I. ‘Utility’ and ‘Utilitarianism’: A Methodological Note
David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are often viewed as contributors to or participants in a common tradition of thought roughly characterized as ‘the liberal tradition’ or the tradition of ‘bourgeois ideology’. This view, however useful it may be for polemical or proselytizing purposes, is in some important respects historiographically unsound. This is not to deny the importance of asking what twentieth-century liberals or conservatives might find in the works of, say, David Hume to support their respective ideological persuasions. It is only to insist that attempts to use selected arguments, or parts of arguments, from great eighteenth-century thinkers to shore up twentieth-century programmatic political positions must be categorically distinguished from attempts to understand what Hume, Smith, Bentham or Mill actually meant, or could imaginably have meant, to say.
What Professor Quentin Skinner has rightly called ‘mythologies’1
seem the unavoidable result when commentators insist on assessing the ‘completeness’, ‘adequacy’ or ‘success’ of the work of these four theorists in terms of their contributions to enterprises of which they can have had no conception even remotely similar to that employed by their twentieth-century interpreters. Neither Hume nor Smith, Bentham nor Mill was forging an ideology or attempting forcibly to sustain-as distinct from explicating-the hegemony of a given class in civil society. I wish, therefore, simply to set aside questions like ‘Was Hume the father of classical liberalism?’, or ‘Were Bentham and J. S. Mill possessive individualists?’.
Similarly, I do not propose to speak of Hume’s or Smith’s ‘utilitarianism’. Neither of these thinkers used this term, which first appears in Bentham’s vocabulary in 1781. More importantly, I think it misleading to characterize the thought of either man as comprehensively ‘utilitarian’,
even in a negative or ‘contemplative’2
sense. What the relevant texts actually show us is that Hume and Smith used the term ‘utility’, and also the phrase ‘principle of utility’ or reasonable facsimiles thereof, in a specifiable range of contexts and ways. These usages can, I think, be very usefully compared to the practices of Bentham and J. S. Mill, and in the present paper I shall try to make at least a few such comparisons.
Even in the cases of Bentham and Mill, I propose to focus on what they had to say about ‘utility’ and the ‘utility principle’, rather than couching my analysis in terms of their respective versions, so to speak, of utilitarianism. It seems to me that major methodological problems begin to materialize as soon as we speak of ‘versions’ of utilitarianism: was Bentham an act or rule utilitarian? Did he ‘succeed’ in anticipating in any way the preference-based utilitarianism of modern economists or the ideal utilitarianism of modern philosophers? To pose such questions is to ask, not what Bentham said or meant, but to what degree his words happen to harmonize with the insights, aspirations or predispositions of a wide variety of subsequent theorists. Hume, Smith, Bentham and Mill do not provide us with four ‘versions’ of utilitarianism. Each does, however, carefully characterize ‘utility’ and discuss the nature and operations of a ‘principle of utility’ within the broad context of a science of human nature and society. I shall argue that the distinctive treatment of the meaning of ‘utility’ and of the idea of a ‘principle of utility’ provided by each of these four theorists is strongly shaped by, and indeed presupposes, a particular conception of the methodology, scope and goals of that science.
II. From Scottish Moral Philosophy to ‘Benthamism’
In Adam Smith’s politics Donald Winch issued a salutary call for attention to the contrasts which an attentive textual analysis reveals between the moral, political and methodological theories of Hume and Smith on the one hand, and of the English utilitarians on the other:
… any history of the social sciences which fails to confront the discontinuity marked by the transition from Scottish moral philosophy and its associated histories of civil society on the one side, to Benthamism on the other, would be guilty of sidestepping one of the most intriguing problems in that history.3
Winch especially emphasizes the claim that Smith’s moral and political thought was not as radically ‘individualist’ as that of Bentham or the two Mills:
… Smith’s values were … both post- and pre-individualist in the sense defined, say, by Hobbes on the one side, and redefined by Bentham and James Mill on the other. When the most is made of Smith’s negative and contemplative utilitarianism, and when his concept of self-interest is reduced to its narrowest form, it is still not possible to bridge the gap between his politics and the radical individualism of nineteenth-century utilitarianism: his science of the legislator is not the Benthamite science of legislation.4
I agree wholeheartedly with Winch’s suggestion that the discontinuities between the moral and political theories of the Scottish Enlightenment and those of the English Utilita1;ians are in need of clarification and emphasis. I am not sure that this cause is well served, however, by Winch’s concentration on the putative contrast between Smith’s civic humanist conception of the citizen/subject and the ‘radical individualism of nineteenth-century utilitarianism’. An examination of the use of the idea of ‘public utility’ or the ‘common interest’ in Hume, Smith, Bentham and Mill reveals more continuity than this polarized view seems to postulate. Moreover, ‘individualism’ seems to me a term dangerously prone to anachronistic-and/or partisan-misuse. The fecundity, as Bentham might say, of Winch’s line of historiographic inquiry might be better sustained if we pursued our ‘history of the social sciences’ by examining the features of, say, jurisprudence, political economy and moral philosophy as understood in each author in relation to the over-arching conception of a science of human nature and society. A comparison of Smith’s ‘science of the legislator’ with ‘the Benthamite science of legislation’, for example, would be immensely valuable. It is well known that Bentham literally had no use for such central figures in the tradition of Natural Jurisprudence as Grotius, Pufendorf, Barbeyrac, Burlamaqui and Vattel. The antagonism between Scottish natural jurisprudence and Bentham’s ‘censorial jurisprudence’ is only one of many possible illustrations of Winch’s claim that ‘the gulf between Smith’s intellectual enterprise and those that are often regarded as his successors runs deeper than has been suspected’.5
In the field of political economy, despite his public stance of discipleship and indebtedness to the work of Smith, Bentham developed a conception of the ‘art and science’ of political economy as a ‘branch of the art of government’6
which was much more interventionist7
than anything entailed by the ‘contemplative utilitarianism’8
of Smith. I can do little more here than to recognize what I take to be the great potential value of such lines of inquiry, and to invite any who have not yet had the pleasure of doing so to read the recent works on these topics of Knuud Haakonssen, Gerald Postema and others.9
Jurisprudence and Political Economy, from the perspective of the present discussion, are of interest as fields in which a given author’s concepts of ‘utility’ and the ‘utility principle’ may be applied.
The field of moral philosophy requires more detailed study here, for this will help us to see how those concepts are shaped.
Evidence of Bentham’s attitude toward Scottish moral philosophy (which he took to be the source of what was distinctive in the Scottish version of Natural Jurisprudence), is provided by some of the marginal observations he added to his ‘Table of the Springs of Action’ just prior to the printing of the ‘Table’ in 1815. There he named ‘A. Smith’ as a teacher of the principle of ‘ipse-dixitism’, and thus a practitioner of the art of ‘substituting smoke to light’.10
He spoke of an ipse-dixitist ‘philosophy’ as one
… Setting up SENSE
or feeling, real or pretended, as a sufficient reason for obligation to act in opposition to utilitarianism: discarding calculation, disregarding consequences in respect of pleasure and pain.11
The ascendancy of Scottish moral philosophy in the eighteenth century had, he charged, been won largely by default. Scottish moral sense theory moved into the vacuum left by the substitution of unquestioning religious orthodoxy for ethical thinking at Oxford and Cambridge:
In English universities, religion kept Ethics out of the schools and drove her to Scotland. The Scotch Universities received those who looked for instruction. The English and Irish, those who looked for patronage. Subscriptions, not exacted in Scotland.12
Bentham seems to have seen this Scottish monopoly on ethical theorizing as conducive to a lax and subjective approach to the task:
When everything is done by feeling and talking about feeling, the task of a teacher is not difficult … Hume, Reid, Smith, etc. vied in cultivating it. No wonder[-] it fitted everyone and proved all DESIDERATA without skill or practice.
… In morals, instruction could be delivered without thought, so as to please every man.13
The teaching of moral theory in Scotland failed, in Bentham’s eyes, to exhibit the methodological features of ‘advanced sciences’ such as ‘Cosmography’, chemistry, ‘Electricity or Galvanism’, ‘Natural History’ or even ‘Domestic Economy’.14
Speaking of the scientific study of motives, as exemplified in his ‘Table of the Springs of Action’, he claimed that ‘Of this as of other sciences, a man’s view is the more correct and complete the fewer the leading terms under which he has been able to reduce it.’15
Instead of progressing toward this methodological goal, the Scottish Enlightenment had moved in precisely the opposite direction:
Independent principles in multitudes imagined by a host of Scotch Sophists erroneously accounting for psychological phenomena already correctly accounted for by few principles: for each phenomenon a separate innate principle.16
More than 25 years before the printing of the ‘Table of the Springs of Action’, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
Bentham had already identified the methodological master principle responsible for the proliferation of operative principles in Scottish moral theory. Among anti-utilitarian principles, he wrote, this principle was the one ‘which at this day seems to have the most influence in matters of government … the principle of sympathy and antipathy’.18
Bentham’s use of ‘sympathy’ here is profoundly different from the crucial use made of that term by both Hume and Smith in their moral and social theories. ‘Sympathy’ had been indispensable to Hume’s and Smith’s explanations of duty and obligation, and of that combination of self-interest and limited generosity upon which realistic moral and political theorists must rest their expectations of humankind. Sympathy, as something distinct from the perception of utility, made propriety and benevolence possible in civil society as well as ensuring a continuing commitment by citizens to the observance of the rules of justice. Sympathy-the modern equivalent would be ‘empathy’ with our fellow citizens-was for both Hume and Smith an integral part of the conception of self-interest. Given this assumption, the intelligently self-interested citizen could be expected to exhibit an adequate understanding of public utility. In Bentham, however, the phrase ‘sympathy and antipathy’ implied the very opposite of social ‘empathy’. Bentham strove to attach to it connotations of self-centred sentimentalism and selfish partisanship. ‘Sympathy’ and ‘Antipathy’ thus amounted to little more than Hobbesian desire and aversion, with the activity of the individual’s will resembling Hobbes’s process of ‘deliberation’.19
Bentham considered trying to capture the arbitrariness and subjectivity of the principle of sympathy and antipathy by christening it the ‘principle of caprice’, or evoking its connection with the multiplication of unwanted ‘fictions’ by entitling it ‘the phantastic principle’. Whichever guise it assumes, he argued, this principle ‘… approves or disapproves of certain actions … merely because a man finds himself disposed to [do so]’;21
it is really ‘a term employed to signify the negation of all principle’.22
To adopt and apply it ‘you need but to take counsel of your own feelings …’:
… 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?23
In 1815, Bentham summarized the contrast, as he saw it, between his own social and political thought and the perspective of Scottish ‘Sentimentalists’:
Utilitarianism, working by calculation, is consistent and solicitous beneficence. Sentimentalism, in so far as independent of utilitarianism, is in effect a mask for selfish[ness?] or malignity, or both for despotism, intolerance, tyranny.24
Bentham hated Scottish ‘sentimentalism’ as scientists despise sophists. Its popularity depressed him. To postulate that anything other than utility could be the basis of morals and government, he wrote, was ‘as absurd in psychology as to say in physics that to take aim diminishes the chance of hitting a mark’.25
Bentham’s hopes for a Helvetian/Newtonian moral science seem not to have been altogether quenched, but must have been weakened, by his diagnosis of the general social situation he faced:
In politics, religion and morals every man clings to the notions most accordant to his prepossessions and all turn a deaf ear to truth which might shackle their will while it enlightened their understanding. Each man wishes to do his will. Truth, if subservient to this, is acceptable; if obstructive, odious.26