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The Poverty of Utilitarianism

The Poverty of Utilitarianism

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Abstract: This essay starts by considering the limitations of Bentham’s notion of ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’, and introduces Mill’s suggestion that the concept be generalised to a discussion of ‘happiness’. The principle of utility as it applies to society is introduced and then an alternative known as Consequentialism is discussed. This is found to be without any foundation other than conventional Christian morality, and the Utilitarian enterprise is rendered moot. Finally, an analogy is drawn with the rational economics of Marx, which the Soviet experience has shown to be fatally flawed, and it is asked whether Utilitarianism is likewise now only a historical curiosity.

Abstract: This essay starts by considering the limitations of Bentham’s notion of ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’, and introduces Mill’s suggestion that the concept be generalised to a discussion of ‘happiness’. The principle of utility as it applies to society is introduced and then an alternative known as Consequentialism is discussed. This is found to be without any foundation other than conventional Christian morality, and the Utilitarian enterprise is rendered moot. Finally, an analogy is drawn with the rational economics of Marx, which the Soviet experience has shown to be fatally flawed, and it is asked whether Utilitarianism is likewise now only a historical curiosity.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Christopher G D Tipper on Jan 11, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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The poverty of Utilitarianism
A flawed attempt at a rational morality
by Christopher G. D. Tipper <chris.tipper@live.co.uk >
$Date: June 1989$
 Abstract:
 This essay starts by considering the limitations of Bentham
’ 
 s notion of
‘ 
 pleasure
’ 
 and
‘ 
 pain
’ 
 , and introducesMill
’ 
 s suggestion that the concept be generalised to adiscussion of
‘ 
happiness
’ 
. The principle of utility as it appliesto society is introduced and then an alternative known asConsequentialism is discussed. This is found to be without any foundation other than conventional Christian morality,and the Utilitarian enterprise is rendered moot. Finally, ananalogy is drawn with the rational economics of Marx, whichthe Soviet experience has shown to be fatally flawed, and it is asked whether Utilitarianism is likewise now only ahistorical curiosity.
“  
The Creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the 
‘ 
Greatest Happiness Principle 
’ 
, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness 
” 
.
— 
 Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill ( Mill, 1863  ) 
F
OR MANY people it is no longer satisfactory to rely on the maximsof religious philosophy in order to judge what is right or wrong,and Utilitarianism can be said to have achieved the greatest degreeof progress towards forming a rational system of moral judgement.Its basic premise is simple. All value judgements should be made onthe basis of maximising the happiness of the majority, and minimising the
unhappiness
 of the individuals involved. This is the principle of striving for the
Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number
. It ishoped that by couching all questions in terms of happiness (or itsabsence), and applying some kind of numerical value according to1
 
import, that a sort of moral summation operation will yield the bestcourse of action. This can be pictured as a set of scales on one side of  which is a pan representing
happiness
. Any value judgement canthen be carried out simply by assigning a weight to each
happiness
factor, and counterbalancing it with the opposing
misery 
 factors.The proper course of action can then simply be read from the positionof the needle about the neutral point on the scale. There are quiteclearly considerable difficulties to be overcome if the theory is to bein any way applicable. For instance, what do we mean by
happiness
?Jeremy Bentham, held by many to be the father of Utilitarianism, usedthe word
pleasure
 and its antithesis,
pain
, as the means of compar-ison. These at least have the merit of being readily understandableand so, it was hoped, easier to apply in a rigorous fashion. The conceptof happiness was thus tightened up, so as to reduce ambiguity. It didnot solve the problem of assigning weights to different types of happi-ness, and he sought to alleviate this by including a number of sub-sidiary factors. The two most important of these were the intensity of the pleasure and the duration of its experience. These qualities, anda few other subsidiary factors such as fecundity,
1
 provide an outlineof a method for evaluating simple moral problems. To illustrate thepoint we could consider the question of whether a man should takeexercise. On the negative side it could be argued that the pain involved,although of short duration, has high intensity. Does this outweigh thepositive aspects of the better fitness that would follow and thus higherself-esteem? Are the effects of regular exercise more beneficial thaninfrequent or sporadic exercise? It is not at all clear whether self-esteemeven counts as a pain in Bentham
s schema.In the end though the terms
pleasure
 and
pain
 are very restrictiveand any argument that relies solely on these concepts is bound tocrumble under the weight of its own disingenuousness. Consider foran instance a Utilitarian argument in favour of abortion:
1
 Bentham identified this quality as the tendency of the pleasure to
reproduce
 itself.
2
The poverty of Utilitarianism
 
 Artificial means of contraception all have physical drawbacks, eitheras long term health hazards or because they have pleasure-reducing effect. Abortion can be executed with no medical complications (exe-cuted by a qualified physician), does not usually carry any associatedpain and does no person any injury. It is thus an excellent means of contraception.
2
 A Benthamite would not even consider the emotionaltrauma that the woman undergoes during the whole process. What Bentham failed to account for in his definition were so called
intentional
 pleasures. These encompass the internal realms of theperson, where honesty, love and freedom are important to well-being.These were alien ideas to Bentham and his disciples and were dealt with in a summary fashion. They attempted to dismiss such objectivesas old-fashioned or romantic waffle. This is of course reactionary andanti-intellectual, and as such merits no further discussion.John Stuart Mills realised that for Utilitarianism to be in any way credible as a moral system that some adjustment would have to bemade to the definition of pleasure. The main tenet of his position wasthat pleasure is the only thing that is desirable, and that the only measure of what was desirable was the fact that people want it. Thisamounts to a definition of something broader that can be likened to
happiness
, with its opposite quality being
unhappiness
. However,this still leaves us with Bentham
s original difficulty. Utilitarianism
slegitimacy as a moral system depends on being able to assign ameaningful value to each factor in the moral calculation. By using amore abstract concept of pleasure, we are compounding the difficultiesof applying the system. How do you assign a value to the love of amother for her son, who is about to be executed for a crime? Is thereany chance that this love and her resulting unhappiness could out- weigh the
happiness
 of a society against which the crime was com-
2
The notion of what constitutes a person must be carefully examined in a full discussion.For the purposes of the example, it is assumed that the foetus has no consciousness,and does not therefore justify the label
person
.
3
The poverty of Utilitarianism

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