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A-Z of thought: Utilitarianism

Kate Kirkpatrick

AZUtilitarianism.jpgUtilitarianism's first figurehead was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who criticized previous ethics as 'nonsense on stilts'. Ethics, he proposed, should be based on the principle of utility; that is, that one's actions should always produce 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. This makes utilitarianism a 'consequentialist' ethic, where an action's morality is determined by its outcome. This emphasis on consequences can be problematic for the well-intentioned person, however, for the obvious reason that the future is unknowable.  

Utilitarianism blossomed a generation later in the writings of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who believed he could prove 'the principle of utility'. First, he argued, the good things in life are always pleasurable. Therefore each individual is always and solely committed to what is pleasant to him, or makes him happy. From this he concluded that everyone in general is committed to producing everyone's pleasure, or the pursuit of general happiness.

Mill was an exceptionally bright man, but here there seems to be a gap in his usual rigour. His argument is as silly as saying that because everyone buttons his or her own shirt, that everyone buttons everyone else's shirts. Quite apart from the dubious premise, Mill's case could only be true if the world consisted of one person, or if the world was full of people who derived the same pleasure from good in others' lives as they do from good in their own. But that would be a world of unconditional universal sympathy, which is not quite the world we live in.

Despite this overestimation of human kindness, the idea caught on - and Mill offered other better reasons for pursuing the goal of maximizing the general happiness. Its aim to improve the future and its egalitarian and impartial aspect are ideals many affirm - on Mill's account everyone counts for one, and nobody for more than one. And a similar strand of thinking has a respectable pedigree in public affairs: it is an old legal maxim that Salus populi suprema lex - the safety of the people is the supreme law.

Utilitarianism built on these foundations, becoming an influential factor in liberal state policy objectives - one that still shapes governmental decision-making today. But the objections that were first raised still apply: and not just our inability to know the future, or selfishness, but that we cannot agree on what 'the good' is. This is particularly visible in the modern welfare state - a child of utilitarianism and its nineteenth-century bedfellow, socialism. Wherever there are resources to (re)allocate there will be disputes about what goods are truly 'the greatest'.

Today Britain's 'happiness' ranking is amongst the lowest in the developed world, despite being the sixth-richest nation. Perhaps our utilitarian forefathers should have listened to Nietzsche's snide critique: 'Man does not live for pleasure. Only the Englishman does.' But however we got here, it would appear that we still need to work on our definition of 'good'.

Kate Kirkpatrick