Sheldon Richman cites your humble correspondent on rule-utilitarianism and rule-egoism in his latest editorial.
I’m not sure how far I agree with Sheldon’s suggestion that utilitarianism is “a product of the positivist mindset, which held that reason can’t judge ultimate values.” That’s certainly true of the kind of utilitarianism we find in Mises, Hazlitt, and Yeager. But is it equally true of classical utilitarians like Bentham, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, Sidgwick, and Moore? Well, to some extent it is; those thinkers mostly accepted Hume’s argument that ultimate value judgments couldn’t be rationally proven. But does that mean they regarded the choice of ultimate values as purely arbitrary?
That’s a tricky question. Bentham and Godwin based their utilitarianism on theories about human psychology. Mill thought that while we can’t prove the value of pleasure directly, we can prove it indirectly, by showing that it’s presupposed as a first principle in all our evaluative practice. Spencer thought we couldn’t coherently deny the value of pleasure, because pleasure is the form of ethical intuition (in the same way that Kant thought space and time are the forms of sensory intuition); and while he granted that he couldn’t prove that life contains on balance more pleasure than pain, he thought once that premise was granted, all the rest of his theory followed. Sidgwick thought he could show that utilitarianism and ethical egoism are the only defensible theories, but that we couldn’t prove which was preferable. Moore thought we could know ultimate values by intuition. It’s hard to know how to categorise these positions.
I think what led utilitarians most astray was the loss of the Aristotelean category of constitutive means, and thus the reduction of all means-end relationships to instrumental ones; and this in turn was the result of a tendency to emphasise causal relations over conceptual ones, which in still further turn stemmed from the prevailing empiricist, mechanistic, and psychologistic approach that prevailed in early British philosophy.