Classical utilitarianism Notes for March 22

Main points

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?

Meet the utilitarians!

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:

  1. Hedonistic views of the good. They think that pleasure (happiness, the satisfaction of desires, utility, etc.) is ultimately the only good thing and that pain is ultimately the only bad thing.
  2. Consequentialist views of right and wrong. They think that the right action or policy is the one that brings about better overall consequences than the alternatives. When we couple their consequentialism with their hedonism, we see that they seek to maximize happiness overall.

Utilitarianism and commonsense morality

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.

  1. Utilitarianism almost always favors abiding by the common sense rule. Utilitarians generally refuse to lie, kill, or torture because of the bad consequences of doing so.
  2. It’s true that, in extraordinary circumstances, utilitarians will recommend breaking the common sense moral rule. But, in these circumstances, that’s the right thing to do. Sticking with the common sense rule, by contrast, would be irrational.

Frequently, both arguments apply.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 1, 2010.
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