Some Notes on Utilitarianism 

Perhaps we should begin by placing the Utilitarians in the context of liberal thought. To be very brief, the central dilemma for liberals was how to reconcile the maximum amount of individual liberty while retaining social order. There had been various solutions offered before: many of them turned on what came to be called  'natural law' arguments. For example, it was considered to be natural to have the right to dispose of your own body, wealth, and property, and to make social contracts with other free people. Society was seen as to blame for the contradictions, tensions and inequalities that were apparent  -- left to their natural state, allowed to exercise their natural rights, human beings would produce harmonious and liberated social order inevitably. There were of course a number of specific variants on this argument -- those of Rousseau, or of Locke, for example. 


Bentham objected violently to this  'natural law/natural rights' approach. He pointed out that there were confused and subjective, even metaphysical, elements in such theories: for example a marked lack of clarity about central terms like  'right',  'Justice' etc. Actual laws based on such concepts were similarly vague, non-specific, and esoteric -- they had to be clarified each time by lengthy considerations of precedent, and this led to wealthy lawyers but much public uncertainty. Bentham's project was to demystify such vague notions, to clarify, codify and publish them, and make them universally applicable. All this clarification would be possible by establishing, once and for all, the proper basis for morality -- the principle of utility

According to Steintrager (1977) utility was only ever defined very briefly in Bentham's works -- he argued that real actors tend to approve of certain actions  (which is all that morality really boils down to) according to whether it  'augments or diminishes the happiness of the party in question'. Bentham is offering here an  'egoistic hedonism': he clearly believed that all human action was really based on calculations concerning gaining happiness or avoiding pain. This view was simply taken as axiomatic and was often seen as rather crude, dogmatic, even cynical -- so that even acts of altruism or self denial were means of increasing the happiness of the actor (for example, by attracting positive moral evaluations from other people). 

This impression of simplicity is found especially in the early work on the 'felicific calculus'. Bentham evidently believed it was possible in principle for utility to be precisely calculated, and he invented a 'calculus' to do it. It was not just the amount of happiness that counted, but its frequency, duration, and intensity. Bentham cheerfully suggested using a scale marked in  'Utiles' [units of utility] -- it is sometimes thought of as a 'hedonistic thermometer', telling people if they are getting warmer or coller in their pursuit of happiness [I am amazed some pollster or researcher hasn't actually developed one!]. This principle led to the possibility for a central role for reason -- scientific reason at that -- in public affairs. We can now replace all the outdated, vague, and prejudiced definitions of morality by precise, scientific calculations. Let us consider some implications: 


These proposals are actually quite progressive in some ways, and for their own time -- for example, they offered some testable principles to judge matters like whether sodomy should be forbidden. Using the principle of utility this becomes a straightforward question -- is it harmful [does it add to the sum of unhappiness]? If it is not harmful there is no need for it be a crime  (and Bentham generally offered his support for legalising  'crimes without victims'). 

Instead of the some dubious moral authorities deciding what is best for the people, they can now decide precisely for themselves. If they want to argue that 'pushpin [?] is as good as poetry', that is up to them.

The proposals are egalitarian. Every individual was considered to have equal rights to pursue their own happiness --  with no-one to deny them their rights --certainly not the Church or lawyers. [However, whether these rights extended to criminals is more dubious -- see file]. 

It is really not such a crude proposal as it looks, says Steintrager (1977). Bentham meant the idea of the calculus as a mere metaphor, to indicate the potential of such a scientific approach. Bentham was not a reductionist, and he did see that there were higher interests in human beings such as the need to act honourably and so on. Nevertheless the whole concept had to be much refined by J S Mill. 

In terms of the liberal dilemma with which we began, there is an immediate practical problem, however. How can egoistic hedonism be co-ordinated so as actually to produce social order? Bentham simply proceeds from one to the other, arguing that society should be so organised as to promote the maximum possible happiness for all. Thus, good organisations and laws were those designed to add to the sum of total happiness. [At least this allowed some sort of informed debate on existing laws and organisations]. Bentham did see some problems in this, however -- individuals were not to be allowed to pursue their own happiness if this led to harm for others,or rather if the sum of happiness was thereby reduced. He did see the need to persuade people (by morality and legislation) that it was best to promote general happiness even if their own potential for maximum happiness was thereby restrained. But major implications and problems were to remain, to be developed in the work of Mill, and they were to lead far away from the simplicity of Bentham's scheme. 

[This is a tricky matter, after all. Why should I not simply pursue my own happiness by infringing the rights of everyone else, taking whatever I want, acting however I please, raping and pillaging if it makes me happy? Where is my interest in keeping the law, or according equal rights to anyone else? Presumably, Bentham would dissuade me by referring to an overall diminution of the general happiness --but why should I care about the general happiness? I remember Mill's answer best, in fact -- he argued that it was really in my own long-term interest to keep the law and retain respect for others' rights because I might need such a law and such respect myself one day. But this is one of those 'higher', less obvious interests that we shall come to in Mill's work. And it is still dubious, of course -- why not rape and pillage and THEN demand respect for the law if threatened myself?]

Turning to the political implications directly -- how best could we design social political life so that the maximum happiness of all was achieved? Bentham originally believed in persuading the existing rulers to act according to the principle of utility, rather than organising any direct democratic involvement. If existing rulers were to operate according to such principles, he argued, they would keep power more efficiently, stave off revolution, and add to their own happiness by acting honourably. [Oddly, they didn't seem to want to listen!!]

Bentham derived four specific principles from the overall general ones: security, subsistence, abundance, and equality. These are pretty self-evident. Security meant above all the security of private property, however. Private property was seen as the best means of securing economic progress and fostering innovation, leading to general abundance. There were to be no attacks on private property, no 'levelling' -- individuals were naturally unequal, and they needed inequality as a kind of incentive to improve themselves [more or less as in functionalist theories of stratification, I suppose]. Institutions like markets were the best way to organise innovations and to set up just levels of reward. This seems like a standard laissez-faire stance. However, Bentham did advocate government intervention, especially to relieve the poor and unemployed, and to iron out any economic recession by the use of public works. He did support the Factory Acts and the Poor Laws. This might seem contradictory, but of course it could be justified if and only if government intervention led to the maximisation of happiness  (and again, this is calculable, in principle anyway). 

As with other liberals, however, Bentham became a radical democrat when governments failed to live up to the rational principles he advocated -- he became increasingly critical, especially of the irrationality, selfishness (in a narrower sense -- greed almost) of the monarchy and House of Commons. Principles to stop abuses of power led him to advocate  'democratic ascendancy'. His proposals were rather similar to Rousseau's --  annual elections, making the elected body supreme, a secret ballot, extension of the franchise, recallable officials [I suppose the USA has a vestige of this in elections of sheriffs and law officers, as well as mayors]. In a particularly memorable feature, Bentham argued that the government had to work at minimum expense as well, so the salaries of officials were to be decided by a  'patriotic auction' [great idea -- turn 'payment by results' back on its advocates!] 

The familiar problem arises of how to achieve democratic control while avoiding abuse by possibly selfish or ignorant masses. Bentham believed in the need for general Enlightenment, through science and the removal of the influence of the Church. He also believed there were men of principle who would want to serve the nation -- and the masses were available to check them if even these men of principle were eventually corrupted. He identified the most threatening factions as those arising from clerics and lawyers. The nature of work kept most people as individuals, with no time to form factions. Majority rule would dilute factional influence anyway. 

John Stuart Mill

He is often seen as extending the work of Bentham, but also as overcoming some of the crudities and ambiguities in Bentham's work. To be very brief and systematic: 

  1. The apparent reductionism of Bentham's Utilitarianism had to be modified. Mill still believed in the utilitiarian principle -- in chapter five of his book On Liberty, he argued it was the only possible principle upon which to ground a real theory of Justice, much as Bentham had done. It was the right of every individual to have something guaranteed by society, in the collective interest. Similarly, the principle of morality underlying justice can only be the utilitarian principle. 
  2. However the concept of utility had to be altered. In chapter two of his book, Utilitarianism, Mill begins to differentiate different types of happiness, for example. He introduces a notion of the  'nobler feelings', a special kind of happiness associated with education and learning. Mill believes that people possessing these feelings should be allowed more weight in decision-making, and that most rational people would agree -- in his famous phrase, it was  'better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied'. In any event, only those who have experienced these nobler happinesses as well as the lesser ones, were competent to judge the competing claims.
 In Mill's  work, therefore, we have a much more open acknowledgement of the important social role of  'the wise', 'the learned classes' etc. This is accompanied by more pessimism about the ability of the masses to perceive what leads to the general happiness, with certain political consequences, as we shall see. Mill seems to be talking much more of the need to include more than direct personal interest in deciding happiness -- in his Essay on Bentham, Mill refers to intentions as important aspects of morality as well. Further, the means to achieving happiness can rapidly become ends in their own right . All this makes the scientific calculability of utility much more difficult -- we still need a kind of social science to calculate the means for achieving happiness but it should be a more subtle one, not just an arithmetic. 

The political implications of this sort of revision are nicely summarised in Burn's article in Schneewind (1968). The major development concerns the possible dangers in simple majority rule -- there could arise a tyrannous majority. Mill's entire essay -- On Liberty -- is about the need to clarify, justify, and protect individual liberty, to preserve the private sphere and private freedoms. Mill used utilitarian principles to justify the non-interference with private freedom unless it can be shown positively to harm others. He was clearly concerned that individuals would be dominated not by factions but by mass society. This anxiety arose partly from classical economic arguments about the needs to preserve individual freedom as progressive -- in Mill the freedom of opinion was especially crucial to intellectual progress, as essential in the progress of science, for example, although simple majorities might not wish to tolerate minority opinions. 

Mill's actual political proposals changed considerably over time, as his concern for the protection of minorities waxed and waned. He began as a radical democrat, like Bentham, and then entered a definite conservative phase, fearing that universal suffrage would lead to domination by ignorant masses incapable of the subtleties required to pursue the greatest happiness. His career ended with some proposals to guide the new Liberal Party -- proportional representation to protect minorities,  a permanent, professional, expert administration, and a need to develop some clear middle-ground of enlightened people  (the middle-class, various experts, scientists, and professionals). 

Mill is then quite difficult to label. He retained clear democratic principles -- that Parliament should represent everyone, including the working classes  (it was irrational to leave them out of discussion), and even women and racial minorities should be included on the same grounds. But there was a constant fear of the masses, and constant advocacy of rule by the wise. Mill advocated State education, and even an enlightened  'civil religion' [he had by this time read some early Sociology, especially the work of Comte]. 

In terms of economics, Mill remained largely a classic Ricardian,  with the usual stout defence of private property. But he did advocate trade unions too,  on the grounds that they would help alleviate  'oppressive inequality'. He rejected the 'iron law of emiseration' [beloved of some of his colleagues -- the view that wages were bound to fall 'naturally' to subsistence level], and urged trade unionism and the growth of worker co-operatives to alleviate miserable social conditions. He believed that bargaining through groups would help the full integration of the working class into society, increasing their socialisation and social responsibility, their sense of partnership and solidarity. He saw the threat of increasing class conflict between property owners and the propertyless, and wanted them to be on much more equal terms, and both well-represented in Parliament. A kind of gradualist Owenite socialism attracted his sympathies. Mill never mentions Marx, although, of course, Marx mentions him! 

Mill provides much of the legacy of modern liberalism as it has developed at the centre of modern British politics. He advocates modest state intervention, the moderation of extremes, the protection of individualism, the promotion of the social good, a kind of flexible pragmatism, and a general reform of the British constitution rather than anything revolutionary. 

There are other implications to end with. I have already hinted at the role of social science in Mill's politics. Social science plays an important role in determining some of the complexities of the maximum happiness principle, for example, and there are also clear links with some early Sociology, especially the work of early functionalists and positivists. [see file for more] Mill was interested in developing social science as an instrument of policy, to help develop a scientific administration for government. He believed that social science could deliver positive knowledge, as opposed to the ambiguities of natural law. I suppose these proposals triumph in later versions of social democracy -- such as the founding of the London School of Economics by the Fabians, precisely to deliver a valid social science, in the form of hard data about matters like poverty, or the effect of reforms. Stretching a point, we could even see Mill as the father of some of the controversial figures who haunt politics today -- the pollsters, serving up data based on social surveys, opinion polls, or focus groups, and encouraging their masters to tune their policies accordingly, irrespective of any 'core beliefs'.

Schneewind J (ed) (1968) Mill: a collection of critical essays, London: Macmillan
Steintrager J (1977) Bentham, London: George Allen and Unwin

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