Philosophy 433                                                 History of Ethics                                   Darwall                        Winter 2008





I The role of the principle of utility.  One way of beginning to get the flavor of his position is to examine what he means by "the principle of utility."  Recall that among the eighteenth century writers we have been reading, such as Hutcheson, Hume, Butler, and Kant, 'principle' refers to something that is realized in a person's psychology.  So Butler's principle of reflection is the psychological faculty for self-reflective disinterested and dispassionate self-criticism of one's other psychological principles.  And for Kant, a subjective principle of the will is the maxim on which a person actually acts or intends to act.

            Here is what Bentham says about what he means by the principle of utility:

            "The principle here in question may be taken for an act of the mind; a sentiment; a sentiment of approbation; a sentiment which, when applied to an action, approves of its utility, as that quality of it by which the measure of approbation or disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed." (2n)

            Now this is actually quite complicated.  He doesn't say that this principle is one that approves of acts in proportion as they tend to produce happiness.  Rather, it approves of utility "as that quality of [the action] by which the measure of approbation of disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed."  That is, it approves of approving of actions on the ground of their utility.

            One thing should already be noted here.  This "second-order" approval of approving of acts on the basis of their utility apparently assumes that the "first-order" approval of acts is itself open to some kind of rational control.  The person who holds (has?) the principle of utility favors favoring acts that promote utility--he favors using the utility of acts as a measure for favoring acts.  He favors this measure as a rational basis for favoring acts and policies.


            This already suggests something that becomes clearer in other passages, viz., that Bentham believes, as against writers such as Hutcheson and Butler, that in ethical discussion and debate it is insufficient simply to cite one's own conscience or moral sense: 

            "The various systems that have been formed concerning the standard of right and wrong . . . 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 the author's sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself." (17)

            Bentham believes that any intellectually respectable ethical view regarding must appeal to some further justification that is external to itself, some further ground or standard from which it can be derived.  [Note how radical a rejection this is of all the philosophers listed above, with the possible exception of Hume, and even he would strenuously object.]  And he believes that the only possible such standard is the general happiness.  Let us see how he gets to this conclusion.


II Principle-guided public moral debate.  The best way to understand Bentham's position, I want to suggest, is to represent him as fundamentally concerned to explain what ethical thought must be if it is to be expressible in public discussion and debate of a certain kind, viz., discourse that is: 

(a) clear and intelligible,

(b) non-coercive,

(c) about a common issue, and 

(d) useful in directing action.


Briefly, Bentham's position is that these criteria will be realized only if acts are approved on the basis of their utility.  Therefore, for these reasons, he approves approving them on this basis--he asserts the principle of utility.

            A.  Clear and intelligible speech and thought.  Bentham apparently makes the radical claim that the proposition that an action ought to be done is meaningful only if it is taken to mean that the action will promote utility:  "When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong, and others of that stamp have a meaning:  when otherwise, they have none." (4)  And:  "Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light." (2)  And finally:  "When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself." (4-5)

            Fully to see what he means we will need to examine his other criteria of ethical discourse.  For reasons that will be clearer in a moment, he is taking it that one can only put forward an ethical opinion as entitled to the assent of others if one doesn't simply express one's own feeling, but refers also to some ground for that feeling.  An intellectually respectable ethical opinion must have both (recall the complicated formulation of the principle of utility).  Thus Bentham asks a person who advances other principles:  "let him examine and satisfy himself whether the principle he thinks he has found is really any separate intelligible principle; or whether it be not a mere principle in words, a kind of phrase, which at bottom expresses neither more nor less than the mere averment of his own unfounded sentiments; that is, what in another person he might be apt to call caprice."

            So, to make moral claims that are not simply unfounded expressions of personal feeling, one must refer to some "external standard".  Bentham seems to believe that it is the standard which then gives the 'ought' claim its real meaning for discussion and debate.

            B.  Non-coercive.  This becomes a little clearer with the second criterion.  About someone who proposes that "his own approbation or disapprobation, annexed to the idea of an act, without any regard to its consequences, is a sufficient foundation for him to judge and act upon," Bentham says, "let him ask himself whether his sentiment is to be a standard of right and wrong, with respect to every other man, or whether every man's sentiment has the same privilege of being a standard to itself?" (6)

            "In the first case," he adds, "let him ask himself whether his principle is not despotical, and hostile to all the rest of the human race."

            His point is that if someone proposes something as an ethical opinion entitled to the respect of others without having any justification for it in some standard that is external to his ethical opinions (i.e. to his assessments of acts and characters), then he proposes to judge others who do not share it by an opinion that they must regard as capricious. 

            The moral seems to be that non-coercive ethical debate is possible only if participants assume an intellectual obligation to justify their opinions by standards that do not require others already to hold one's own favorite ethical opinions--i.e. by some nonmoral standards.  Liberal moral debate is possible only on such terms.

            C.  About a common issue.  Without appeal to a morally uncontroversial standard as ground for moral opinions, the only alternative to despotism is a relativism that disables genuine debate.

            "In the second case [i.e. when the discussant who offers his own ethical opinion, ungrounded in some morally uncontroversial external standard, proposes not to judge others by this standard, but to permit them to use their own], [let him ask himself] whether it is not anarchical, and whether at this rate there are not as many different standards of right and wrong as there are men? . . . whether all argument is not at an end? and whether, when two men have said, 'I like this,' and 'I don't like it,' they can (upon such a principle) have any thing more to say?" (6-7)

            D.  Useful in directing action.  If the other criteria establish the need for an external, morally uncontroversial standard in support of moral opinions, what if someone offer something about an action which was uncontroversially true, e.g., that the action would reduce taxes, but leave it at that without any comment on whether this would benefit or harm people.  While this might satisfy the other criteria, Bentham asks the proponent of such a principle, "let him say whether there is any such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it; if there is, let him say what that motive is, and how it is to be distinguished from those which enforce the dictates of utility; if not, then lastly let him say what it is this other principle can be good for." (7)

            While there are many uncontroversial facts about actions, the only ones that can motivate human beings are those that concern the act's consequences for people's happiness.


We can see the argument for the principle of utility proceeding in two major stages, therefore.

            I.  A,B, and C taken together are supposed to establish the need for an external, morally uncontroversial standard for assessing actions--a standard that can be applied by ordinary empirical means without assuming shared sentiments.

            II.  D assures that the only such standard that can play a role that enables moral discussion actually to be effective in directing collective action is the principle of utility


Only if participants are bound to point to some justification or ground, the acceptance of which does not require the acceptance of their own moral feelings and judgments, will, Bentham believes, moral debate be able to escape coercion.


Here are some more passages that reinforce that this really is Bentham's view.  In II.XIV, he asserts that "the various systems that have been formed concerning the standard of right and wrong" all apparently conflict with the requirement of liberal moral discussion that participants appeal to an external standard:  "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." (17)

            And then, in a quite amazing footnote, he proceeds to catalogue virtually all of the going ethical theories of the past century or so, including, Hutcheson's "moral sense", Thomas Reid's "common sense", Richard Price's "rule of right", Samuel Clarke's "fitness of things", and so on.  In each case he thinks that, because these views abjure basing moral judgment on some external, nonmoral justification, they must all be rejected, at least as ideas that can be appealed to in liberal

moral discussion.

            "The mischief common to all these ways of thinking and arguing (which, in truth, as we have seen, are but one and the same method, couched in different forms of words) is their serving as a cloke, and pretence, and aliment, to despotism:  if not a despotism in practice, a despotism however in disposition:  which is but too apt, when pretence and power offer, to show itself in practice."


III  Right/wrong, moral responsibility (accountability), and the principle of utility.  Although he doesn't explicitly bring it out here, part of what Bentham must have in mind is the tight connection between thinking something wrong and moral and responsibility or accountability,   thinking it worthy of reproach, if not punishment, lacking adequate excuse.  Thus, if one condemns conduct, but without appeal to any further "external" justification, then one must think another person who doesn't in fact share one's disapprobation of what he did, might merit reproach, or punishment, even though there be no justification for the reproach that the person could be expected to accept without already sharing one's moral feelings.

            Bentham lampoons this thought as follows:  "if you hate much, punish much:  if you hate little, punish little:  punish as you hate.  If you hate not at all, punish not at all:  the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility."  (16-17) [the irony drips in this last clause.]


Later in the same footnote mentioned above, Bentham gives a summary of his thinking:

            "'But is it never, then, from any other considerations than those of utility, that we derive our notions of right and wrong?'  I do not know:  I do not care.  Whether a moral sentiment can be originally conceived from any other source than a view of utility, is one question:  whether upon examination and reflection it can, in point of fact, be actually persisted in and justified on any other ground, by a person reflecting within himself is another; whether in point of right it can properly be

justified on any other ground, by a person addressing himself to the community, is a third.  The two first are questions of speculation:  it matters not, comparatively speaking, how they are decided.  The last is a question of practice:  the decision is of as much importance as any can be." (19n) [n.b.: "in point of right".  One is almost tempted to conclude that Bentham's principle of utility as the ground of liberal moral discussion is based on a fundamental right not to be coerced.]


The principle of utility, then, is uniquely suited to function as the external standard necessary for a liberal moral discussion and debate whose verdicts of right and wrong, individuals will be held responsible for complying with.  In Chapter IV, Bentham turns to the question of how utility is to be measured.  Utility is pleasure and the absence of pain.  And pleasures have no intrinsic qualitative differences; as pleasures, they vary only in their intensity and duration.  How much (intrinsic) utility a series of pleasurable experiences has, then, depends on how intense these are, and how long they last.  Evaluating the overall net utility associated with various alternative actions is a matter of assessing how much total net pleasure (taking pain as offsetting pleasure) will result from any action, taking into account all affected, and comparing this with that arising from alternative available acts.


Consider Bentham’s quantitative hedonism from this perspective.  The idea would be that whether poetry is intrinsically better than pushpin simply doesn’t matter from the perspective of a principle that we can reasonably hold people responsible for following.  From this perspective, everyone gets to vote with their pleasure, as it were, and we don’t disenfranchise some pleasures because they are less noble.


IV Motive and act. Bentham holds that utility is the only standard for judging what a person ought to do.  "The only right ground of action, that can possibly subsist, is, after all, the consideration of utility, which if it is a right principle of action, and of approbation, in any one case, is so in every other. . . ." (23)

            Bentham is especially clear that the motive from which an agent might do something is irrelevant to whether she should act (or should  have so acted).  However, he thinks it understandable that we might sometimes think that motive is relevant:

            "When the act happens, in the particular instance of effects which we approve of, much more if we happen to observe that the same motive may frequently be productive, in other instances, of the like effects, we are apt to transfer our approbation to the motive itself, and to assume, as the just ground for the approbation we bestow on the act, the circumstance of its originating from that motive." (23)

            This, however, if understandable, is error.  The only ground for approving of an act is not its motive, or of what sort of motive it would eventuate from, but only its consequences.     It is fascinating to recall Hume on just these points.  On the one hand, his official view is that actions derive whatever merit or demerit they have from their actual or usual motives.  On the other hand, his psychological account of how our approbation of motives arises is that it works by an association of pleasure felt in sympathy with considered pleasurable consequences of the motive back with the motive itself.  In effect, Bentham is saying that Hume makes, and Hume's psychological theory explains how we make, the very error against which Bentham warns.


V  Finally, Chapter X reinforces the message that no motive can be bad.  Motives are good or bad only in virtue of their consequences (with an exception noted below).  Bentham alludes to two kinds of arguments here.  First, the very same motives can lead to quite good or bad acts depending in circumstances.

            "1.  A boy, in order to divert himself, reads an improving book:  the motive is accounted, perhaps, a good one:  at any rate not a bad one.  2.  He sets his top a spinning:  the motive is deemed, at any rate, not a bad one.  3.  He sets loose a mad ox among a crowd; his motive is now, perhaps, termed an abominable one.  Yet in all three cases the motive may be the very same:  it may be neither more nor less curiosity."

            Second, he argues that all motives are instances of the desire for some pleasure or to avoid some pain.  But, to this extent, every motive is intrinsically good. 

            "A motive is substantially nothing more than pleasure or pain, operating in a certain manner.

            "Now, pleasure is in itself a good:  nay even setting aside immunity from pain, the only good:  pain is in itself an evil; and indeed, without exception, the only evil; or else the words good and evil have no meaning.  And this is alike true of every sort of pain, and of every sort of pleasure.  It follows, therefore, immediately and uncontestably, that there is no such thing as any sort of motive that is in itself a bad one." (102)