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Utilitarianism

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Utilitarianism

At the outset of the nineteenth century, an influential group of British thinkers developed a set of basic principles for addressing social problems. Extrapolating from Hume's emphasis on the natural human interest in utility, reformer Jeremy Bentham proposed a straightforward quantification of morality by reference to utilitarian outcomes. His An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.

Bentham's moral theory was founded on the assumption that it is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit and that the kind of consequence that matters for human happiness is just the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, we arrive at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.

All that remains, Bentham supposed, is to consider the extent of this pleasure, since the happiness of the community as a whole is nothing other than the sum of individual human interests. The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action. Similarly, Bentham supposed that social policies are properly evaluated in light of their effect on the general well-being of the populations they involve. Punishing criminals is an effective way of deterring crime precisely because it pointedly alters the likely outcome of their actions, attaching the likelihood of future pain in order to outweigh the apparent gain of committing the crime. Thus, punishment must "fit" the crime by changing the likely perception of the value of committing it.

John Stuart Mill

Mill

Life and Works

. . Utilitarianism

. . Individual Liberty

. . Women's Rights

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A generation later, utilitarianism found its most effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised by his father, the philosopher James Mill, on strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his life to the defence and promotion of the general welfare. With the help his long-time companion Harriet Taylor, Mill became a powerful champion of lofty moral and social ideals.

Mill's Utilitarianism (1861) is an extended explanation of utilitarian moral theory. In an effort to respond to criticisms of the doctrine, Mill not only argued in favor of the basic principles of Jeremy Bentham but also offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. Although the progress of moral philosophy has been limited by its endless disputes over the reality and nature of the highest good, Mill assumed from the outset, everyone can agree that the consequences of human actions contribute importantly to their moral value. (Utilitarianism 1)

Mill fully accepted Bentham's devotion to greatest happiness principle as the basic statement of utilitarian value:

" . . . actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." (Utilitarianism 2)

But he did not agree that all differences among pleasures can be quantified. On Mill's view, some kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings also differ from each other in qualitative ways, and only those who have experienced pleasure of both sorts are competent judges of their relative quality. This establishes the moral worth of promoting higher (largely intellectual) pleasures among sentient beings even when their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower (largely bodily) pleasures. Even so, Mill granted that the positive achievement of happiness is often difficult, so that we are often justified morally in seeking primarily to reduce the total amount of pain experienced by sentient beings affected by our actions. PainÐ'--or even the sacrifice of pleasureÐ'--is warranted on Mill's view only when it results directly in the greater good of all.

Against those who argue that the utilitarian theory unreasonably demands of individual agents that they devote their primary energies to the cold-hearted and interminable calculation of anticipated effects of their actions, Mill offered a significant qualification. Precisely because we do not have the time to calculate accurately in every instance, he supposed, we properly allow our actions to be guided by moral rules most of the time. Partly anticipating the later distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, Mill pointed out that secondary moral principles at the very least perform an important service by providing ample guidance for every-day moral life. Finally, however, he emphasized that the value of each particular actionÐ'--especially in difficult or controversial casesÐ'--is to be determined by reference to the principle of utility itself.

What motivates people to do the right thing? Mill claimed universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions in eliciting proper conduct from human agents. (Utilitarianism 3) But unlike Bentham, Mill did not restrict himself to the socially-imposed external sanctions of punishment and blame, which make the consequences of improper action more obviously painful. On Mill's view, human beings are also motivated by such internal sanctions as self-esteem, guilt, and conscience. Because we all have social feelings on behalf of others, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. Even if others do not blame or punish me for doing wrong, I am likely to blame myself, and that bad feeling is another of the consequent pains that I reasonably consider when deciding what to do.

In Chapter Four, Mill offers as "proof" of the principle of utility an argument originally presented by his father, James Mill. The best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that people really do desire it; and since each individual human being desires

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