Moral Philosophy

Chapter X. Of Utilitarianism

1. THOUGH the name utilitarian is an English growth of this century, the philosophy so called probably takes its origin from the days when man first began to speculate on moral matters. Bentham and the two Mills, Austin, and George Grote, have repeated in England the substance of what Protagoras and Epicurus taught in Greece, two thousand years before. It is the system of Ethics to which all must incline, who ignore the spiritual side of man's nature and his hopes of a better world. It is a morality of the earth, earthy.

2. Utilitarianism has not been formulated like the Athanasian Creed. It is impossible to state it and combat it in a form to which all Utilitarians will subscribe. Indeed, it is an amiable weakness of theirs, when confronted with the grosser consequences that flow from their theories, to run off to some explanation, true enough, but quite out of keeping with the primary tenets of their school. We will take what may be called a "mean reading " of the indications which various Utilitarian thinkers afford of their mind and philosophy. These authorities, then, teach two main heads of doctrine:

(1) That the last end and final good of man lies in this world, and consists in the greatest happiness of the greatest number of mankind, happiness being taken to mean pleasure as well of the senses as of the understanding, such pleasure as can be had in this world, along with immunity from pain. (Mill's Utilitarianism, 2nd Ed., pp. 9. seq.)

(2) That human acts are right or wrong, according as they useful or hurtful, that is, according as their consequences make for or against the above-mentioned end of social happiness.

3. Consequences, as Utilitarians very properly point out, are either general or particular. They add that, in pronouncing an action to be good or evil according to its consequences, they mean the general and not the particular consequences. In other words, they bid us consider, not the immediate results of this action, but what would be the result to society, if this sort of action were generally allowed. This point is well put by Paley (Moral Philosophy, bk. ii., c. vii.: all three chapters, vi., vii., viii., should be read, as the best explanation of the Principle of General Consequences):

"You cannot permit one action and forbid another, without showing a difference between them. Consequently the same sort of actions must be generally permitted or generally forbidden. Where, therefore, the general permission of them would be pernicious, it becomes necessary to lay down and support the rule which generally forbids them. . . . The assassin knocked the rich villain on the head, because he thought him better out of the way than in it. If you allow this excuse in the present instance, you must allow it to all who act in the same manner, and from the same motive; that is, you must allow every man to kill any one he meets, whom he thinks noxious or useless: . . . a disposition of affairs which would soon fill the world with misery and confusion, and ere long put an end to human society."

My contention is, not with the Principle of General Consequences, which has a certain value in Ethics, and is used by many writers other than Utilitarian, but with the two stated above, n. 2, which are called the Greatest Happiness Principle and the Principle of Utility.

4. Against the Greatest Happiness Principle I have these complaints:

(1) Utilitarians from Paley to John Stuart Mill aver that their teaching is no bar to any man hoping for and striving after the happiness of the world to come. They say that such happiness cannot be better attained than by making it your principal aim to improve all temporal goods and dissipate all temporal evil. Their maxim in fact is: 'Take care of the things of earth, and the things of heaven will take care of themselves.' Whereas it was the very contrary teaching of Him, whom moderns, who see in Him no higher character, still love to call the greatest of moral teachers: "That which fell among thorns are they who have heard, and going their way, are choked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and yield no fruit." (St. Luke viii. 14.)

(2) It will be said that these thorns grow of selfishness, and that these cares are the cares of individual interest, whereas the Utilitarian's delight and glory is to live, not for himself, but for the commonwealth. But how can a man, who takes pleasure to be his highest good and happiness, live otherwise than for himself? Here we come upon the unobserved fault and flaw, which entirely vitiates the Utilitarian structure. It is an union of two opposite and incompatible elements. An old poet has said

Utilitarianism consists of a still more unfriendly and unwholesome mixture of two elements, both of them bad, and unable to stand together, Hedonism and Altruism. Hedonism is the doctrine that the main object and end of life is pleasure: which is the position laid down in so many words by Mill (l. c.), that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness;" and "by happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain." If Hedonism were sound doctrine, the Pleasant and the Good would be identical, and the most pleasant pleasure would ever be the best pleasure. That would take away all distinction of kind or quality among pleasures, and differentiate them only by intensity and duration. This was Paley's doctrine, a fundamental point of Hedonism, and therefore also of the Utilitarian philosophy. John Mill, very honourably to himself, but very fatally to the system that he was writing to defend, parted company with Paley.

We have argued against Paley (c. iv., s. iii., nn. 3-5, p. 55), that there is a better and a worse in pleasures, quite distinct from the more or less pleasurable, even if that more be taken in the long run in this world. Again it may be considered that pleasure, even the best and highest, is a sort of efflorescence from activity, and is for activity, not activity for it; and better is the activity, whatever it be, than the pleasure which comes thereof; wherefore no pleasure, as pleasure, can be the highest good and happiness of man.

Hedonism then is an error. But errors may be opposed to one another as well as to the truth. Hedonism is opposed to Altruism in this way. A man may take pleasure in seeing other people enjoy themselves. Nothing is more common, except the pleasure taken in enjoying one's own self. But if a man only feeds the hungry that he may have the satisfaction of seeing them eat, is it the hungry or himself that he finally seeks to gratify? Clearly, himself. That is the behaviour of the Hedonist, he acts for his own pleasure even in his benevolence. The Altruist, on the contrary, professes never to act for self, but for society. So that society flourish, he is ready to be crushed and ruined, not in the matter of his pleasure only, but even in that of his own good. Selfishness, by which he means all manner of regard to self, is, upon his conscience, the unforgiven sin. But Hedonism is selfishness in the grossest form, being the mere pursuit in all things of pleasurable feeling -- feeling being always particular and limited to self, in contradistinction to good, which is universal and diffuses itself all round. The Hedonist seeks his own pleasure, where the Altruist forbids him to take thought, let alone for his gratification, but even for his good. Thus an Hedonist cannot be Altruist to boot; and, trying to combine the two characters, the Utilitarian is committed to a self-contradiction.

If he relinquishes Hedonism, and holds to Altruism, pure and simple, his position is not much improved. Altruism overlooks the fact, that man, as compared with other men, is a person, the centre of his own acts, not a thing, to be entirely referred to others. He is in relation with others, as child, father, husband, master, citizen; but these relations do not take up the whole man. There is a residue within, -- an inner being and life, which is not referable to any. creature outside himself, but only to the Creator. For this inner being, man is responsible to God alone. The good of this, the "inner man of the heart," is each individual's proper and primary care. Altruism, and Utilitarianism with it, ignore the interior life of the soul, and substitute human society, that is, ultimately, the democratic State, in place of God.

(3) Another confusion that the Greatest Happiness Principle involves, is the mistaking the political for the ethical end of life. The political end, which it is the statesman's business to aim at, and the citizen's duty to subserve, is "the natural happiness of the commonwealth, and of individuals as members of the commonwealth, that they may live in it in peace and justice, and with a sufficiency of goods for the preservation and comfort of bodily life, and with that amount of moral rectitude which is necessary for this outward peace and preservation of the commonwealth, and the perpetuity of the human race." (Suarez, De Legibus, III., xi., 7.) This is all the good that the Utilitarian contemplates. He is satisfied to make a good citizen, a good husband, a good father, for the transactions of this life. He has no concern to make a good man up to the ethical standard, which supposes the observance of the whole natural law, duties to God, and duties within himself, as well as duties to human society, and by this observance the compassing of the everlasting happiness of the man's own individual soul.

Against the Principle of Utility I find these charges:

(1) It takes the sign and indication of moral evil for the evil itself, as if the physician should take the symptom for the disease. It places the wickedness of an act in the physical miscry and suffering that are its consequences. This is, I say, a taking of the indication for the thing indicated. An act is bad in itself and by itself, as being a violation of the rational nature of the doer (c. vi., s. i.), and being bad, it breeds bad consequences. But the badness of the act is moral; the badness of the consequences, physical. There is an evident intrinsic irrationality, and thereby moral evil, in such sins as intemperance, peevishness, and vanity. But let us take an instance of an act, apparently harmless in itself, and evil solely because of the consequences. Supposing one insists upon playing the piano for his own amusement, to the disturbance of an invalid who is lying in a critical state in the next room. Do the mere consequences make this otherwise innocent amusement evil? Yes, if you consider the amusement in the abstract: but if you take it as this human act, the act is inordinate and evil in itself, or as it is elicited in the mind of the agent. The volition amounts to this: 'I prefer my amusement to my neighbour's recovery,' which is an act unseemly and unreasonable in the mind of a social being. Utilitarians fall into the capital error of ignoring the intrinsic value of an act, and estimating it wholly by extrinsic results, because they commonly follow the phenomenalist philosophy, which breaks away from all such ideas as substance and nature, and regards nothing but sequences and coexistences of phenomena. To a phenomenalist the precept, Live up to thy nature, can have no meaning.

Aristotle (Ethics, II., iv., 3) draws this distinction between virtue and art, that "the products of art have their excellence in themselves: it suffices therefore that they are of this or that quality: but acts of virtue are not done virtuously according to the quality of the thing done, but according to the state of mind of the doer; first, according to his knowledge of what he was about; then, according to his volition, as that was guided or not guided by the proper motives of the virtue; thirdly, according to the steadiness and fixedness of his will; whereas all these considerations are of no account in a work of art, except the single one of the artist being aware of what he was about." Elsewhere (Ethics, VI., iv., 2), he says that virtue is distinguished from art as being action, not production. The Principle of Utility confounds virtue with art, or perhaps I should say, with manufactures. It judges conduct, as one would shoemaking, by trial of the product, or net result. So far from being solicitous, with Aristotle, that volition should be "guided by the proper motives of the virtue" which there is question of practising (c. v., s. viii., n. 4, p. 96: Ar. Eth., III., viii.), Mill (Utilitarianism, p. 26) tells us that "utilitarian moralists have gone beyond almost all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of the action." By motive he understands what we have called the end in view. (c. iii., s. ii., n. 2, p. 31.) So that, if one man waits on the sick for the love of God, and another in hope of a legacy, the morality of these two acts is the same, just as it makes no difference to the usefulness of a pair of boots, what motive it was that set the shoemaker to work. True, Mill admits that the motive has "much to do with the worth of the agent:" but that, he hastens to explain, is inasmuch as "it indicates . . . a bent of character from which useful, or from which hurtful actions are likely to arise." Even so, -- the shoemaker who works to earn money for a carousal, is not likely to go on producing useful articles so long as another, who labours to support his family. Such is the moral difference that Mill places between the two men; one instrument of production is longer available than the other.

(3) Another well established distinction is that between harm and injury, injury being wilful and unjust harm. The housemaid, who in arranging the room has burned your manuscript of "sugared sonnets," has done you no injury, for she meant none, but how vast the harm to the author and to mankind! Harm is visible in the effects: but injury only upon examination of the mind of the agent. Not so, however, the Utilitarian thinks: harm being equal, he can make no difference between a tyrant and a man-eating tiger. Thus George Grote says of a certain murderous usurper of the kingdom of Macedon: " You discover nothing while your eye is fixed on Archelaus himself. . . . But when you turn to the persons whom he has killed, banished, or ruined -- to the mass of suffering that he has inflicted -- and to the widespread insecurity which such acts of iniquity spread through all societies where they become known -- there is no lack of argument which prompts a reflecting spectator to brand him as [a most dangerous and destructive animal, no], a disgraceful man." (Grote's Plato, ii., p. 108.) Why Archelaus is described in terms of the tiger, and then branded as a disgraceful man, we are at a loss to conceive, except in this way, that the writer's philosophy forsook him at the end of the sentence, and he reverted to the common sense of mankind. But he should have either ended the sentence as suggested in the parenthesis, or have been willing to call the man-eater of the Indian jungle, who has "learned to make widows, and to lay waste their cities," a disgraceful tiger; or lastly, he should have looked back, where he declared it was vain to look, upon Archelaus himself, and discerned in him that moral deformity, and contradiction of reason, whereof a brute beast is incapable, but which is a disgrace and a stain upon humanity.

A later writer, who presses Utilitarianism into the service of Socialism, is plainer-spoken than Grote, and says bluntly: "To be honestly mistaken avails nothing. Thus Herbert Spencer -- who is under the delusion that we have come into this world each for the sake of himself, and who opposes, as far as he can, the evolution of society -- is verily an immoral man. . . . Right is every conduct which tends to the welfare of society; wrong, what obstructs that welfare." (Gronlund, Co-operative Commonwealth, pp. 226, 227.) This is overlaid the difference between harm and injury, between physical and moral evil: thus is the meaning of a human act ignored: in the abyss of chaos and confusion which Utilitarianism has opened out, Moral Philosophy finds her grave.

(4) The Principle of Utility sees in virtue a habit of self-sacrifice, useful to the community, but not naturally pleasant, and therefore not naturally good and desirable, to him that practises it, but made pleasurable and good and desirable to him by practice. (Mill, pp. 53-57.) In this way virtue becomes naturally a very good thing for every one else but its possessor, but to him it is a natural evil, inasmuch as it deprives him of pleasure, which natural evil by habit is gradually converted into a factitious and artificial good, the man becoming accustomed to it, as the proverb says, "like eels to skinning." This theory is the resuscitation of one current among the Sophists at Athens, and described by Plato thus. -- The natural good of man is to afford himself every indulgence, even at the expense of his neighbours. He follows his natural good accordingly: so do his neighbours follow theirs, and try to gratify themselves at his expense. Fights ensue, till mankind, worried and wearied with fighting, make a compact, each to give tip so much of his natural good as interferes with that of his neighbour. Human society, formed on this understanding, enforces the compact in the interest of society. Thus the interest of society is opposed to the interest of the individual, in this that it keeps him out of his best natural good, which is to do as his appetite of pleasure bids him in all things, though it compensates him with a second-class good, by preventing his neighbours from pleasure-hunting at his expense. If then his neighbours could be restrained, and he left free to gratify himself, that would be perfect bliss. But only a despot here or there has attained to it. The ordinary man must pay his tax of virtue to the community, a loss to him, but a gain to all the rest: while he is compensated by the losses which their virtue entails upon them. Such was the old Athenian theory, which John Mill, the Principle of Utility in his hand, completes by saying that by-and-bye, and little by little (as the prisoner of Chillon came to love his dungeon), the hampered individual comes to love, and to find an artificial happiness in, those restrictions of his liberty, which are called Virtue.

It was against this theory that Plato wrote his Republic, and, to compare a little thing to a great, the whole account of moral good being in consonance with nature, and of moral obligation rising out of the nature of the individual man, as has been set forth in this brief Text-book, may serve for a refutation of the perverse doctrine of Utilitarianism.

Readings. -- Plato, Republic, pp. 338 E, 339 A, 343 C, D, E, 344 A, B, C, 358 E, 359 A, B, 580 B, C.

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