1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Utilitarianism

UTILITARIANISM (Lat. utilis, useful), the form of ethical doctrine which teaches that conduct is morally good according as it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. The term "utilitarian" was put into currency by J. S. Mill, who noticed it in a novel of Galt; but it was first suggested by Bentham. The development of the doctrine has been the most characteristic and important contribution of British thinkers to philosophical speculation. While British philosophizing up to a recent date has been notably lacking in width of metaphysical outlook, it has taken a very high place in its handling of the more practical problems of conduct. This is due in part, no doubt, to national character; but in the main, probably, to religious and political freedom, and the habit of discussing philosophical questions with regard to their bearing upon matters of religious and political controversy. The British moralists who wrote with political prepossessions are interesting, not merely as contributors to speculation, but as exponents of spiritual tendencies which were expressed practically in the political agitations of their times.

The history of utilitarianism (if we may use the term for the earlier history of a philosophic tendency which appeared long before the invention of the term) falls into three divisions, which may be termed theological, political and evolutional respectively. Hobbes, when he laid it down that the state of nature is a state of war, and that civil organization is the source of all moral laws, was under the influence of two great aversions, political anarchy and religious domination. It is in a clerical work written to refute Hobbes, Bishop Cumberland's De Legibus Naturae (pub. in 1672), that we find the beginnings of utilitarianism. Hobbes's conception of the state of nature antecedent to civil organization as a state of war and moral anarchy was obviously very offensive to churchmen. Their interest was to show that the gospel precept of universal benevolence, which owes nothing to civil enactment, was both agreeable to nature and conducive to happiness. Cumberland, therefore, lays it down that " The greatest possible benevolence of every rational agent towards all the rest constitutes the happiest state of each and all. Accordingly common good will be the supreme law "; and this supreme and all-inclusive law is essentially a law of nature. This important principle was developed by Cumberland with much originality and vigour. But his handling of it is clumsy and confused; and he does not make it sufficiently clear why the law of nature should be obeyed. He does, however, lay much stress upon the naturally social character of man; and this points forward to that treatment of morality as a function of the social organism which characterizes modern ethical theory. The further development of theological utilitarianism was conditioned by opposition to the Moral Sense doctrine of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson. Both these writers, more particularly the latter, had postulated in controverting Hobbes the existence of a moral sense to explain the fact that we approve benevolent actions, done either by ourselves or by others, which bring no advantage to ourselves. There was a general feeling that the advocates of the moral sense claimed too much for human nature and that they assumed a degree of unselfishness and a natural inclination towards virtue which by no means corresponded with the hard facts. The fire of human enthusiasm burnt low in the 18th century, and theologians shared the general conviction that self-interest was the ruling principle of men's conduct. Moral sense seemed to them a subjective affair, dangerous to the interests of religion. For, if the ultimate ground, of obligation lay in a refined sensitiveness to differences between right and wrong, what should be said to a man who might affirm that, just as he had no ear for music, he was insensitive to ethical differences commonly recognized ? Moreover, if mere sense were sufficient to direct our conduct, what need had we for religion? Such considerations prevailed where we might least expect to find them, in the mind of the idealist Berkeley. And it was another clergyman, John Gay, who in a dissertation prefixed to Law's translation of Archbishop King's Origin of Evil (pub. in 1731) made the ablest and most concise statement of this form of doctrine. What he says comes to this: that virtue is benevolence, and that benevolence is incumbent upon each individual, because it leads to his individual happiness. Happiness arises from the rewards of virtue. The mundane rewards of virtue are very great, but need to be reinforced by the favour or disfavour of God. Further advances along the same line of thought were made by Abraham Tucker in his Light of Nature Pursued (pub. 1768-74). Gay and Tucker supplied nearly all the important ideas of Paley's Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (pub. in 1785), in which theological utilitarianism is summarized and comes to a close. Paley, though an excellent expositor and full of common sense, had the usual defect of common-sense people in philosophy - that of tame acquiescence in the prejudices of his age. His two most famous definitions are that of virtue as " the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God and for the sake of everlasting happiness," and that of obligation as being urged by a violent motive resulting from the command of another ": both of which bring home to us acutely the limitations of 18th-century philosophizing in general and of theological utilitarianism in particular. Before we proceed to the next period of utilitarian theory we ought to go back to notice Hume's Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals (pub. in 1751), which though utilitarian is very far from being theological. Hume, taking for granted that benevolence is the supreme virtue, points out that the essence of benevolence is to increase the happiness of others. Thus he establishes the principle of utility. " Personal merit," he says, " consists entirely in the usefulness or agreeableness of qualities to the person himself possessed of them, or to others, who have any intercourse with him." This is plain enough; what remains doubtful is the reason why we approve of these qualities in another man which are useful or agreeable to others. Hume raises the question explicitly, but answers that here is an ultimate principle beyond which we cannot hope to penetrate. For this reason Hume is sometimes classed as a moral-sense philosopher rather than as a utilitarian. From his point of view, however, the distinction was not important. His purpose was to defend what may be called a humanist position in moral philosophy; that is, to show that morality was not an affair of mysterious innate principles, or abstract relations, or supernatural sanctions, but depended on the familiar conditions of personal and social welfare.

The rise of political utilitarianism illustrates most strikingly the way in which the value and dignity of philosophical principles depends on the purpose to which they are applied. Abstractly considered, Bentham's interpretation of human nature was not more exalted than Paley's. Like Paley, he regards men as moved entirely by pleasure and pain, and omits from the list of pleasures most of those which to wellnatured men make life really worth living: and he treats all pleasures as homogeneous in character so that they can be measured into equal and equally desirable lots. But his purpose was the exalted one of effecting reforms in the laws and constitution of his country. He took up the greatest happiness principle not as an attractive philosopheme, but as a criterion to distinguish good laws from bad. Sir John Bowring tells us that when Bentham was casting about for such a criterion " he met with Hume's Essays and found in them what he sought. This was the principle of utility, or, as he subsequently expressed it with more precision, the doctrine that the only test of goodness of moral precepts or legislative enactments is their tendency to promote the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number." These opinions are developed in his Principles of Morals and Legislation (pub. in 1789) and in the Deontology (published posthumously in 1834). Philosophically Bentham makes but little advance upon the theological utilitarians. His table of springs of actions shows the same mean-spirited omissions that we notice in his predecessors; he measures the quantity of pleasures by the coarsest and most mechanical tests; and he sets up general pleasure as the criterion of moral goodness. It makes no considerable difference that he looked for the moral sanction not to God but to the state: men, in his scheme, are to be induced to obey the rules of the common good by legally ordained penalties and rewards. He never faced the question how a man is to be induced to act morally in cases where these governmental sanctions could be evaded or did not exist in the particular state in which a man chanced to find himself. These principles of Bentham were the inspiration of that most important school of practical English thinkers, the Philosophic Radicals of the early 19th century; these were the principles on which they relied in those attacks upon legal and political abuses. From Bentham the leadership in utilitarianism passed to James Mill, who made no characteristic addition to its doctrine, and from him to John Stuart Mill. John Mill wrote no elaborate treatise on the subject. But he did something better than this. His essay Utilitarianism (pub. in 1863) sums up in brief and perfect form the essential principles of his doctrine, and is a little masterpiece worthy to be set beside Kant's Metaphysic of Morals as an authoritative statement of one of the two main forms of modern ethical speculation. Though in its abstract statement John Mill's doctrine may not differ very greatly from that of his predecessors, actually there is a vast change. To say that pleasure is the moral end is a merely formal statement: it makes all the difference what experiences you regard as pleasant and which pleasures you regard as the most important. Mill belonged to a generation in which the most remarkable feature was the growth of sympathy. He puts far greater stress than his predecessors upon the sympathetic pleasures, and thus quite avoids that appearance of mean prudential selfishness that is such a depressing feature in Paley and Bentham. Moreover, it is in sympathy that he finds the obligation and sanction of morality. " Morality," he says, " consists in conscientious shrinking from the violation of moral rules; and the basis of this conscientious sentiment is the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow-creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger from the influences of advancing civilization." Such passages in Mill have their full significance only when we take them in connexion with that rising tide of humanitarian sentiment which made itself felt in all the literature and in all the practical activity of his time. The other notable feature of John Mill's doctrine is his distinction of value between pleasures: some pleasures, those of the mind, are higher and more valuable than others, those of the body. It is commonly said that in making this distinction Mill has practically given up utilitarianism, because he has applied to pleasure (alleged to be the supreme criterion) a further criterion which is not pleasure. But the validity of this criticism may fairly be questioned. Pleasure is nothing objective and objectively measurable: it is simply feeling pleased. The merest pleasurelover may consistently say that he prefers a single glass of good champagne to several bottles of cooking-sherry; the slight but delicate experience of the single glass of good wine may fairly be regarded as preferable to the more massive but coarser experience of the large quantity of bad wine. So also Mill is justified in preferring a scene of Shakespeare or an hour's conversation with a friend to a great mass of lower pleasure. The last writer who, though not a political utilitarian, may be regarded as belonging to the school of Mill is Henry Sidgwick, whose elaborate Methods of Ethics (1874) may be regarded as closing this line of thought. His theory is a sort of reconciliation of utilitarianism with intuitionism, a position which he reached by studying Mill in combination with Kant and Butler. His reconciliation amounts to this, that the rule of conduct is to aim at universal happiness, but that we recognize the reasonableness of this rule by an intuition which cannot be further explained.

Even before the appearance of Sidgwick's book utilitarianism had entered upon its third or evolutional phase, in which principles borrowed from biological science make their entrance into moral philosophy. The main doctrine of evolutional or biological ethics is stated with admirable clearness in the third chapter of Darwin's Descent of Man (pub. in 1871). The novelty of his treatment, as he says, consists in the fact that, unlike any previous moralist, he approached the subject " exclusively from the side of natural history." Theological and political utilitarianism alike had been individualistic. But Darwin shows how the moral sense or conscience may be regarded as derived from the social instincts, which are common to men and animals. To understand the genesis of human morality we must study the ways of sociable animals such as horses and monkeys, which give each other assistance in trouble, feel mutual affection and sympathy, and experience pleasure in doing actions that benefit the society to which they belong. Both in animals and in human societies individuals of this character, being conducive to social welfare, are encouraged by natural selection: they and their society tend to flourish, while unsociable individuals tend to disappear and to destroy the society to which they belong. Thus, in man, do sentiments of love and mutual sympathy become instinctive and, when transmitted by inheritance, innate. When man has advanced so far as to be sensitive to the opinions of his fellow-men, their approbation and disapprobation reinforce the influence of natural selection. When he has reached the stage of reflection there arises what we know as conscience. He will approve or disapprove of himself according as his conduct has fulfilled the conditions of social welfare. " Thus the imperious word ought seems merely to imply the consciousness of a persistent instinct, either innate or partly acquired, serving as a guide, though liable to be disobeyed." The most famous of the systematic exponents of evolutional utilitarianism is, of course, Herbert Spencer, in whose Data of Ethics (1819) the facts of morality are viewed in relation with his vast conception of the total process of cosmic evolution. He shows how morality can be viewed physically, as evolving from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; biologically, as evolving from a less to a more complete performance of vital functions, so that the perfectly moral man is one whose life is physiologically perfect and therefore perfectly pleasant; psychologically, as evolving from a. state in which sensations are more potent than ideas (so that the future is sacrificed to the present) to a state in which ideas are more potent than sensations (so that a greater but distant pleasure is preferred to a less but present pleasure); sociologically, as evolving from approval of war and warlike sentiments. to approval of the sentiments appropriate to international peace and to an industrial organization of society. The sentiment of obligation Spencer regards as essentially transitory; when a man reaches a condition of perfect adjustment, he will always do what is right without any sense of being obliged to it. The best feature of the Data of Ethics is its anti-ascetic vindication of pleasure as man's natural guide to what is physiologically healthy and morally good. For the rest, Spencer's doctrine is valuable more as stimulating to thought by its originality and width of view than as offering direct solutions of ethical problems. Following up the same line of thought, Leslie Stephen with less brilliance but more attention to scientific method has worked out in his Science of Ethics (1882) the conception of morality as a function of the social organism: while Professor S. Alexander in his Moral Order and Progress (pub. in 1889) has applied the principles of natural competition and natural selection to explain the struggle of ideals against each other within society: moral evil, says Professor Alexander, is in great part a defeated variety of moral ideal. There is no doubt that much remains still to be done in illustrating human morality by the facts and principles of biology and natural history. A. Sutherland's Origin and Growth of the Moral Instinct (pub. in T898) is a capable piece of work in this direction. Professor L. T. Hobhouse's Morals in Evolution and Professor Westermarck's Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (both published in 1906) deal with the matter from the side of anthropology.

See E. Albee's History of English Utilitarianism (1902), a complete and painstaking survey. Leslie Stephen's English Utilitarians (pub. in 1900) deals elaborately with Bentham and the Mills, but more as social and political reformers than as theoretic moralists. See also Ethics.

(H. St.)