It was in my PHL 102 class I was first introduced to the idea of utilitarianism and I fell in love. It’s kind of like a point system, you tally up each sides points to decide fairness. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy.” Now right off the bat, let me assure you that this system is much too simplified to truly be fair. The longer it stuck around the more times it got abridged, and in my opinion the more abridged it got the weaker it became. But the stuff I initially learned by Jeremy Bentham and even more-so John Stuart Mill grabbed me and hopefully I can convey to you why.
In their classical approach to utilitarianism everyone’s happiness counted the same, which is I suppose the draw of the whole system. It also so happened that they identified the good with pleasure, like Epicurus, as in hedonists values. I might loose some of you here, I know, because hedonism is looked down on. Hedonism can be defined as the ethical theory that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life, and this is often associated with sensual desires. The main issue here for most, myself included, is that sometimes pleasure isn’t good for a person in the long run. Also sometimes we must bear through something not so pleasurable to find the happiness we seek. I have come to also see though that as humans our first instinct is to be comfortable (well fed, not in pain, calm, ect…) and that is always our main goal. The golden mean if you will. So even when we struggle to find happiness, even in all our failures we are still seeking pleasure even when we don’t really know what that is. In this way I suppose it depends, if the highest good/greatest pleasure to you is sensual in nature or gluttonous or overly glamorous then yes, this system may seem superficial or depending on your religious views immoral. If you slow down though and think about happiness in a more simple way I feel as though the things most will most likely be seeking are things like a fitting home, family, or lifestyle- which again isn’t necessarily extravagant or prideful or in any way unethical.
They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest number’. Sounds good, sounds fair but this too gets hairy. The often used example from class was say you are for some reason hanging out on a train track and you stumble upon the switch to change the rail paths. Then you unexpectedly realize that to trains are speeding towards each other. It is clear that if and when these trains collide they will both be destroyed and the passengers will most likely all perish. You don’t have to let this happen though because your by the switch and if you press it the westbound train will continue strait…unfortunately though the eastbound train will fly of a cliff. Take into consideration also now that the westbound train is a multiple car passenger train while the eastbound is a train pulling lumber.
Easily you could claim it is not your job to play God. If you weren’t their to flip the switch they’d collide so it would stand to reason that you should not mess with fate. Let them collide. Yes, you could claim that…but then you would not be very utilitarian. The thing to do which would benefit the greatest number of people is flip the switch. You’d spare all the passengers in the westbound train AND consequently the only person who would die in the eastbound is the conductor, who would have most likely died anyway.
What if though the eastbound train was already headed straight and the westbound passenger train was headed off the cliff. Again you have the power to flip the switch but now while it would surely save the lives of all the passengers it would also surely kill the conductor of the lumber train. It would still be best for the greatest number of people BUT you would have the blood of one man on your hands. On the contrary, if you do nothing you are technically not responsible for the outcome. Would it make a difference if, say, your brother was the conductor of the lumber train or if your sister was on her way to a business meeting on the passenger train? I think it would make an emotional difference to most people but to someone practicing utilitarianism it would make no difference, the right thing to do is save the most people.
Jeremy Bentham who lived from 1748 to 1832 was influenced by Hobbes’ theories of human nature and of course Hume’s theories of social utility. He thought that human beings, by nature, avoid pain at all costs as a means of attaining pleasure. Bentham also promoted utility on behalf of the government for them righteously trying to promote overall happiness, but this sort of clashed with Hobbes’ psychological egoism. For me this is where problems start to arrive, utility is a sensible general rule but once you start trying to please everyone at the same time it becomes hard to make such black and white decisions. To make utility work Bentham did eventually have to ease up on egoism and admit that people do at times act on behalf of other people’s happiness. Now Hume, on the other hand, rejected egoism completely. So in what way was Bentham influenced by Hume you ask? He has merely been influenced by Hume’s arguments to see pleasure as a standard of moral value. A good action is good whether or not it is perceived that way. So Bentham would view liberty and autonomy as good but only instrumentally, not intrinsically.
John Stuart Mill was a follower of Bentham, and though he did admire him a great deal he did disagree with him on the nature of happiness. In accordance with many other philosophers Mill believed that intellectual pleasures are higher than sensual or animalistic pleasures. Because Mill did differ from Bentham so greatly in this way, many refuse to classify him as a hedonist at all. It is important though to remember that like Bentham, the good still consists in pleasure for Mill, it is still a psychological state. Similar to my writing earlier in this post it just requires you to understand the definition of hedonism a little bit differently. If a person gets more pleasure from intellectual activity than from carnal activity and so they engage only in intellectual activity then I would say that they are still acting hedonistic. They are still indulging purely in what gives them pleasure.
For more information on the history of Utilitarianism visit http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history. This has been a very broad introduction, and only truly of the very beggining part. Utilitarianism does continue through the nineteenth century with other philosophers of importance such as G.E. Moore who argued against hedonism entirely and saw beauty as an intrinsic good. He also often criticized pleasure. Early on in the twentieth century then utilitarianism more or less disappeared. Thanks to much disagreement with hedonism Classical Utilitarianism was slowly replaced by the Consequentialist identity. None the less Bentham and his utilitarian calculations did still shape contemporary philosophy in a big way, and so understanding his work and ideas does help us greatly to continue our studies of happiness today.