Classical utilitarianism Notes for October 29

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 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. That was the lesson of Rachel’s example. Suppose A would derive great pleasure from killing B, B would not suffer a greater loss (B is ill or near death or A is just really happy about killing), and A could keep the whole thing secret. Killing B seems to be the utilitarian thing to do. We could construct similar examples involving theft, lying, torture, or what have you.

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.

What about Glaucon’s question?

Callum asked how utilitarians reply to a question like Glaucon’s. I don’t think they do. In a way, they’re taking common sense morality for granted. I mean, they’re taking it for granted that there are genuine moral constraints on us that we have good reason to comply with. Where they disagree with common sense morality concerns its content, that is, what it holds we are required to do.

A more generous thing to say on behalf of the utilitarians is that they didn’t think Glaucon’s question was a pressing one. Mill and Sidgwick believed that people are motivated by sympathy with others. They also believed that this psychological mechanism of sympathy could be developed so that people would be motivated to act more like utilitarians than they currently do. If sympathy with others is a deep fact about human psychology, Glaucon’s question isn’t a pressing one: we couldn’t be indifferent to others even if he was right about what it makes sense to do.

I think there’s something to that. Of course, not all people have a deep sympathy with others. There are sociopathic characters who don’t care about others. They are a serious problem. But it’s not clear to me that a philosophical account of our reasons to behave morally is the right solution to the problem that they pose.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 1, 2012.
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