A Brief History of Utilitarianism

11.10.2017 |

Episode #2 of the course Thinking morally: An introduction to utilitarianism by Jack Coulson


There are a great number of important names in utilitarian philosophy. Modern thinkers, such as R. M. Hare or Peter Singer, have refined and expanded the intellectual limits of consequentialist theory. Today, we only have time to briefly talk about the indisputable fathers of the utilitarian tradition: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a thinker of great renown in a variety of fields, particularly within jurisprudence, where he helped lay the groundwork for legal positivism. Within his scholarship, he also laid down a framework for utilitarianism, which influenced future writers such as J. S. Mill (1806-1873)—not to be confused with James Mill, his father. The older Mill was a philosopher contemporary of Bentham who raised his son to be an intellectual powerhouse. J. Mill now finds himself somewhat under the “shadow” of his friend and son.

Bentham’s works argued that moral action should be directed by the principle of utility, which he defines as “the principle that approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency it appears to have to increase or lessen—i.e. to promote or oppose—the happiness of the person or group whose interest is in question.” Bentham saw happiness as foundational to the human experience. He sought to find the grounding of morality not in religion or the supernatural, but in the directly experienced.

Bentham argued that we could calculate utility and make comparisons. For instance, something that makes you very happy, but only for one second, is less good than something that makes you half as happy for a full hour. Other factors that might alter this calculation are the number of people who are made happy/unhappy, how likely the result is, etc. This makes Bentham a “hedonist,” someone who believes that moral good is characterized by the pursuit of happiness or pleasure.

J. S. Mill added significantly to this idea in his book, Utilitarianism. Mill is famous for a number of reasons; for instance, he was the first British MP to speak in the House of Commons in favor of women having the right to vote. His works on political philosophy, e.g. “On Liberty,” have been profoundly important texts for liberalism. For our purposes, there are two further things to note.

Firstly, Mill’s work acted as a cornerstone for utilitarianism, with his justifications for the idea and his arguments around it being the definitive entry point for its study. It is a short book, well worth an interested reader’s time.

Secondly, Mill introduced the idea of “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Mill argued that some forms of happiness are more important than others. For Mill, it is “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” and, for that matter, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a “fool” who is happy. The happy pig fails to realize it would be better off as a dissatisfied human because it can’t understand having “higher” pleasures. However, a human can understand the pleasures available to a pig, as well as higher pleasures. A pig can eat and play, but I can eat, play, and read poetry. “Utility,” for Mill, is more complicated than just happiness in a simple sense. Not all utilitarians agree on this idea, some of the implications of which we will discuss in Lesson 4.

Since Mill and Bentham, two broad schools of utilitarianism have emerged: Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. We will save Rule Utilitarianism for Lesson 8, and we will learn about Act Utilitarianism tomorrow. In doing so, we will also discover some of the finer details of utilitarian theory.


Recommended books

Utilitarianism by J S Mill


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