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While we cannot regard Bentham as having founded utilitarianism as an ethical doctrine, we may rightly describe him as the founder of modern utilitarian theory. In his hands utilitarianism became a tolerably coherent position and one which exercised a definite influence on economics and on legislation. There was, indeed, no department of public life which it did not affect and into which Bentham himself did not carry it, as is seen from the record of his multifarious controversies on public matters. As Bain puts it (James Mill: A Biography, p. 144), “Bentham had an extraordinarily ambitious mind; Aristotle was not more bent on being universally re-constructive. He aspired to remodel the whole of human knowledge; while it is very doubtful if his attainments were up to the level of his own time.” There would, however, have been nothing absurd about this aspiration, if Bentham had actually discovered a universal touchstone, a means of systematising all human activities; and this he thought he possessed in the principle of utility.
Utilitarian conceptions, as has been suggested, were present in the work of previous moralists; indeed, they occupied a prominent place in leading theories, as well as in common notions of morality. Ethical theories, from the time of Socrates onwards, were largely concerned with ends, and “the moral end” was commonly conceived as some sort of general good or public interest. The question of the relation of this interest to private interests, in the form, for example, of a sum or average of the latter, appears already in the theory expounded by Glaucon in Republic, II, and reappears throughout the history of moral and legal speculation. The notion that society is based on the striking of such an average is, of course, exposed in the Republic itself, the main point being that the making of this arrangement, or any other “social contract”, implies the pre-existence of society, and that the upholding of an average interest merely puts a premium upon cunning, since, if private interest is the motive at work in this compromise, no unity, no public interest, has been established.
It appears, then, that we can account for common activities only by
rejecting the whole theory of interests and particularly of
“self-interest”, only by recognising, as Butler does, the
disinterestedness of our affections. Yet we find Butler taking the view
that “happiness” (the object of “self-love”) is an important object of
human activities; and this utilitarian
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strain appears in the work of the eighteenth century British moralists generally and even in the “formalistic” ethics of Kant. At the same time it is felt that virtue or rectitude is not to be accounted for on a utilitarian basis, and hence we are presented with various mixtures of intuitionism and utilitarianism. Bentham at least has the credit of trying to destroy this ethical dualism or “heteronomy”, this divided allegiance to virtue and to happiness.
Intuitionism is criticised by Bentham, as one of the principles adverse to that of utility, under the heading of “The Arbitrary Principle; or the Principle of Sympathy and Antipathy” (Principles of Legislation, ch. III). His criticism is important as bringing out the fictions and “vague generalities” by which moralistic theories are supported. “The various systems that have been formed concerning the standard of right and wrong, may all be reduced to the principle of sympathy and antipathy. One account may serve for all of them. They consist all of them in so many contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept of the author's sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself” (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ch. II). It is clear enough that in appeals to moral sense or understanding or to the “fitness of things”, in determining rectitude, we have “the negation of all principle” or, better, the absence of all science; and the like applies to the philosopher “who says there is no harm in any thing in the world but in telling a lie; and that if, for example, you were to murder your own father, this would only be a particular way of saying he was not your father. Of course, when this philosopher sees any thing he does not like, he says it is a particular way of telling a lie. It is saying that the act ought to be done, or may be done, when, in truth, it ought not to be done.”
But though Bentham has shown that in these cases assertion masquerades as proof, it is not shown that his own theory is in any better a position. “What one expects to find in a principle”, he says, “is something that points out some external consideration as a means of warranting and guiding the internal sentiments of approbation and disapprobation.” In other words, it has to be a means of making us like something that we did not previously like, or vice versa. But such a change can be “warranted” or “guided” only by reference to something we like all the time, and not to any “external” considerations. When Bentham says (Introduction. ch. I) that the principle of utility is “that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question”, he is not getting away from “internal sentiments” but is taking one internal sentiment as a guide to all others; and the guide he offers turns out to be as arbitrary as the objection to lying.
It may, of course, be contended, as is done by Sidgwick, that
utilitarianism, even if it is reduced to a form of intuitionism, is
still defensible in that form; that Bentham is still right in
maintaining that utility provides
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a common measure of objects of approbation or pursuit, and not merely a common measure but a motive-force — that it is a “practical principle”. But actually this is not the case. “Pleasure”, as Bentham's catalogue of pleasures shows, turns out to be no more definite than “object of approval”; it is merely that which we like or want, and an enumeration of wanted things gives us no common measure, and no means of estimating different possible acts by reference to a sum of pleasures or excess of pleasure over pain (i.e., how much more we get of what we want than of what we would like to avoid). Certainly, there can be an adjustment between different demands of a particular person, just as there can be between demands of different persons. But we cannot bring all demands to a single “market”, and, in order to see what demands will be effective, we have to take account of the whole interplay of social forces; and as far as “quantity of pleasure” is concerned, measurement can be made only after the event. To estimate the keenness of a demand we have to see how far people are prepared to go to get it satisfied; we have to let competing demands fight it out.
Pleasure, then, is neither a common measure nor a motive-force; as that which pleases us it is itself a “vague generality” or fiction, on the same footing as that which our moral sense approves. And, failing as a common measure, it is no more successful than the latter (e.g., in the hands of Butler) in building up a public interest out of personal preferences; though a certain “sanction” may be given to the objects of particular demands by making them appear to be resultants of the requirements of members of society in general. Such “common public necessities” are satirised by Chesterton in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where King Auberon contends that “Herbert Spencer refrained from theft for the same reason that he refrained from wearing feathers in his hair”, not because of any public-spiritedness but “because he was an English gentleman with different tastes”.
The view expressed by Chesterton that “you cannot argue with the
choice of the soul” is, of course, in accordance with the “arbitrary
principle” which Bentham regards as opposed to any exactness in ethical
science. But Bentham himself has provided nothing more exact; we could
only say, in respect of “pleasures”, that the outcome of the pressure of
various demands will be the result of the operation of these demands,
that the “market” will settle itself. But there are definite social
forces, which are not measurable as amounts of a common stuff but which
differ qualitatively, and which fight out the social issues. We can
consider what they are and how they are situated, and get an estimate of
their tendency, but we have to recognise their distinct characters. Thus
Chesterton, though he also seems to make it a matter of awaiting the
event, is substantially correct in recognising “the choice of the soul”,
i.e., that there are certain things we are prepared to work and fight
for. Choice may indeed be influenced, by argument or otherwise, but, if
it is influenced by appeal to “our interest” or to “everyone's
interest”, this is a process of deception, since strictly we are only
appealed to to want what we
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want. Bentham's “principle”, that is to say, is just as arbitrary, just as opposed to scientific measurement, as are the various conceptions of the intuitionists.
Bentham substantially admits this in his account (Introduction, ch. IV) of the balancing of pleasures and pains, i.e., of the estimation, addition, and comparison of the sums, of the degrees of wantedness of the various objects brought about and prevented by a particular act. “It is not to be expected”, he says, “that this process should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment, or to every legislative or judicial operation. It may, however, be always kept in view; and as near as the process actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one.” But if this has not been done and we still have passed a moral judgment, it appears that a moral judgment is not a judgment about the “general tendency” of the act in question and therefore cannot be made more exact by stating that general tendency, even supposing that this could be done. Thus Bentham not only, like other moralists, confuses between what is good and what is chosen or wanted, but also, again like other moralists, tries to secure the choosing of certain lines of action by making people suppose that these are what they really, or more exactly, want; and so is imposed the notion of a public interest which it is everyone's interest to foster.note
But, whatever deception the use of this vague notion may occasion, it is clear that ordinary choice takes no account of general tendencies. Bentham, then, has to find some connection between general tendencies and immediate demands, between public and private interest, between his “principle” and actual practice. He has to find some means of making his common measure work, and also has to show how we come to pass “moral judgments” at all, instead of simply seeking “pleasure” (i.e., doing what we do and wanting what we want). The theory of sanctions is Bentham's attempt to bridge the gap. Sanctions are pleasures and pains considered as efficient causes or means (Introduction, ch. III), and through their operation private interests can be made to subserve public interest, i.e., people can be made to demand (or accept) what has a certain general tendency, what, in particular, produces pleasures as ends.
Now apart from the question of public interest, the general
position here is that demands can change, that pleasures can be annexed
to pleasures or pains to pleasures, so that what was demanded before
comes to be demanded more or less. In the latter case we find that
something we like carries with it something we dislike, and thus we may
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it. This is only to say that there can be conflict among a person's demands just as there can be between the demands of different persons. There is no evidence in all this that demands can be brought to a common basis, but the opposite is implied. Certainly there must be some upshot of any particular conflict, one demand can defeat another, but this is because they are for different things; and to say that the one which, in the event, is seen to have had greater force is thereby shown to be for greater pleasure, is simply to rob the term “pleasure” of all meaning (except one in which it would apply to all physical activities, and planets, e.g., would move “for pleasure”).
There can indeed be deliberation regarding objects sought, but there is no general calculus of wants. When we aim at bringing something about, we can consider the obstacles to its attainment and the ways of getting round them; we may be confronted, in the process, with things we do not want or cannot do, and we may accordingly give up that particular aim. Such actual or contemplated struggles have quantitative features but are not reducible to calculable amounts of a single currency, “welfare” or “pleasure”. Even in calculations on a monetary basis it is qualitative considerations that settle the matter. A man may say to himself, “If I buy this book, I cannot go to the theatre or cannot have a bottle of wine with my dinner”, but it is simply not the case that he estimates what he will get out of the book as quantitatively comparable with what he will get from the other sources of enjoyment. The “utility” of the objects is determined by his decision, and does not determine it. Demands, of course, go in groups; the securing of one thing enhances or diminishes the “value” of another (i.e., what a man is prepared to do to get it). But there is still no total market; there are no exchange rates for all objects of desire.
It follows at once from this that the function of the legislator, who establishes the “political sanction”, cannot be conceived as that of a universal calculator or seeker of “general welfare”. Bentham, it may be noted, merely assumes that there are some whose interest is the general interest, and that such persons may be legislating. From what has been said it appears that there is no general interest, and that the legislator is simply a person who has certain demands of his own and certain special ways of getting them satisfied; in particular, that of annexing “pains” or penalties to any opposition to his demands. The people legislated for may of course resist the imposition of these penalties; and the intelligent legislator will try to calculate what resistance he will meet with and whether it will be so great as to defeat his proposals. This is a calculation of the same type as that which arises in any attempt to meet difficulties and satisfy demands. It may quite well be in the legislator's “interest”, i.e., it may advance his schemes, to put about the notion of public welfare and the supposition that he is acting with that object in view; he may even put it in that way to himself, but it is not so.
Bentham errs, then, in putting the legislator, as a supervisor and
re-adjuster of pleasures and pains, on a different level from any other
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he errs also in distinguishing the moral, political and religious sanctions from the physical or natural sanction. The operations of “public opinion”, of legislation and of a man's own beliefs are just as natural as those of any non-human agency. The type of question — if you want to get or avoid A, you must accept or forego B — is exactly the same in each case. Certainly a man may mistakenly hold a view of this kind, but this, as Bentham admits, applies to all the sanctions. In particular, qualifications (“so long as this type of government persists”, and the like) may be overlooked; breadth of outlook, formulation of new demands, extension of struggle, are relevant here — but they are relevant to all the cases Bentham mentions, and they are all “natural” factors. The question is not, then, how pleasures and pains may be made to operate by some special functionary, but how demands do operate in relation to one another and to existing supplies. This question can be treated only in terms of social movements and struggles, and not as a matter of annexing pleasures and pains to “natural” pleasures and pains so as to secure a maximum of pleasure (or any other result).
It is to be noted that while such a movement will have its successes and its difficulties, it need not have any special activity of calculation. It is quite possible for men to promote specific objects without knowing that they are doing so. This is especially important in relation to moral theory because of the assumption that the question of goodness is linked with that of promotion. But the moral theorist, in determining what is good, is not confronted with any question of a motive for producing it. Only after he has determined where goodness is to be found, can he consider how it is caused; and not only is this independent of any consideration of how he can cause it, but he may find that goods do not come about by people wanting them. The political theorist, on the other hand, has certainly to take account of the operation of demands and calculations, but still his own theory is not to be regarded as a political calculation, as a consideration of how a certain movement can set about attaining its objects, what tactics it can adopt, how it can overcome opposition. It is just through confusion on this point, and on the function of the moral theorist, that Bentham is able to set up his conception of public interest (the object of demands in general or of a general social movement) and to take it as setting a standard of “approval”. But there is nothing in his theory of utility to show that there is a common interest, and there is nothing in his theory of political sanction to show that such an interest can be created.
As we have seen, Bentham assumes that the legislator is one who
finds his own greatest happiness in the greatest happiness of the
greatest number. Now his function of annexing penalties to acts implies
that the persons for whom he is legislating find their greatest
happiness elsewhere and that, by altering the balance of pleasures and
pains, he can bring their demands at least nearer to his own. But in
thus altering the greatest happiness in individuals he is altering the
greatest happiness of the greatest number, and his own calculations will
have to be begun over
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again. It is clear that the real work of the legislator is to make people want “the right thing”, i.e., as far as possible to enforce his own demands, and that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a fiction, a vague generality, which renders the enforcement easier. And Bentham himself, when he comes to defend any institution or activity, does so not in terms of “pleasure” but on other grounds.
The appeal is most frequently made to considerations of public order. This, indeed, is closely connected with the “greatest happiness”, for, if this means the least possible conflict of demands, it may be identified with the greatest possible orderliness. But, whereas “pleasure” can be passed off as something that everyone wants, the existence of social order does not show what objects are attained in the given society and whose demands they satisfy. If it is assumed that the legislator acts in everyone's interest, the desirability of order will follow. But if that assumption is not made, the attempt to show how order is or may be produced does not appear as an application of utilitarian principles, but they rather appear as cloaks for an unexamined order. In speaking (Principles of the Penal Code, ch. V) of “seditious disturbances”, Bentham advises that the magistrate should speak in the name not of the king but of justice. “Every favour, everything which bears the character of pure beneficence, ought to be presented as the personal act of the father of his people. All rigorous proceedings — those of severe benevolence — ought to be attributed to nobody. Let the hand that acts be veiled. Throw the responsibility upon some creature of reason, some animated abstraction; such as Justice, daughter of necessity and mother of peace, whom men ought to fear, but whom they cannot hate, and who ought always to possess their supremest homage.” Advice of this kind very strongly suggests that the legislator is taken as upholding a special interest and not any “general interest”.
This comes out still more clearly in Bentham's discussion of property (Principles of the Civil Code, Part I, chs. VIII-X). That there can be no property without law, he contends, is one of the advantages of law. “Property and law are born together, and die together. Before laws were made there was no property; take away laws, and property ceases.” That is not to say that if we take away property, law ceases; which is what Bentham is trying to prove. He goes on to say that “as regards property, security consists in receiving no check, no shock, no derangement to the expectation founded on the laws, of enjoying such and such a portion of good. The legislator owes the greatest respect to this expectation which he has himself produced. When he does not contradict it, he does what is essential to the happiness of society; when he disturbs it, he always produces a proportionate sum of evil.” Apart, however, from the fact that people dislike losing their property (and this tells us nothing about society), the only evil Bentham can find to result from attacks on property is “deadening of industry”, and here again he assumes, as in the case of law, that because industry has gone along with property, it cannot go without it.
To the objection that “perhaps the laws of property are good for
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who have property and oppressive to those who have none”, Bentham answers that poverty is the primitive condition of the human race, and that the poor in civilised society are at least better off than men in the natural state. “All participate more or less in the pleasures, the advantages, and the resources of civilised society. The industry and the labour of the poor place them among the candidates of fortune. And have they not the pleasures of acquisition? Does not hope mix with their labour? Is the security which the law gives of no importance to them?… All things considered, the protection of the laws may contribute as much to the happiness of the cottage as to the security of the palace.” Argument of this kind to show that the poor man, although he “obtains nothing, except by painful labour”, is better off than he would be in a state of nature, is not of a sort to establish any connection between property and “the greatest good of the greatest number”.
Bentham's further argument makes his position still clearer. “It is astonishing that a writer so judicious as Beccaria has interposed, in a work dictated by the soundest philosophy, a doubt subversive of social order. The right of property, he says, is a terrible right, which perhaps is not necessary. Tyrannical and sanguinary laws have been founded upon that right; it has been frightfully abused; but the right itself presents only ideas of pleasure, abundance, and security. It is that right which has vanquished the natural aversion to labour; which has given to man the empire of the earth; which has brought to an end the migratory life of nations; which has produced the love of country and a regard for posterity. Men universally desire to enjoy speedily — to enjoy without labour. It is that desire which is terrible; since it arms all who have not against all who have. The law which restrains that desire is the noblest triumph of humanity over itself.”
In brief, social order is equivalent to the maintenance of property, and the legislator's business is to uphold the interests of the propertied class. In his discussion (Civil Code, Part III, ch. I) of the relations between master and servant, and with special reference to apprenticeship, Bentham says that “competition will best regulate the price of [their] mutual services, as of all other objects of commerce; and here, as elsewhere, industry should find its just reward”. But most governments show a “mania for regulation” and intermeddle with businesses that they do not understand. Governments, then, should not interfere with anything that can be settled by the operation of the property system, but they should interfere with anything that would unsettle that system; they should protect property. Thus it is a matter of serving certain interests, enabling them to work freely, “hindering hindrances” to them. And the “greatest happiness” principle merely dictates the apologetic method of emphasising (or inventing) advantages produced by these interests in any particular quarter and explaining away disadvantages (things objected to by the recipient).
The vagueness inherent in utilitarian arguments is shown in
Bentham's statement of “the language of reason and plain sense” on
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imprescriptible rights” (“Critical Examination of the Declaration of Rights”; Works, Bowring's Edition, Vol. II). “In proportion as it is right or proper, i.e., advantageous to the society in question, that this or that right — a right to this or that effect — should be established and maintained, in that same proportion it is wrong that it should be abrogated: but as there is no right which ought not to be maintained so long as it is upon the whole advantageous to the society that it should be maintained, so there is no right which, when the abolition of it is advantageous to society, should not be abolished. To know whether it would be more for the advantage of society that this or that right should be maintained or abolished, the time at which the question about maintaining or abolishing is proposed, must be given, and the circumstances under which it is proposed to maintain or abolish it; the right itself must be specifically described, not jumbled with an indistinguishable heap of others, under any such vague general terms as property, liberty and the like.” Here we have the utilitarian pretence at precision; but not only are we supposed to settle the issue on the basis of the “vague general” notion of what is “upon the whole advantageous to the society”, but the questions of what are the general conditions of social life and what is the relation to them of government, are completely obscured.
Rights, according to Bentham, are legal rights, and it is “simple nonsense” to talk about natural rights. “We know what it is for men to live without government — and living without government, to live without rights; we know what it is for men to live without government, for we see instances of such a way of life — as we see it in many savage nations, or rather races of mankind; for instance, among the savages of New South Wales, whose way of living is so well known to us: no habit of obedience, and thence no government — no government, and thence no laws — no laws, and thence no such thing as rights — no security — no property: — liberty, as against regular control, the control of laws and government — perfect; but as against all irregular control, the mandates of stronger individuals, none.” It is this, however, that is “simple nonsense”. Rights can certainly be established by government. But government is simply the operation of a certain set of demands. And so long as we have demands that can be made good, demands that force a recognition of them and gain satisfaction — and this is so in any community — we have rights. Natural rights, then, will be demands which have to be made good if society is to exist. And whether or not there are such abiding rights, there are at least rights independent of law; and though Bentham thinks it monstrous to think of “what the law, the supreme legislature of the country, acknowledged as such, can not do!” this is because he does not realise that law is based upon forms of social organisation, the development of which can only to a limited extent be centrally controlled.
The general position is that utilitarian theory neither explains nor gives any force to legislation (or to any other “moral” or social
activity), except the force of deception. It is impossible to legislate
for “pleasure”. When we talk about utility, about things being useful,
we mean that they
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are means to something that we want; but to call it “pleasure” because we want it is absurd. It is absurd also to discuss politics without discussing interests, in the form of social movements. There are, then, two ways of supporting such a movement. One is a defence of a certain way of life; and, though this way of life might possibly be legislatively defended, we cannot assume in advance either that legislation exists to maintain it or that it needs legislative defence; the question is whether it enables demands to be made good. The other is a defence of order, welfare, public necessity and the like; and this means a defence of a way of life which is not specified.
The theoretical weakness of intuitionism has been noted; but there is still “the choice of the soul”, i.e., there are movements along definite lines, seeking and finding definite objects. The attempt to get over the conflicts thus engendered by reducing these objects to quantities of an indefinite object, “pleasure”, will not serve. To say that “quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry” (though, indeed, this is in accordance with the eighteenth century estimation of poetry by its “pleasing” character) is to be guilty of moral stupidity. It will be admitted that there is a greater demand for horse-racing than for poetry, for circuses, political and otherwise, than for education. But this fact by itself gives no guidance to the moralist or the legislator, and will not weigh in the slightest degree with those who want education, who belong to a scientific or aesthetic movement.
What Bentham has done is to clear away a good deal of the moralising, the vague generality, that has surrounded legislative procedure. He has exposed weak talk about “sympathy” or about “eternal laws”, and has come nearer than his predecessors to showing the actual operation of demands. But he still retains a vague generality of his own (“pleasure”) to cover up the crudity of certain demands; he wrongly supposes a “moral” function to the legislator, a supra-scientific position of making things go right and of proving by compulsion the soundness of his institution; and he wrongly identifies the demanded with the good. As against this, it must be said that the good, where it exists, has to fight with the evil, however the latter may be entrenched, whatever demands it may make and however much it may be demanded.
The unhistorical character of utilitarianism, then, appears in its
concealment of ethical and political struggles, and this is further
exemplified in the utilitarian treatment of all psychological and social
questions. To the homogeneity of objectives corresponds a homogeneity of
motives, and thus all human conduct takes the form of a “reasonable”
pursuit of pleasure, limited only by lack of knowledge. It is now fairly
well recognised, as against this eighteenth century rationalism, that
history cannot be brought under the formula of progressive enlightenment
and that culture is misconceived as calculation. But it is not so
clearly understood that there is no faculty of “reason” which can guide
the passions, but that thinking is an activity of the passions
themselves. Only the grasping of
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this point, however, the recognition of the diverse sentiments arising under different conditions of social life and of their reaction on social conditions, can enable us to root out the last vestiges of utilitarianism and to develop a positive theory of human affairs.