“Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. Though not fully articulated until the 19th century, proto-utilitarian positions can be discerned throughout the history of ethical theory”.1 Although always a concern to both people struggling to regulate their societies and to people philosophising about the human condition2, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the principles of a Utilitarian approach to living together were formally consolidated in a school of philosophy. And due to its pragmatic concern with how life is actually being lived at any time it has proved to be an influential body of thought.
During the period of the 18th and 19th centuries England was a relatively peaceful and increasingly wealthy place. The Georgian era saw a generally stable society contrasting the tumultuous events of the Civil War and Restoration in the 17th century. It was not without its own crazes however, such as the south sea bubble, a fever of get rich quick speculation which took a hold of the population and leaving many of those people who gambled by their speculations penniless. The sort of fervour, whose appearance in human affairs shows no sign of abating. However this society as is usual through history was characterised by widespread poverty and hardship.
During this period Great Britain’s grip on empire was consolidated and expanded, while a liberal democracy (of a prototypical sort) was slowly developing on the mainland. The enlightenment values characterised the spirit of public discourse and Rational thought in its many facets (most admirably science) was being seen to offer a sort of salvation from superstition and….. The evolution of the Industrial revolution was under way with the development of new technologies and enterprise flourishing. These technologies development was both informed by (and inspired by) and informative of science (as well as successful business being able to fund such researches).
Of course the American Revolution (inspired also as it was by enlightenment thought and democracy) interrupted the progress of Empire. American citizen’s inspired by (amongst others) Thomas Paine’s ‘Does it make common sense for an island to rule a continent’3. And the protests of the Boston Tea party (‘No taxation without representation’) gave focus for the overthrow of colonial rule. The French revolution too, in a reportedly less seemly fashion, shook of its monarchical rulers and eventually, after much bloodshed and tragedy and the interregnum of Napoleonic rule adopted the democratic norm. The French affair being characterised by a greater concentration on ideology and the complication of class. (The American war of independence being a more pragmatic affair, and the American inhabitants a more homogeneous population.)4
The United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland was (and remains) a more pragmatic place too, even in its approach to philosophy. An influential body of thought took shape in the form of Utilitarianism. This philosophy is very much concerned with the wellbeing of the individual in relation to their community. The central guiding principle being “The greatest good for the greatest number” and as such has been a very influential set of ideas in many democratic states. It is concerned not merely with theorising but also with the practical application of its ideas. Its influence may be traced up to the Social and Christian Democratic governance of much of Western Europe in the late 20th century.
From the start its’ most influential proponents and philosophers where keenly occupied with social affairs. Its origins lie in the minds of England’s freethinking tradition, most particularly Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill5 who where no ivory tower intellectuals but men who sought to promote civil rights in society. Mill indeed was an MP and besides writing and philosophy also introduced the first bill aimed at granting suffrage for woman. He is credited with publishing one of the first feminist tracts promoting women’s civil rights. By the dawn of the 19th century the widespread recognition of inequality, inherent in a capitalist or aristocratic society where most evident, in the urban squalor, poverty and decay evident in the new industrial townships. These contrasted sharply with the fine opulence of the old gentry and of the often times vulgar displays of wealth by the Nouveau Riche who had earned their fortunes with the advancing industries.
The heart and mind of Jeremy Bentham was not content with philosophising about these issues but he was concerned on a political level as a social reformer too. He was one of the most significant thinkers of the left in the 19th century, concerned with laying a foundation for social progress. His and other freethinking individuals (whether colleagues or friends, etc.) concerned themselves not just with prosperity and the relief of poverty but with law reform, concern’s of education, censorship, sexual freedom, campaigns against the slave trade and how society responds to crime. (Many issues which have seen progress and which nowadays we take for granted as part of our political compact, and characterised by what we call Human Rights or referred to under the ideas known as ‘political correctness’ these days). His prison design “the Panopticon” while never having been built, influenced the structure of prison design in the 19th century, many of whose structures are still with us, although not seen with joy these days, by prisoners or warders. Indeed this technology of social control has been criticised by Michel Foucault in the late 20th century. He seems to suggest that the obvious brutality of earlier regimes of punishment may have been brutal but at least more honest in their motivation6.
Mill developed Utilitarian thought on from Bentham’s thinking and makes a distinction between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that “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, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”7
Unlike , say Emmanuel Kant, whose Categorical Imperative “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”, is concerned with the motivation for behaviour, the Utilitarian’s emphasised the consequences of behaviour (maybe occluding motivation in the process.) This trend may have seen its highest form in the development of behavioural psychologies wherein the mind was consigned to a ‘black box’ and utterly ignored, (much to the distress (sometimes) of the ‘victims’ of those who sought to ‘predict and control’ human behaviour in such fashion.) Utilitarianism is thus known as a ‘consequentialist’ philosophy and it has evolved into this. Modern philosophers thinking in this gestalt label themselves as consequentialists…
The echoes of utilitarian thought as seen in political theories
In the twentieth century, particularly in northern Europe Social Democratic forms of governance came to have great influence. The principles of such have been characterised as;
“1: Economic well being. The fruits of economic prosperity are to be distributed fairly, and in such a way as not to undermine that prosperity.
2: Work. Since Human Beings seek to live productively, fair distribution is to be effected through decently remunerated employment rather than simply cash or services.
3: Social solidarity. Individuals are members of communities through ties of culture and history. Members have reciprocal rights and obligations over and above the right of all human beings to be treated with tolerance and compassion without distinction as to race, sex, disability, etc.
4: Democracy. A society of justice must follow rules, without which it degenerates into a jungle in which the ‘fittest’ prosper. Democracy entails that the rules to be obeyed – by leaders and followers alike- result from decisions made by the people themselves through free elections that fully safeguard fundamental political freedoms.
5: Participation. Especially in modern societies with complex systems of economic co-ordination, democracy entails active decentralised decision making and employee participation in management.
6: Access to information. Democratic participation requires open and informed discussion, that is, a free and responsible press, an informed, well-educated citizenry, full public access to information based on data reliably gathered and presented, and publicly accountable independent boards of inquiry into matters of controversy.”8
One can readily see the influence of utilitarian thought here, as these principles (while not complete) are aimed at guiding the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.
More recently however we have seen a replay of the phenomenon experienced during the South Seas bubble and the roaring twenties (amongst other periods) with the consequent great crash and depression. This has been accompanied by an inversion of the utilitarian principle with the adaptation seemingly of the view that ‘the greatest good for the fewest number will lead to prosperity for all and thus is for the greater good’ (trickle-down economics.) This notion has guided particularly the Anglo-Saxon economies in recent decades and it has been much debated if it has or will lead to the wider development of society. This hope of a trickling down of wealth and prosperity and good fortune for the many has, in the views of many, not quite materialised. The particular pursuit of a public bad/private good economics based on ‘trickle down’ has seemingly however resulted in the collapse in the integrity of the international banking system (now supported by massive bailouts from central banks and governments.) It seems that while the short and medium term consequences of public policy seemed good it should have been obvious from history that it would end in tears.
Trouble in paradise: How do you know what’s good and who decides?
It is always going to be a problem how we seek to define the greatest good, which is probably impossible and always open to changes’ in opinion and desire. And as we frequently see it is not always possible to control for the law of unintended consequences. They say the road of good intentions paves the way to hell and a seemingly good proposal may be blinkered in its design or implementation by those responsible for forming it. This is one of the finer motivations for democratic decision-making in order to ensure that policy is informed by the views of those it impacts on.
If we consider Paul Valéry’s poem “Les Grenades”9 we find that the mere access to food, although essential for life, is not enough for the enjoyment of life.
“Pomegranates sliced in half spill out
their blood-red seeds, while those uncut
conceal their trove in darkness: great
discoveries yet to be made.
But if the red-gold skin appears
desirable, look to the rind:
pale pulp that bears our deepest fears,
the architecture of the mind—
What is mere flesh compared to this?
A fleeting glance, the briefest kiss….
Still, someone must admit the sun
that ripens them…. Their rubies bleed—
A gentle knife-thrust spills the seed
revealed, at last, to everyone. “10
The provision of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and essential fat’s is not enough to have a pleasurable meal. And it’s worth noting that while the delivery of such can be attractive in its measurability the measure of quality or appreciation is an intangible quality. The pleasure we experience from eating is not merely due to the material presence of nutrients but coupled to our attitude to it and how we interpret flavours according to our peculiar tastes. Eating ‘mindfully’ may provide a more contented experience, one more filled with the appreciation of our meal than a quick snack grasped on the run. This poem expresses an almost transcendent even (some might say spiritual11) communion with the consumption of a pomegranate. These are for some the experiences which make life worthwhile. So it would be wrong to restrict the assessment of ‘good’ to a positivist/scientistic measure of what we have consumed since we are forced to respect more subjective valuations of happiness here (to each his own maybe).
“All natural science can say about values is that they do not come within the domain of its investigative competence. A few of the other modes of existence outside the investigative competence of natural science are love and hate, joy and sorrow, misery and happiness, pleasure and pain, right and wrong, purpose, meaning, hope, courage, despair, God, heaven and hell, grace, sin, salvation, damnation, enlightenment, wisdom, compassion, evil, envy, malice, generosity, camaraderie, and everything, in fact, that makes life worth living. The natural scientist finds none of these things. Of course not! You cannot buy a camel in a donkey market.”12
This might be viewed as one of the inadequacies of Utilitarian thought which may not be intrinsic to it but merely reflective of a desire to ‘show results’, and while enlightenment and scientific thought are hugely successful and admirable, the implementation of scientific thought in areas of moral or ethical decision making would appear suspect and inappropriate to many people. So the assessment of what constitutes the ‘greatest good’ or happiness or pleasure is a problem for utilitarian thinking. They have not entirely accounted for the unpredictability of the consequences of actions. Always we are surprised by the rippling effect of our actions. And the measure of happiness again cannot proceed upon objective quantitative lines (beloved of beaureucrats). In other words while people can (usually or often in the more developed nations of the world) be given the means of attaining their preferred route to happiness, if they seek out an interesting life, have the means to do so and are not held to the view that life is essentially suffering. But it cannot guarantee or even measure the outcomes, (at least not entirely objectively to every ones satisfaction).
Charles Dickens savagely attacked the contemporary mores of British society in his book Hard Times. “The Utilitarian’s were one of the targets of this novel… Theoretical Utilitarian ethics hold that promotion of general social welfare is the ultimate goal for the individual and society in general: “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Dickens believed that in practical terms, the pursuit of a totally rationalized society could lead to great misery. Bentham’s former secretary… helped design the poor law which deliberately made workhouse life as uncomfortable as possible. In the novel, this is conveyed in Bitzer’s response to Gradgrind’s appeal for compassion. Dickens was appalled by what was, in his interpretation, a selfish philosophy, which was combined with materialist laissez-faire capitalism in the education of some children at the time, as well as in industrial practices. In Dickens’ interpretation, the prevalence of utilitarian values in educational institutions promoted contempt between mill owners and workers, creating young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits… Dickens… was appalled by the environment in which workers toiled. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, Dickens resolved to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” for those who laboured in horrific conditions. John Stuart Mill had a similar, rigorous education to that of Louisa Gradgrind, consisting of analytical, logical, mathematical, and statistical exercises. In his twenties, Mill had a nervous breakdown, believing his capacity for emotion had been enervated by his father’s stringent emphasis on analysis and mathematics in his education. In the book, Louisa herself follows a parallel course, being unable to express herself and falling into a temporary depression as a result of her dry education.”13
It may be that the dependence on the admiration of scientific achievement (and these are amongst the heights of human endeavour) has denied a more meaningful philosophy/psychology in the pursuit of happiness, recognising that happiness cannot be pursued directly but is rather a consequence of living an interesting and bountiful life. For as some suggest the underlying philosophical position of natural science is one which brackets off a huge range of experiences, many of which most people value highly and indeed even live (and indeed may be prepared to die) for.
So I suppose the application of a utilitarian philosophy has parallels in the economic development of the western world (at least until recently). However, while it leaves the means in your hands, it is in your hands to use the materials (for those gifted to have them) that allow the good life to pursue the good life. This is more a psychological quest to mindfully appreciate the spoils of industry and the wonder of nature. Epicurean pleasure is in the grasp of most westerners nowadays. But to avoid a descent into a mere popular hedonism is our choice. The media seems these days to promote just such a hedonist lifestyle whereas a darker puritanical attitude in society can delimit our capacity to enjoy!
But as ever, while any particular time and place may have a dominant ideology or philosophy, the interpretation of any set of ideas is always an affair of plurality. And always other varied ideas, philosophies and ideologies are competing for our attention or maybe hiding secretly (or lying dormant) intent merely on survival not on influence. So one set of ideas can never be enough to explain the success or otherwise of any polity. The set most admired or held too may be such as to be the most fashionable belief, more parroted under a threat of social exclusion than honoured, necessarily. It may well be spoken but less often observed. 14
So Utilitarian thought in its various forms has proved to be of significant importance in the conduct of human affairs in history. But it does not totally resolve any difficulties we have in deciding what the good life should entail. It influence currently may be seen more in the historical echoes of it application. But while in academic philosophy it’s hardly a fashionable subject and largely evolved into consequentialist philosophy, it will always be an area for debate.
Bentham, Jeremy; The Principles of Morals and Legislation
Dickens, Charles; Hard Times
Foucault, Michel; Discipline and Punish
Magee, Brian; The Story of Philosophy
Mill, John Stuart; Utilitarianism.
Milner, Henry; Sweden: Social Democracy in Practice.
Thompson, Mel; Teach Yourself Philosophy
Wheen, Francis; How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
Wilkinson, Richardand Kate Pickett; The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger