The goal of today’s class was to introduce utilitarianism: who were the utilitarians, what did they believe, and what are the basic arguments for and against the view?
The utilitarians were social reformers. They thought that irrational restrictions in common sense morality and in the law retarded social progress and permitted unwarranted cruelty. Historically speaking, they are liberal heroes.
Nonetheless, they tend to wear a black hat in political philosophy courses. Their utilitarian philosophy, it is often said, is only imperfectly aligned with their liberal politics. That, in any event, is the theme of Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice. But before we get into that, let’s meet our utilitarians. Utilitarians tend to hold:
Utilitarianism has an interesting relationship with common sense morality, the system of rules that we learn and operate with in daily life.
On the one hand, they maintained that common sense morality is implicitly utilitarian. Utilitarianism captures the rational parts of common sense morality. It improves on the sensible core of the common sense rules while eliminating excesses, contradictions, and imprecision.
On the other hand, utilitarianism is an alternative to comon sense morality. This means that many of the categories and concepts that are treated as fundamental in common sense morality do not have that status in utilitarianism. Rights, desert, fairness, you name it: there’s nothing special about them. While there is clearly a theoretical difference, it’s less clear how much difference there would be in practice.
Since they were reformers, it is not surprising to discover that the utilitarians often disagreed with received views about morality. You think that it’s immoral to dissect human bodies? Nonsense, look at all the good that can come from it.†† This was the cause that inspired Bentham’s famous Auto-icon. You think it’s acceptable to punish people for harmless pleasures? Don’t be silly. And so on.
Still, it is disconcerting that utilitarians are willing to violate almost any received moral rule if the circumstances call for doing so. Promising? Killing the innocent? Torture? You name it, it’s fair game because the only question that matters is what will maximize utility. Any action could, if the conditions are right, be the one that produces the best overall consequences.
Since morality, as we commonly think of it, is not so flexible, utilitarianism appears to many people to be morally objectionable.
Utilitarians have two ways of replying to any objection raised along these lines.
Frequently, both arguments apply.