightenment thinkers believed that the State could and should be useful to society. And, unlike Mercantilists, they did not define "society" as the "privileged classes" alone, but rather decided to include everybody. So, perhaps for the first time, improving the welfare of society was seen as one of the principal goals of government policy.  

Following Galiani, many Italian economists, notably Cesar Beccaria and Pietro Verri,  focused their analysis of the impact of the State on the society (including the economy).  While some economists (notably the Neo-Colbertistes and the Neo-Cameralists) saw the promotion of public happiness in terms of political expediency (to keep the masses "tame"), the Italian utilitarians articulated it as a moral commandment, an end-in-itself.  They were not that much interested in the State itself, but rather viewed it as an instrument to improve the general welfare of the people (whether by engaging or disengaging from the economy; reshaping its laws and practices, etc.). They argued that social welfare was greatest when the society achieved the "greatest happiness of the greatest number" (the phrase is due to Helvétius (1758)). It was Beccaria (1767) who introduced the term "social utility" as the measure by which the evaluate the desirability of a policy and the first to discuss "pleasure-pain calculating machines" explicitly.  

But it is indeed in its English incarnation that utilitarianism bore wings. Jeremy Bentham picked up utilitarianism from Priestley and Beccaria in the 1770s and gave it its most famous formulation -- often known as "Classical Utilitarianism" -- in his 1789 treatise, Introduction to the Principles of Morals.  Betham's early followers, who called themselves the "Philosophical Radicals", included James Mill and Francis Place.  The achievements of the Philosophical Radicals were primarily in the practical sphere.  Tireless activists, Bentham, Mill and Place propounded numerous schemes for reforming the political, legal and social institutions according to utilitarian principles.  Some of their propositions (e.g. the secret ballot) were adopted, but most were too radical for their time.  Among their more extreme policy positions was the extension of suffrage to women, the legalization of artificial contraceptives and homosexuality, disestablishment of the Church of England, etc.  The utilitarians varied in their commitment to democracy, some embracing wide-eyed radical republicanism, others believing that a severely authoritarian state was a necessary conduit for utilitarian policies.   Their principal vehicle, the Westminster Review, became required reading among the learned middle classes of England throughout the 19th Century. 

Although Bentham was only a partial economist and Ricardo was less than thrilled with utilitarianism, Classical economics (through the intermediation of the Mills) nonetheless forged what Schumpeter (1954: p.831) called an "unholy alliance" with utilitarian philosophy.  In its heyday, the famous "Political Economy Club", formed in 1821 London, was as much a meeting ground for utilitarians than for economists.  University College London, where Bentham's body remains embalmed and on display to this day, was launched by the same utilitarian activists.   

The principal building block of Benthamite utilitarianism is the notion of measurable utility.  Utility is defined as the "surplus of pleasures over pains".  Just as temperature can be measured by a mercury thermometer and degree of belief can be measured by a probability scale, the utilitarians believed that the quantity of utility could be cardinally measured (e.g. eating 1 oz. of chocolate yields 16 utils or something like that).  It may seem reasonable to believe that such a utility yardstick exists at a personal level and may even, to some degree, be revealed by personal behavior (e.g. if I choose x instead of y, it is because x yields "more" utility than y, and perhaps I can even say by "how much" I prefer x to y).  

But the utilitarians wanted to go even further.  They believed that utility was not only measurable, but also comparable across people and thus summable.   As a result, the utilitarians argued that social utility (" general happiness") can be quantified and expressed as the sum of individual utilities of everyone in society. As John Stuart Mill explains, "equal amounts of happiness are equally desirable, whether felt by the same or by different persons...If there is any anterior principle implied, it can be no other than this, that the truths of arithmetic are applicable to the valuation of happiness, as of all other measurable doctrines" (J.S. Mill, 1850). 

The second building block of utilitarianism is a consequentialist notion of ethics.  This means that actions and policies are to be judged strictly on how their outcomes affect social utility.   Natural rights, moral absolutes, etc. are tossed out the window.  As a result, we can say "terrorism is evil" if and only if social utility is reduced as a result of terrorist activity.  Associated with this is a radical egalitarianism in the computation of social utility.  The utility of a deranged terrorist has equal weight to the utility of one of his victims.   If the quantity of utility a terrorist gains from bombing a subway platform is greater than the sum of the utilities lost by all of his victims, then we must (however reluctantly) conclude that the bombing "improved" social utility and was, consequently, "morally right".

Classical utilitarianism was elaborated by John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Francis Ysidro Edgeworth.  They tackled the more intricate theoretical questions and gave it a more formal dress. 

One of the more interesting side-effects of utilitarianism was the notion of diminishing marginal utility.  Effectively, this means that equal increments of some good yield progressively diminishing increments of utility the greater the amount of the good already consumed.   This has astounding implications at the social level.  Applied to income, this principle implies that a dollar taken from a rich man and given to a poor man decreases the utility of the former by less than it increases the utility of the latter.  This idea has been used to justify progressive taxation schemes, and, even more radically, for a completely egalitarian redistribution of income in society.  The principle also implies that, for a given amount of goods, the greater the number of people among whom it is divided, the greater social utility will be. Thus, on utilitarian grounds, population growth is usually a good thing: a large society of poor people is better than a small society of rich people (as Paley had argued even before Bentham).  This apparent bias towards equality and large populations was dumped by Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (1879) whom, noting that people have different capacities for pleasure, argued that consistent application of utilitarian doctrine might lead to more inequality.  

Diminishing marginal utility was applied to economics in the hands of the early proto-marginalists like Bernoulli, Lloyd,  and Gossen.  But it was most prominently used by Jevons, Walras and Menger, to launch the Marginalist Revolution of 1871.  It has continued to be prominent concept in modern economics (as a brief glance into any economics journal will indicate, all economic behavior is assumed to be "reducible" to some utility-maximization logic).

Some economists, notably H.H. Gossen, Henry Sidgwick and Francis Edgeworth, were happy enough to take on the Benthamite social philosophy as well.  Others, such as Pareto and Fisher, were sufficiently keen to distinguish the Neoclassical theory of value from Benthamite philosophy that they replaced the term "individual utility" with "ophelimity" or "degree of preference".   W.S. Jevons rejected Benthamitism at first but, later, employed it in his critique of Mill. 

The Cambridge Neoclassicals preferred to adopt a watered-down version of utilitarianism.  Alfred Marshall distanced himself from the Benthamite calculus, preferring to fuzzily relate general happiness to the development of character and morals of individuals in a society, and relate welfare to measures of consumer surplus.  Arthur C. Pigou developed the doctrines of "provisional utilitarianism" or "neo-utilitarianism". He replaced "general utility" with the less explicit term "welfare" and "surplus of pleasures over pains" with "satisfaction".  The cost-benefit analysis of the Cambridge school were conducted mostly in terms of consumer surplus and other such instruments, avoiding explicit reference to aggregate utility or utilitarian calculations (the great exception was in questions of public finance, like taxation, where utility was more explicitly present).  

The Paretian revolution of the 1930s helped bury utilitarianism as a social philosophy (see our discussion on the "New Welfare Economics").  However, in later decades, economists such as William Vickrey, John C. Harsanyi, Peter J. Hammond and Jonathan Riley, resurrected several of the central utilitarian propositions in the language of modern economics. 



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Resources on Utilitarianism


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All rights reserved, Gonçalo L. Fonseca