26

THE UTILITARIANS1

Throughout the period from Kant to Nietzsche, professional philosophers in Great Britain remained almost completely unaffected by their German contemporaries, with the sole exception of Sir William Hamilton, who had little influence. Coleridge and Carlyle, it is true, were profoundly affected by Kant, Fichte, and the German Romantics, but they were not philosophers in the technical sense. Somebody seems to have once mentioned Kant to James Mill, who, after a cursory inspection, remarked: 'I see well enough what poor Kant would be at.' But this degree of recognition is exceptional; in general, there is complete silence about the Germans. Bentham and his school derived their philosophy, in all its main outlines, from Locke, Hartley, and Helvetius; their importance is not so much philosophical as political, as the leaders of British radicalism, and as the men who unintentionally prepared the way for the doctrines of socialism.

Jeremy Bentham, who was the recognized leader of the 'Philosophical Radicals', was not the sort of man one expects to find at the head of a movement of this sort. He was born in 1748, but did not become a Radical till 1808. He was painfully shy, and could not without great trepidation endure the company of strangers. He wrote voluminously, but never bothered to publish; what was published under his name had been benevolently purloined by his friends. His main interest was jurisprudence, in which he recognized Helvetius and Beccaria as his most important predecessors. It was through the theory of law that he became interested in ethics and politics.

He bases his whole philosophy on two principles, the 'association principle', and the 'greatest-happiness principle'. The association principle had been emphasized by Hartley in 1749; before him, though association of ideas was recognized as occurring, it was regarded, for instance by Locke, only as a source of trivial errors. Bentham, following Hartley, made it the basic principle of psychology. He recognizes association of ideas and language, and also association of ideas and ideas. By means of this principle he aims at a deterministic account of mental occurrences. In essence the doctrine is the same as the more modern theory of the 'conditioned reflex', based on Pavlov's experiments. The only important difference is that Pavlov's conditioned reflex is physiological, whereas the association of ideas was purely mental. Pavlov's work is therefore capable of a materialistic explanation, such as is given to it by the behaviourists, whereas the association of ideas led rather towards a psychology more or less independent of physiology. There can be no doubt that, scientifically, the principle of the conditioned reflex is an advance on the older principle. Pavlov's principle is this: Given a reflex according to which a stimulus B produces a reaction C, and given that a certain animal has frequently experienced a stimulus A at the same time as B, it often happens that in time the stimulus A will produce the reaction C even when B is absent. To determine the circumstances under which this happens is a matter of experiment. Clearly, if we substitute ideas for A, B, and C, Pavlov's principle becomes that of the association of ideas.

Both principles, indubitably, are valid over a certain field; the only controversial question is as to the extent of this field. Bentham and his followers exaggerated the extent of the field in the case of Hartley's principle, as certain behaviourists have in the case of Pavlov's principle.

To Bentham, determinism in psychology was important, because he wished to establish a code of laws—and, more generally, a social system—which would automatically make men virtuous. His second principle, that of the greatest happiness, became necessary at this point in order to define 'virtue'.

Bentham maintained that what is good is pleasure or happiness—he used these words as synonyms—and what is bad is pain. Therefore one state of affairs is better than another if it involves a greater balance of pleasure over pain, or a smaller balance of pain over pleasure. Of all possible states of affairs, that one is best which involves the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.

There is nothing new in this doctrine, which came to be called 'utilitarianism'. It had been advocated by Hutcheson as early as 1725. Bentham attributes it to Priestley, who, however, had no special claim to it. It is virtually contained in Locke. Bentham's merit consisted, not in the doctrine, but in his vigorous application of it to various practical problems.

Bentham held not only that the good is happiness in general, but also that each individual always pursues what he believes to be his own happiness. The business of the legislator, therefore, is to produce harmony between public and private interests. It is to the interest of the public that I should abstain from theft, but it is not to my interest except where there is an effective criminal law. Thus the criminal law is a method of making the interests of the individual coincide with those of the community; that is its justification.

Men are to be punished by the criminal law in order to prevent crime, not because we hate the criminal. It is more important that the punishment should be certain than that it should be severe. In his day, in England, many quite minor offences were subject to the death penalty, with the result that juries often refused to convict because they thought the penalty excessive. Bentham advocated abolition of the death penalty for all but the worst offences, and before he died the criminal law had been mitigated in this respect.

Civil law, he says, should have four aims: subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. It will be observed that he does not mention liberty. In fact, he cared little for liberty. He admired the benevolent autocrats who preceded the French Revolution—Catherine the Great and the Emperor Francis. He had a great contempt for the doctrine of the rights of man. The rights of man, he said, are plain nonsense; the imprescriptible rights of man, nonsense on stilts. When the French revolutionaries made their 'Déclaration des droits de l'homme,' Bentham called it 'a metaphysical work—the ne plus ultra of metaphysics'. Its articles, he said, could be divided into three classes: (1) Those that are unintelligible, (2) those that are false, (3) those that are both.

Bentham's ideal, like that of Epicurus, was security, not liberty. 'Wars and storms are best to read of, but peace and calms are better to endure.'

His gradual evolution towards Radicalism had two sources: on the one hand, a belief in equality, deduced from the calculus of pleasures and pains; on the other hand, an inflexible determination to submit everything to the arbitrament of reason as he understood it. His love of equality early led him to advocate equal division of a man's property among his children, and to oppose testamentary freedom. In later years it led him to oppose monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, and to advocate complete democracy, including votes for women. His refusal to believe without rational grounds led him to reject religion, including belief in God; it made him keenly critical of absurdities and anomalies in the law, however venerable their historical origin. He would not excuse anything on the ground that it was traditional. From early youth he was opposed to imperialism, whether that of the British in America, or that of other nations; he considered colonies a folly.

It was through the influence of James Mill that Bentham was induced to take sides in practical politics. James Mill was twenty-five years younger than Bentham, and an ardent disciple of his doctrines, but he was also an active Radical. Bentham gave Mill a house (which had belonged to Milton), and assisted him financially while he wrote a history of India. When this history was finished, the East India Company gave James Mill a post, as they did afterwards to his son until their abolition as a sequel to the Mutiny. James Mill greatly admired Condorcet and Helvetius. Like all Radicals of that period, he believed in the omnipotence of education. He practised his theories on his son John Stuart Mill, with results partly good, partly bad. The most important bad result was that John Stuart could never quite shake off his influence, even when he perceived that his father's outlook had been narrow.

James Mill, like Bentham, considered pleasure the only good and pain the only evil. But like Epicurus he valued moderate pleasure most. He thought intellectual enjoyments the best, and temperance the chief virtue. 'The intense was with him a bye-word of scornful disapprobation,' says his son, who adds that he objected to the modern stress laid upon feeling. Like the whole utilitarian school, he was utterly opposed to every form of romanticism. He thought politics could be governed by reason, and expected men's opinions to be determined by the weight of evidence. If opposing sides in a controversy are presented with equal skill, there is a moral certainty—so he held—that the greater number will judge right. His outlook was limited by the poverty of his emotional nature, but within his limitations he had the merits of industry, disinterestedness, and rationality.

His son John Stuart Mill, who was born in 1806, carried on a somewhat softened form of the Benthamite doctrine to the time of his death in 1873.

Throughout the middle portion of the nineteenth century, the influence of the Benthamites on British legislation and policy was astonishingly great, considering their complete absence of emotional appeal.

Bentham advanced various arguments in favour of the view that the general happiness is the summum bonum. Some of these arguments were acute criticisms of other ethical theories. In his treatise on political sophisms he says, in language which seems to anticipate Marx, that sentimental and ascetic moralities serve the interests of the governing class, and are the product of an aristocratic régime. Those who teach the morality of sacrifice, he continues, are not victims of error: they want others to sacrifice to them. The moral order, he says, results from equilibrium of interests. Governing corporations pretend that there is already identity of interests between the governors and the governed, but reformers make it clear that this identity does not yet exist, and try to bring it about. He maintains that only the principle of utility can give a criterion in morals and legislation, and lay the foundation of a social science. His main positive argument in favour of his principle is that it is really implied by apparently different ethical systems. This, however, is only made plausible by a severe restriction of his survey.

There is an obvious lacuna in Bentham's system. If every man always pursues his own pleasure, how are we to secure that the legislator shall pursue the pleasure of mankind in general? Bentham's own instinctive benevolence (which his psychological theories prevented him from noticing) concealed the problem from him. If he had been employed to draw up a code of laws for some country, he would have framed his proposals in what he conceived to be the public interest, not so as to further his own interests or (consciously) the interests of his class. But if he had recognized this fact, he would have had to modify his psychological doctrines. He seems to have thought that, by means of democracy combined with adequate supervision, legislators could be so controlled that they could only further their private interests by being useful to the general public. There was in his day not much material for forming a judgment as to the working of democratic institutions, and his optimism was therefore perhaps excusable, but in our more disillusioned age it seems somewhat naïve.

John Stuart Mill, in his Utilitarianism, offers an argument which is so fallacious that it is hard to understand how he can have thought it valid. He says: Pleasure is the only thing desired; therefore pleasure is the only thing desirable. He argues that the only things visible are things seen, the only things audible are things heard, and similarly the only things desirable are things desired. He does not notice that a thing is 'visible' if it can be seen, but 'desirable' if it ought to be desired. Thus 'desirable' is a word presupposing an ethical theory; we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired.

Again: if each man in fact and inevitably pursues his own pleasure, there is no point in saying he ought to do something else. Kant urged that 'you ought' implies 'you can'; conversely, if you cannot, it is futile to say you ought. If each man must always pursue his own pleasure, ethics is reduced to prudence: you may do well to further the interests of others in the hope that they in turn will further yours. Similarly in politics all co-operation is a matter of log-rolling. From the premisses of the utilitarians no other conclusion is validly deducible.

There are two distinct questions involved. First, does each man pursue his own happiness? Second, is the general happiness the right end of human action?

When it is said that each man desires his own happiness, the statement is capable of two meanings, of which one is a truism and the other is false. Whatever I may happen to desire, I shall get some pleasure from achieving my wish; in this sense, whatever I desire is a pleasure, and it may be said, though somewhat loosely, that pleasures are what I desire. This is the sense of the doctrine which is a truism.

But if what is meant is that, when I desire anything, I desire it because of the pleasure that it will give me, that is usually untrue. When I am hungry I desire food, and so long as my hunger persists food will give me pleasure. But the hunger, which is a desire, comes first; the pleasure is a consequence of the desire. I do not deny that there are occasions when there is a direct desire for pleasure. If you have decided to devote a free evening to the theatre, you will choose the theatre that you think will give you the most pleasure. But the actions thus determined by the direct desire for pleasure are exceptional and unimportant. Everybody's main activities are determined by desires which are anterior to the calculation of pleasures and pains.

Anything whatever may be an object of desire; a masochist may desire his own pain. The masochist, no doubt, derives pleasure from the pain that he has desired, but the pleasure is because of the desire, not vice versa. A man may desire something that does not affect him personally except because of his desire—for instance, the victory of one side in a war in which his country is neutral. He may desire an increase of general happiness, or a mitigation of general suffering. Or he may, like Carlyle, desire the exact opposite. As his desires vary, so do his pleasures.

Ethics is necessary because men's desires conflict. The primary cause of conflict is egoism: most people are more interested in their own welfare than in that of other people. But conflicts are equally possible where there is no element of egoism. One man may wish everybody to be Catholic, another may wish everybody to be Calvinist. Such non-egoistic desires are frequently involved in social conflicts. Ethics has a twofold purpose: first, to find a criterion by which to distinguish good and bad desires; second, by means of praise and blame, to promote good desires and discourage such as are bad.

The ethical part of the utilitarian doctrine, which is logically independent of the psychological part, says: Those desires and those actions are good which in fact promote the general happiness. This need not be the intention of an action, but only its effect. Is there any valid theoretical argument either for or against this doctrine? We found ourselves faced with a similar question in relation to Nietzsche. His ethic differs from that of the utilitarians, since it holds that only a minority of the human race have ethical importance—the happiness or unhappiness of the remainder should be ignored. I do not myself believe that this disagreement can be dealt with by theoretical arguments such as might be used in a scientific question. Obviously those who are excluded from the Nietzschean aristocracy will object, and thus the issue becomes political rather than theoretical. The utilitarian ethic is democratic and anti-romantic. Democrats are likely to accept it, but those who like a more Byronic view of the world can, in my opinion, be refuted only practically, not by considerations which appeal only to facts as opposed to desires.

The Philosophical Radicals were a transitional school. Their system gave birth to two others, of more importance than itself, namely Darwinism and Socialism. Darwinism was an application to the whole of animal and vegetable life of Malthus's theory of population, which was an integral part of the politics and economics of the Benthamites—a global free competition, in which victory went to the animals that most resembled successful capitalists. Darwin himself was influenced by Malthus, and was in general sympathy with the Philosophical Radicals. There was, however, a great difference between the competition admired by orthodox economists and the struggle for existence which Darwin proclaimed as the motive force of evolution. 'Free competition', in orthodox economics, is a very artificial conception, hedged in by legal restrictions. You may undersell a competitor, but you must not murder him. You must not use the armed forces of the State to help you to get the better of foreign manufacturers. Those who have not the good fortune to possess capital must not seek to improve their lot by revolution. 'Free competition', as understood by the Benthamites, was by no means really free.

Darwinian competition was not of this limited sort; there were no rules against hitting below the belt. The framework of law does not exist among animals, nor is war excluded as a competitive method. The use of the State to secure victory in competition was against the rules as conceived by the Benthamites, but could not be excluded from the Darwinian struggle. In fact, though Darwin himself was a Liberal, and though Nietzsche never mentions him except with contempt, Darwin's 'Survival of the Fittest' led, when thoroughly assimilated, to something much more like Nietzsche's philosophy than like Bentham's. These developments, however, belong to a later period, since Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, and its political implications were not at first perceived.

Socialism, on the contrary, began in the heyday of Benthamism, and as a direct outcome of orthodox economics. Ricardo, who was intimately associated with Bentham, Malthus, and James Mill, taught that the exchange value of a commodity is entirely due to the labour expended in producing it. He published this theory in 1817, and eight years later Thomas Hodgskin, an ex-naval officer, published the first Socialist rejoinder, Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital. He argued that if, as Ricardo taught, all value is conferred by labour, then all the reward ought to go to labour; the share at present obtained by the landowner and the capitalist must be mere extortion. Meanwhile Robert Owen, after much practical experience as a manufacturer, had become convinced of the doctrine which soon came to be called Socialism. (The first use of the word 'Socialist' occurs in 1827, when it is applied to the followers of Owen.) Machinery, he said, was displacing labour, and laisser-faire gave the working classes no adequate means of combating mechanical power. The method which he proposed for dealing with the evil was the earliest form of modern Socialism.

Although Owen was a friend of Bentham, who had invested a considerable sum of money in Owen's business, the Philosophical Radicals did not like his new doctrines; in fact, the advent of Socialism made them less Radical and less philosophical than they had been. Hodgskin secured a certain following in London, and James Mill was horrified. He wrote:

'Their notions of property look ugly; … they seem to think that it should not exist, and that the existence of it is an evil to them. Rascals, I have no doubt, are at work among them…. The fools, not to see that what they madly desire would be such a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring upon them.'

This letter, written in 1831, may be taken as the beginning of the long war between Capitalism and Socialism. In a later letter, James Mill attributes the doctrine to the 'mad nonsense' of Hodgskin, and adds: 'These opinions if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilized society; worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars.'

Socialism, in so far as it is only political or economic, does not come within the purview of a history of philosophy. But in the hands of Karl Marx Socialism acquired a philosophy. His philosophy will be considered in the next chapter.

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