Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Utilitarians

In September Robin Grinter talked on the Utilitarians

Utilitarianism is the philosophy developed by the British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It lies at the centre of Western Humanist thinking and is a basis for knowing what it right and what is wrong. Humanism is a development of Utilitarianism that keeps it relevant to the changing and challenging human situation in which we live.

Some of the key elements of Utilitarianism are: a belief that everything must make a useful contribution towards that outcome to be of value; Utilitarianism is a rational philosophy of action, whose usefulness lies in calculating consequences in terms of human happiness or unhappiness; It is also secular because it  makes no reference to any supernatural considerations.  Utilitarianism is not a rigid and absolute morality, and it is not just a ‘natural’ philosophy that makes right and wrong the outcome of humanity’s ‘better nature’.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the major thinker figure in Utilitarianism. Both happiness and utility were philosophical concepts in common use in his day: indeed Francis Hutcheson coined the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ sixty years before Bentham. But it was Bentham who almost single-handedly wove happiness and utility together to make philosophy a force for action in the world in his ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’  (1789).

Bentham was a lawyer concerned to improve laws to create a better society. His one simple question for any action, law or custom was ‘what use is it?’, and the only criterion in answering that was to look at its consequences for the happiness and well-being of human beings. He didn’t personally influence any reforms because he died in 1832, the year when the first act of parliamentary reform was passed. But his thinking inspired the social reforms of Victorian England and the creation of our welfare state. He is the inspiration for the campaigning work of the Humanists UK.

However, not all reforms were kind. The poor law reform of 1834 stopped the wasteful handouts of basic food to the destitute, and set up workhouses so that  basic necessities were only available for useful work by “the undeserving poor”. Workhouses were pretty dreadful places in terms of human happiness.  Bentham’s own plans for prison reform were also pretty harsh: his ‘Panopticon’ would have removed all privacy by constructing prisons so that every prisoner’s actions were visible to those who governed them.

Morality for Bentham isn’t just a question of being good and virtuous individuals: actions have to have measurable, tangible benefits for society. To avoid time-consuming and complicated assessments for every action, we use ‘rules of thumb’, general guidance based on experience. This has led to arguments on the need to have general rules rather than calculations of outcomes. Bentham argued that if we suspect that these rules of thumb do more harm than good we should override them. His approach made Bentham very tolerant of private actions, for example homosexuality. 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) a declared agnostic, was a major political philosopher and author of ‘On Liberty’ (1859) and ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861). He shared Bentham’s commitment to reforms and improvement. He condemned slavery in America and as an MP, became a strong advocate of labour unions and farm cooperatives. He supported the second Act of Parliamentary Reform passed in 1867. In ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ (1869) Mill called for further reforms of Parliament and voting His most celebrated campaign was for women’s rights.  Mill disagreed with Bentham on the nature of happiness, intellectual pleasures being more valuable than sensual pleasures.

Robin used some scenarios for discussion in small groups. 

1. Aren’t pleasure and happiness fundamentally egoistic, which rules out seeking the well-being of others?  
2. Can you predict the consequences of actions well enough to be sure you’re doing the right thing? 
3. Have we got time to calculate all the likely effects of an action? 
4. Isn’t it better to make it a priority to minimise pain and suffering than increase pleasure? 
5. Isn’t Utilitarianism too demanding, seeking the maximum happiness which logically involves all human welfare?
6. Don’t motives and intentions matter when it comes to doing what is right? 
7. Can Utilitarianism permit wrong actions and lead to injustice?
8. This reflection illustrates a final issue: should we decide each action on its own merits or live by general rules?

Each group selected their own topic and share their deliberations with the rest.
Robin ended by asking “Is Utilitarianism, and therefore Utilitarian Humanism universally valid – as you’d expect a philosophy to be?” He himself doubted this because of the diversity of societies around the world and different attitudes to Human rights in some countries. Utilitarianism may be simple, but it raises complex issues.

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