Reflections on Utilitarianism

Sheldon Richman cites your humble correspondent on rule-utilitarianism and rule-egoism in his latest editorial.

Bentham's Auto-Icon 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.

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9 Responses to Reflections on Utilitarianism

  1. Sheldon Richman October 19, 2007 at 1:23 pm #

    I might have been sweepingly hasty–or hastily sweeping. I would defer to you on the point. Thanks for the link.

  2. Administrator October 19, 2007 at 1:55 pm #

    Well, as I say, you’re not clearly wrong either — there’s a sense in which none of these guys thinks the ultimate values can be rationally proven.

    Thanks for the plug!

  3. Sheldon Richman October 19, 2007 at 1:58 pm #

    Any time. I think your and Neera’s papers make deeply important contributions to our understanding, freeing us from constraints forged by misapprehension.

  4. Anna Morgenstern October 19, 2007 at 7:25 pm #

    “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”

    And the existentialists would say that the fact that one has decided to remain alive is a judgment that life(at least for you) contains on balance more (pleasure) than (pain) though you have to extend the definition of those words a bit.
    So a Spencerian Existentialist would be in quite a solid position I think. One would merely have to say “let the dead judge the dead” and go on.

  5. Tim October 22, 2007 at 3:45 am #

    Any thoughts on why the Benthamites / Utilitarians were (at least for a period) supporters of laisser faire?

    n his 1962 ‘New Individualist Review’ essay “Is a Free Society Stable?” Milton Friedman made an attempt to answer the question of why the Benthamites allied themselves with the classical liberal laisser faire supporters. Friedman noted that Britain had a “wide and deserved reputation for the extraordinary obedience of its people to the law.” Yet “(i)t has not always been so. At the turn of the nineteenth century, and earlier, the British has a very different reputation as a nation of people who would obey no law, or almost no law, a nation of smugglers, a nation in which corruption was rife, and in which one could not get very much done through government channels.” Friedman says “one of the factors that led Bentham and the Utilitarians toward laisser faire, and this is a view that is also expressed by [A.V.] Dicey, was the self evident truth that if you wanted to get evils corrected, you could not expect to do so through the government of the time. The government was corrupt and inefficient. It was clearly oppressive.” Friedman says the utilitarians needed “the establishment of laisser faire [to lay] the groundwork for a reform in the civil service in the latter part of the century. ..Laisser faire laid the groundwork for a widespread respect for the law, on the one hand, and a relatively incorrupt, honest and efficient civil service on the other, both of which are essential preconditions for the operation of a collectivist society.”

    This reminds me of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party and it’s support for free market reforms.

  6. Administrator October 22, 2007 at 7:51 am #

    I think the answer is that in addition to being utilitarians they were also (more or less) good economists and/or good historians, and so realised that government control tends to have bad results.

  7. Tim October 23, 2007 at 12:47 am #

    Francis W. Hirst, the classical liberal / libertarian editor of ‘The Economist’ in the early decades of the 20th century, in his book “Liberty and Tyranny” gave a similar answer to the question.

    “It is difficult to say whether English liberties owe more to Adam Smith and Richard Cobden than to Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill. The marvellous growth of national wealth and popular welfare in the eighty years following the Reform Bill of 1832, and the success of the political and administrative reforms which followed that measure, were intimately connected. But for the Reform Bill, neither the repeal of the Corn Laws nor the emancipation of British trade could have been accomplished, nor could the new democracy and the new local authorities have grown and flourished as they did without the vast extension of industry and commerce which provided ample revenue for their beneficient activity…”

  8. Sheldon Richman October 23, 2007 at 6:03 am #

    “nor could the new democracy and the new local authorities have grown and flourished as they did without the vast extension of industry and commerce which provided ample revenue for their beneficient activity…”

    The downside of industry and commerce.

  9. Tim October 24, 2007 at 1:05 am #

    I’m not really sure what F W Hirst’s views were on local government but he was certainly a strong democrat. He tempered his view of British parliamentary democracy with a critique of how the single seat electoral system harmed the Liberal Party vis a vis Labour and the Tories. He was an ardent opponent of imperialism and the “Finance Capitalism” he saw behind it and worked closely with fellow free trader J A Hobson in their opposition to the war on South Africa. Hobson eventually adopted an ‘underconsumptionist’ critique of capitalism once it became clear that the leaders of the Liberal Party were not serious about free trade. Hirst, himself married into the Cobden family, stayed with a classical liberal economic position, he wrote an excellent ‘Political Economy of War’ mid-way through WW1 in which he skewered the war debt system and conscription as being the slippery slope highway to war. In his postwar books he argued that the Great Depression had it’s origin in WW1 and the various schemes designed to avoid paying for it. A great friend of Morley, who resigned from cabinet in protest at Britain’s path to war in 1914, he argued that Britain mixed imperial goals in the East European and Mid-East theatre of the war behind the more popular ‘defensive’ goal of defending Belgium. This process of adding imperial war aims to a more popular and defensible ‘defensive’ war aim would seem to be still in use today.

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