Political Philosophy Part 2


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Utilitarianism (pp14).


Examples: Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832; John Stuart Mill 1806 – 1873.


Timeline, for comparisons:


          1700  1710  1720  1730  1740  1750  1760  1770  1780  1790  1800  1810  1820  1830          1840  1850  1860  1870  1880  1890  1900


Rousseau:       1712____________________________1778

Adam Smith:           1723________________________________1790

Jeremy Bentham                                 1748________________________________________1832

Hegel:                                                                               1770___________________________1831

James Mill                                                               1773____________________________1836

John Stuart Mill                                                                                                     1806_____________________________1873





1. Importance and main ideas of the ‘utilitarians’

2. Bentham’s basic ideas

3. Comments on Bentham

4. John Stuart Mill

5. Discussion

6. References/Bibliography




1. Importance and main ideas of the ‘utilitarians’.


1.1 At the time (mid-19th century) the utilitarians were also known as ‘philosophical radicals’ – the 19th century saw many reforms (Wolsey Hall notes), and influence of economic ideas of (18th c.) Physiocrats (each individual knows his best interests), and Smith (natural economic laws, which should be left alone to operate freely). Note also Malthus (1766 – 1834) and the danger of allowing the poor to increase in numbers, Ricardo (1772 – 1832) and the laws of supply and demand (e.g. workers’ wages should be determined by employers – but also saw conflict between landowners, who demand rent, and factory owners/workers).


1.2 They rejected ‘natural law’ theories, and ideas of ‘innate knowledge’, adopting an empiricist approach, i.e. based on the evidence of our senses, which they believed was scientific, and this means we use our ‘reason’ rather than our emotions to appraise laws etc. [The problems with ‘natural law’: based on intuition rather than reason? And how to distinguish a bad law from a good one? Isn’t a bad law a contradiction in terms?]


1.3 As they argued that laws should be considered in terms of their effects and their effectiveness (not by desire for revenge etc), they had considerable impact on legislation and politics.


1.4 They also advanced the cause of democracy and radicalism, through their support for the extension of the franchise. Their advocacy of individual freedom and equality puts them in the liberal tradition but, as Russell (1946, p 740) puts it, they “unintentionally paved the way for the doctrines of socialism”.


2. Bentham’s basic ideas:


2.1 We are motivated by ‘pleasure and pain’ (an idea he got from Helvetius). We use our reason to determine what will give us pleasure, or happiness, and this we call ‘good’ – what gives us pain we call ‘bad’. This (reminiscent of Hobbes…) is what he called ‘the principle of utility’ (i.e. how useful is something to us). It takes into account the consequences of actions (not the motivation of the actor).


“Now then, with respect to actions in general, there is no property in them that is calculated so readily to engage, and so firmly to fix the attention of an observer, as the tendency they may have to… that which may be styled the common end of all of them. The end I mean is happiness; and this tendency in any act is what we style its utility.”


“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question… not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.”


2.2 We not only do, as a matter of fact, seek pleasure and avoid pain, (and in this Bentham’s theory was ‘deterministic’) but we ought to. After all, happiness is ‘good’, and pain is ‘bad’.


“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we should do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of cause and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”


“I learnt to see that utility was the test and measure of all virtue; … and that the obligation to minister to general happiness, was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other.”


2.3 Pleasures and pains can be measured and ‘added up’. We can say how much pleasure or pain a particular course of action is likely to give us. This is called the ‘felicific calculus’.


“There are four distinguishable sources from which pleasure and pain are in use to flow: … they may be termed the physical, the political, the moral and the religious…


…the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself, will be the greater or less, according to the following circumstances:


(i) its intensity

(ii) its duration

(iii) its certainty or uncertainty

(iv) its propinquity or remoteness


… but when the value of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances to be taken into account:


(v) its fecundity

(vi) its purity

(vii) its extent [number of persons affected].


2.4 Just as the individual’s aim is to maximise pleasure and/or to minimise pain, so the legislator should facilitate the ‘greatest amount of pleasure (or happiness) for the greatest number of people’. Note that no one person’s pleasure is worth more than any other’s (by virtue of who they are etc).


“From utility then we may denominate a principle, that may serve to preside over and govern, as it were, such arrangements as shall be made of the several institutions… that compose the matter of this science… Governed in this manner by a principle that is recognised by all men…


The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what? – the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.


It has been shown that the happiness of the individuals, of whom a community is composed, … is the sole end which the legislator ought to have in view.”


3. Comments on Bentham (the four points above are commented on in the same order):


(i) (3.1) Bentham saw pleasure/happiness as the only thing worth pursuing for its own sake. He even argued that if ‘pushpin’ – a board game – gave more pleasure to more people than poetry, then pushpin was preferable…  It seems to be self-evident that individuals always pursue their own happiness, and by giving rational grounds for assessing a law or policy (how much happiness for how many people would it promote?) utilitarianism seems preferable to ‘natural law’ theory: if laws are either ‘naturally’ in existence, or are assessed because they seem to be ‘natural’ then we are not using reason but intuition when we talk about them, and we have no criteria for distinguishing between one natural law and another if they conflict with each other. (There can be no such thing as a ‘bad’ natural law for a natural law theorist).


Bentham also rejected the idea of a ‘social contract’ – this he thought was ‘fiction’, and he described the notion of ‘the rights of man’ as ‘nonsense’. In a memorable phrase, Bentham argued that to say (as the French revolutionaries did), that these rights are ‘imprescriptible’, was ‘nonsense on stilts’ (Russell loc cit)! This was also Burke’s argument. Again, what counts for the utilitarians is individuals acting in their own interests. However, as Russell points out (loc cit) it is in the community’s interest that I refrain from stealing, even if it is not in my own interest to be prevented from doing so! (see 3.4 below)


There is a clear link here with Adam Smith’s views on the ‘market mechanism’. Because of this view the utilitarians supported laissez-faire in economics, and opposed trade union demands for wage increases (as this would upset the free market). They also advocated the abolition of the Corn Laws, which had restricted the free movement of international trade, and which had worked in the interests of a small group only (the landowners). (Wolsey notes)


With regard to assessing actions purely in terms of their consequences, surely this runs counter to our experience? Sometimes an action just ‘feels’ right (or wrong!) – and surely some actions are good in themselves. Does the motivation for an action count for nothing? (The opposite school of thought – deontological – says that motivation, our sense of what we ought to do, is what really counts).


Isn’t it possible (James Rachels says) that thinking something is good comes before feeling happy – we feel happy when we have done good, not that we feel good when we are happy! To put happiness first is hedonism.


If all we take into account is the consequences of an action in terms of the happiness of the person affected, we run into the dangerous idea that if the person was never told about the action then he or she won’t feel the unhappiness and then it wasn’t a wrong action.


Also: It is dangerous to put so much emphasis on the consequences of actions when these can often be ‘unforeseen’. There are also (James Rachels argues) other things that surely we take into account when evaluating actions viz. justice, (which requires that we treat people fairly, according to their needs and merits – not just happiness) and human rights (which should not be dispensed with to produce a ‘good’ outcome).


(ii) (3.2) The argument from ‘something is the case’ to ‘it ought to be/should be the case’ (from ‘is’ to ‘ought’) is known as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. In other words there seem to be no solid grounds for proceeding from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ – and Russell is amazed that JS Mill (see below) thought that: since only visible things can be seen, and what can be seen must be visible, then what can be desired must be desirable! But ‘desirable’ also means ‘worthy of desire’ and it does not follow that everything that can be desired is worthy of desire! This is not a logical way to deduce ethical principles, and  moral and ethical judgement is surely very weak if we simply try to base it on ‘how things are’: in utilitarianism, ethics is reduced, as Russell says, to ‘prudence’ – I will only help others if I might gain from it.


(iii) (3.3) Moreover, it is surely not that simple to ‘add up’ units of happiness? A particularly telling problem here arises if we consider two courses of action, one that will bring a good deal of unhappiness to a few people, but if a large number of people get only a small amount of pleasure from it, then the minority’s unhappiness must be disregarded… The ‘tyranny of the majority’ would be a consequence here, and we can easily imagine situations where one person’s life would be sacrificed for the greater happiness of the masses.


Put another way (Sabine? Chs 31, 32): there is no logical connection between the psychology of utilitarianism and the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ – unless the individual feels that his/her happiness is to be found in the greatest happiness of the greatest number…


(iv) (3.4) An important consequence of this approach was that punishment for a crime was viewed in utilitarian terms: the punishment should prevent (or deter) future crime – the purpose is not revenge, or hatred of the criminal. He argued for the abolition of the death penalty for all but the most serious offences, and this came to be the case in his lifetime (Russell op cit p 742).


However, the key problem of liberal democratic societies remains: how to reconcile the individual and the general good. It seems that Bentham, and James Mill (JS Mill’s father) believed that because they were rational and had no harmful intentions to others, then everyone could be got to behave that way.


It is not a particularly striking insight to argue that individuals pursue their self-interest: Hobbes and others had pointed this out long before, and Bentham seems to have underestimated the potential conflict with the common good. Communist regimes such as that in China tried very hard - and at the cost of a lot of suffering - to produce a ‘new man’ who was concerned primarily with the good of the community…


However, Bentham also went on to point out that this (motivation by self-interest) is true of politicians and legislators as well: do they not lose sight of the common good/happiness in pursuing their own good/happiness? They must therefore be ‘checked’ (in both senses) – their power must be ‘balanced’ – by the voters (e.g. in annual elections, they proposed). Bentham argued for an extension of the suffrage to every male over 40, in order to prevent class interests from dominating. Bentham and his supporters favoured the ‘middle classes’ who they believed to be the wisest (because better-educated - education was most important to the utilitarians), and most virtuous part of the community (as against either the aristocracy or the workers). James Mill (1773 – 1836), the father of John Stuart, agreed with Bentham on much of this, and passed on these ideas to his son.


4. John Stuart Mill:


4.1 Brought up by his father with an intensive education (he learned and read works in Latin and Greek when a boy), and a lover of the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge (the ‘romantics’), his approach was less ‘mechanical’ than that of Bentham, but still within the utilitarian framework. However, the changes he made to the philosophy fundamentally altered it. He was also influenced by Hegel’s ideas (via Coleridge) of a ‘necessary historical order’ and progress (from Comte).


4.2 He was also, through the influence of his wife Harriet Mill (previously Mrs Taylor… died 1859), an early defender of women’s rights, as well as defending free speech – including for atheists, revolutionaries and others – except where such speech could be linked directly to criminal acts. His book On Liberty was highly influential.


4.3 He made an important (though not watertight?) distinction between ‘self-regarding’ and ‘other-regarding’ acts. We should have freedom in the former, since they affect no-one but ourselves (the debate about freedom to smoke is a contemporary example of this apparently simple formulation). Only in the case of other-regarding actions might one have the right to restrict someone’s freedom. Presumably a suicide who had no friends or family should be allowed to kill himself, since his death would not affect anyone else?


4.4 Mill was also fearful of the danger of the tyranny of the majority: he saw the importance of both economic and political freedom… See his ‘On Liberty’ 1869. This led him to oppose simple universal suffrage, as it would lead to the dominance of the working classes. On the other hand, (especially later in life, under the influence of his wife he saw class conflict as the most likely outcome of laissez-faire policies. Thus he argued that radical social reform would be necessary – you could not leave government to a free-for-all. 


4.5 He tried to make the felicific calculus more subtle by suggesting that there are ‘qualities’ of pleasure as well as ‘quantities’ (poetry is preferable to pushpin!). The qualities could be placed in a hierarchy. But this only served to make the whole question more complicated, since you cannot simply add together qualities and quantities.


4.6 Following logically from the idea of ‘quality’, he suggested that only those who had experienced both kinds of pleasure should be able to make judgements about legislation – an elitist position (as is, surely, the argument that poetry is better than pushpin… so?). He advocated a kind of ‘oligarchical’ rule by those who had the best understanding of the different qualities of happiness: these better-educated people should have more than one vote (back to Bentham’s ‘calculus’?), within a kind of ‘proportional representation’. Like Bentham, he believed that education was all-important.


However, as regards his theory, he could not escape from the problem that we seem to rely on intuition (rather than reason) to identify what could count as a higher ‘quality’ of happiness.


4.7 The highest good, for Mill, was the fullest development of human individuality – an idea that goes back to the classical Greek world, but is still relevant today?


4.8 He advocated a ‘feeling of unity with mankind’ to overcome the problem that you cannot simply add up individual happiness or interests to arrive at the common good (compare Rousseau here…). This could, he said ‘be inculcated as a religion’ (very Rousseau!). 


5. Discussion


Notes from New Statesman, 130709: “Power to the People” by David Marquand (author of Britain Since 1918, etc.), on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On Liberty.


Suggests that Mill would not have been happy with the ‘enlightened state’ as conceived by the Labour Party (Old and New: the latter simply want the state to be ‘camp follower’ to the market, whilst the former wanted it to be master of the market – but it’s the same state…). ‘The whole was still sovereign over the parts; the individual was still duty-bound to submit to centralised communal control.’ Under New Labour the state has become even less enlightened and liberal, and people have no faith in it any longer. Many politicians and leaders of opinion praise Mill, but his ideas are complex. ‘Everyone knows that he thought people should be free to make their own choices as they wished, provided they did no harm to others, and that he feared the tyranny of ‘prevailing opinion’. Marquand goes on to say that there are nowadays several would-be ‘tyrants’ (intolerant of others’ views) – e.g. the ‘bully-boys’ in the blogosphere, ‘hysterical secularists’ and militant Muslims – different to the ‘blancmange-like conformists who infuriated Mill’. [Is his point that any of these exercise real power? Or that since the government now has no ideas, they have rushed to fill the vacuum? ]


Mill speaks to us less because of what he thought than because of what he felt: ‘he offers a wonderfully rich and exhilarating vision of the good life and the good society’ – a quintessentially republican vision – elitist, and tinged with aristocratic values. Opposed the tendency to ‘raise the low and to lower the high’, as this was eroding the diversity and non-conformity of European civilisation. [Is this a logical consequence of such ‘levelling’?]


“The worth of a state is the worth of the individuals composing it” and a “state which dwarfs its men… will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.”  Since liberty was a means to an end: personal growth, which needed liberty and variety around it. People need the habit of “spontaneous action for a collective interest” [this is so much more than individualism…] Popular representation in small local communities was a prerequisite of popular government in the state.


He opposed state socialism and proletarian revolution, as he thought they would not cure the “wretched poverty” and flagrant social injustice of the system based on private ownership – whilst he ‘went out of his way to emphasise his sympathy for the socialist critique of capitalism [emphasis on critique?] and admired Fourier, Owen and others, but he feared the power of a state that attempted to control the economy.


‘The answer lay in a kind of market socialism, based on co-operative production and distribution. Property rights would not be abolished. They would be diffused ever more widely.’ Production was governed by the laws of classical political economy, but property was a different matter.’


Today?  Conservatives say they fear the over-powerful state, but in government they strengthen it: ‘The Thatcher state was far mightier than any previous peacetime state in British history’ and the ‘bossy, intrusive, audit-fixated state of New Labour was its ‘lineal descendent’. Mill’s ideas were not conservative – they were shared by GDH Cole, the guild socialists and the syndicalists who dreamed of industrial democracy in the workplace, and the co-operative movement. To successfully oppose a conservative claim to want a benevolent state, Labour could use as the basis of its policies the ‘learning by doing, civic activism in local communities as a school for citizenship on the national level, and the need to prevent an intrusive state from “dwarfing” its citizens.


We need to re-think different forms of property, the relationship between private property and social need, and the responsibility of property owners towards the common good. Will Hutton and others tried to do this 15 years ago under the rubric of stakeholder capitalism, and it’s time to start again.



6. References/Bibliography:



Russell, Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy; Unwin 1946 (2nd edition 1961).


Supple, B.E: Commercial Crisis and Change in England 1600 – 1642 (Cambridge 1959) esp. ch 10…