Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 13

(Read Part 12 of the series.)


When deciding whether an action should be deemed good or bad (as opposed to whether it is something we ourselves want to do), people will sometimes try to calculate whether the result will benefit the majority. This principle was expressed in the 18th Century by Francis Hutcheson: ‘That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. It is effectively the opposite of what Kant was saying. Whereas he insisted that it was the motive alone that determined whether an act should be deemed to be ‘good’ and that we should act from a sense of duty, Hutcheson was claiming that motives were ultimately irrelevant, it was the outcome alone that mattered.

Two philosophers in particular were responsible for developing and propagating these ideas and thereby influencing many people’s attitude towards morality. The first was Jeremy Bentham, who is generally regarded as the originator of so-called ‘Utilitarianism’, which says that conduct is right or wrong according to its tendency to produce favourable or unfavourable consequences for the people who are affected by it. It was given this name because actions are judged on the basis of their ‘utility’ or usefulness in bringing about good, or benefit of some kind as opposed to evil or unhappiness.

Bentham was effectively a social reformer rather than a philosopher and his interest lay in areas such as ‘making the punishment fit the crime’ and changing the educational system. His view of punishment is that it prevents future crime (thus minimising future misery for everyone) rather than providing a penalty for past action. It might be in the best interest of everyone else if I do not steal from them but it only becomes in my best interest as well if there is law imposing punishment if I steal. He was also in favour of less severe penalties – juries would often refuse to convict a criminal of a relatively minor crime if there was the threat of his being sentenced to death.

As perceived by Bentham, the results that were important were pleasure and pain. These were terms that everyone understood. The best actions of all are those that bring happiness to the greatest number of people. Previously existing religious traditions or social conventions should obviously be ignored in this context. Even if they may once have satisfied the majority, they mostly no longer do so – obviously Puritanism or the self-righteous and often hypocritical values of Victorian society will no longer appeal to twenty first century mores. The individual is no longer able to look to parents, church or tradition as sources for constructing meaning in his life (unless he lives in a country such as Iran, where such values are imposed by a repressive regime).

Though the principles will be more obvious than say Kant’s deontological (i.e. duty-based) ones, they will nevertheless not necessarily appeal to most people. Why should I vote for what the majority want to do if I want to do something different? If pleasure is the most important goal in life, why should I choose something that will bring me pain?

John Stuart Mill continued the Utilitarian trend but he did not agree with Bentham’s attempts to quantify the happiness of the greatest number. It is not enough to define degrees of pleasure or relative probabilities of their occurrence. Some pleasures, he said were more ‘worthy’ than others. ‘It is better to be a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’, he claimed. But it is not possible to quantify such things; rather they are ‘qualities’ that raise man above the level of animals.

He believed that individuals should be allowed to do as they liked providing that they did not cause harm to others. He did not believe that we were free to choose any course of action. We are limited in what we can do by our own natures and by external circumstance. As to what we ought to do, the doctrine of Utilitarianism is effectively a return to that of the Epicureans in Ancient Greece. Pleasure is what matters (i.e. the philosophy of ‘hedonism’) and the important thing is the result of what we do, not the motive for doing it (this is called the ‘Consequentialist’ theory). If we have a ‘good’ motive, we will be morally praiseworthy but whether the act itself is morally good or bad is purely dependent upon the outcome. The results, of course, could be good for me and/or good for others. The best of all would be if it could be beneficial for everyone but, since this is rarely the case, I am likely to have motives for one rather than the other. If I want the best for myself, this is egoistic, if for others it is altruistic. Mill thought that everyone should be treated alike, including ourselves. This is called universalistic.

Utilitarianism is in conflict with more traditional views of morality when it is only interested in pleasure as an outcome, whether for me or others. It would always be the case, for example, that one should tell a lie if convinced that this would bring happiness (or minimise pain) for the majority. Consequently, if everyone behaved in this way we would never know whether someone was telling the truth. Later philosophers suggested that the precepts should be modified. It was suggested that, in the case of two alternative courses of action, if both are thought likely to produce equivalent levels of pleasure, we should choose that action which is traditionally moral, for example more open and honest, more in keeping with the dignity of man and so on. But this is really recognition of the inability of Utilitarianism to cope with such issues and an implicit admission of its failure as a guide to action.

Once you begin to think deeply about the practical details of behaving in this way, the values of laws and moral principles become apparent and it is seen to be difficult or impossible to act without deceiving others or even oneself – and this is one of the characteristics of what we normally call ‘immorality’.

Before leaving J. S. Mill, it is worth mentioning his conclusions regarding happiness. He acknowledged that this was the principal aim of our lives but claimed that it should never be sought as such. He thought that it only ever came about as a sort of side-effect while we were actually doing something else or seeking some entirely separate result. All of which makes the philosophy of hedonism somewhat incongruous as well as the idea of Consequentialism!

Read Part 14 of the series…