’Oh Happiness! Our being’s end and aim.’
– Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, Epistle 4,1. 1
Utilitarianism during the Christian Middle Ages was not a philosophy; but it was occasionally a style of argument. St Thomas Aquinas held that a state might legitimately permit prostitution to avert greater ills (he presumably thought the damnation of one prostitute less serious than that of many adulterous wives). And Richard of St Victor employed what we should now call ‘rule-utilitarian’ reasoning to defend the secrecy of the confessional. Although it might sometimes be utile to the confessing person to reveal a sin disclosed under the seal of secrecy, it is more conducive to public good (to which charity gives precedence over individual good) to maintain the absolute confidentiality of the sacrament.1 Such examples of utilitarian logic are fairly common, but they do not amount to an outlook on life. Whatever Christ himself may have thought, the medieval Church saw the present life as pre-eminently a period of probation determining man’s destination for eternity. Happiness in the next world, not this, was what counted; and man’s business on earth was to earn that happiness by scrupulous adherence to God’s law. Saints took rejection of worldly happiness further still: they endeavoured to earn extra merit by eschewing all earthly comforts and deliberately cultivating hardship. But for ordinary folk, strait was the gate and narrow the way which led to paradise. Even moderate self-denial, thought the noted preacher Robertus Caracciolus in the fifteenth century, was beyond the capacity of most people; consequently almost everybody would be damned. Generally speaking, the Middle Ages was not a period of optimism about human possibilities; the perceived distance between divine perfection and human imperfection was simply too great.
The Renaissance initiated the long process of transition from a
God-centred to a man-centred universe. Neoplatonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola reacted against medieval notions of
human worthies sness, and reasserted ancient ideas of the dignity of man, the uniquely rational animal (see Kristeller 1972). The seventeenth century also witnessed a revival of interest in the thought of Epicurus, culminating in France in the apologetic of Pierre Gassendi. Meanwhile in England Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan
gave serious weight to the fact that people have an interest in being happy in the present life, and proposed political strategies for dealing with the conflicts of interests that inevitably arise from human insecurity, vanity and greed.
But we can move swiftly forward to the next century to resume the main thread of our story. The eighteenth century was the green youth of utilitarianism, as the nineteenth was its prime. Almost all of the characteristic theses of utilitarianism had made their appearance by 1800, many of them before the advent of the term ‘utilitarian’. Utilitarianism has been justly called the dominant philosophy of the mature Enlightenment (P. Gay 1973: 459).2 This was a role for which it had several significant qualifications. To begin with, it claimed to be rooted in the scientific study of human nature, substituting for ideas based on religion, myth or guesswork empirical theories of sensation, motivation, and the intellectual operations of the mind. It could also be seen as a socially progressive philosophy, for many existing political, social, economic, legal and religious institutions beloved by conservatives appeared plainly defective by the test of public happiness. Utilitarianism embodied, too, a rationalism that, to enlightened minds, seemed admirably fitted to sweep away moribund ideas and the profitless practices they sustained. It gave hope to men like the Marquis de Condorcet, who believed passionately in the perfectibility of man and the possibility (under suitable arrangements) of true human happiness on earth. Writing in the shadow of the guillotine, Condorcet looked forward to a future epoch of the world in which no one would go hungry, when all illnesses could be cured and life expectancy increased without limit, slaves would be freed and women gain equality with men, war would be abolished and the arts and education flourish (Condorcet 1794). This was a more comprehensive scheme of improvement than any dreamed of by Bentham, and a good deal more Utopian; but it exemplified a similar impatience with the status quo and the same sanguine belief in the power for change of an energetic good will supported by science.
Utilitarian ideas appealed also for their secular, this-worldly character, their unindebtedness to Jerusalem, Rome or Geneva. They answered (as the Kantian ethic did too, in a different way) to the philosophes
’ demand for a non-religious, rational morality which would treat human beings as
ends in themselves and their lives as valuable irrespective of their place in a divine plan. Moreover utilitarians ascribed to all human beings an equal moral status, regardless of race, sex, age or class. Kant defined ‘Enlightenment’ (Aufklärung)
as the ‘exit by man from his own self-imposed minority’, when he begins to rely on his own understanding and rejects the guidance of others (Kant 1793: 34). Utilitarian moral thought was ‘enlightened’ in this Kantian sense: utilitarians refused to be guided by authority, and insisted on working out their own positions from first principles.
Jean François, Marquis de Chastellux and Claude Helvétius exemplify perhaps better than any other writers the specific flavour of utilitarianism in pre-revolutionary France. Both were deeply committed to the improvement of the condition of the poor and believed that governments had a duty to foster the general good; both thought that, as Helvétius put it, ‘wise laws would be able without doubt to bring about the miracle of a universal happiness’ (Helvétius 1774: 187).3 For these writers, as for others of their compatriots, utilitarianism was primarily a political philosophy and less a theory of personal morality. Further, it was a philosophy which offered what seemed to them a clear-cut and highly practical recipe for political action: governments should first of all find out what makes people happy, then devise appropriate social strategies to bring that happiness about. Subsequent experience of well-meant but often disastrous social experiments from 1789 to the fall of communism may make us question how straightforward this programme really was; but nothing can destroy the credit of the philosophes for promulgating it, at considerable personal risk, in the France of the ancien régime.
‘It is an indisputable point, (or at least, there is room to think it, in this philosophical age, an acknowledged truth)’ wrote the Marquis de Chastellux in his essay De la felicite publique
(translated into English as the Essay Concerning Human Happiness),
‘that the first object of all governments, should be to render the people happy’ (Chastellux 1774: vol. 1, 50). In order to discover how governments could best do this, Chastellux turned to history. What past nation, he asked, had been the happiest? To answer this question called for an investigation of social history from ancient times to the present, a daunting project on which Chastellux duly embarked. Yet the disappointing, if unsurprising, conclusion of his ambitious survey was that no society had yet discovered how to bring about the general happiness; the ‘history of happiness’ was,
in truth, the history of unhappiness. There had indeed been pockets of happiness from time to time, and some promising attempts made to establish it on a systematic basis: early Christianity, for instance, had taught the value of equality, charity, beneficence and the distribution of alms, before the ‘spirit of charity’ had been submerged by the ‘spirit of discussion’ and the bickering of theologians (vol. 1, 322–3). But human society was a mere 3,000 years old – hardly long enough, Chastellux thought, for people to learn how to live in peace with one another (vol. 1, xxii). There remained good hope for the future: the mistakes of the past, once understood, could be avoided, while recent developments in industrial and agricultural technology promised to alleviate the terrible drudgery of the poor. Knowledge and liberty were the twin routes to social improvement and would assuredly lead in time to ’the acquisition of the greatest happiness of the greatest number’
(vol. 2, 180).‘
A more powerful thinker than Chastellux, Helvétius is the most important, and the most forthright, of the Gallic utilitarians. In place of Chastellux’s often fanciful and impressionistic history, Helvétius presented in his works De Vesprit (1758) and De Vhomme (1771) a detailed theory of human nature designed to show how men could be made happy through the fulfilment of their fundamental needs. Although some of his early readers objected to the relentlessly egoistic picture of human beings he painted, Helvétius believed that through carefully managed education individuals could be moulded into cooperative citizens of communities enjoying a high level of general happiness. The work of the legislator was itself a species of education: ‘It is solely through good laws that one can form good men. Thus the whole art of the legislator consists of forcing men, by the sentiment of self-love, to be always just to one another’ (Helvétius 1758: 176). Justice was to be encouraged by convincing people that to be happy one did not need to be rich or powerful. The grounds of happiness exist in everyone, without regard to wealth or status: a person is happy when his primitive physical and social needs, for example, for eating, drinking, sleeping, shelter, sex and friendship, are satisfied. Being nourished is all a man requires, not the synthetic delights of a rich man’s table. Wealthy people are in fact often bored, because they do not have to work towards the fulfilment of their own needs, a major source of human contentment; ‘[t]he man who is occupied,’ thought Helvétius, ‘is the happy man’ (Helvétius 1771: vol. 2, 190). Happiness consists in doing moderate labour in the intervals of satisfying one’s basic natural requirements.
Helvétius was under no illusions that the happy society envisaged in his model would be easy to bring about. There were too many sectional
interests which stood in the way, as well as unthinking custom and prejudice. Therefore, philosophers must become educators, instructing people in the real nature of happiness and ridding them of false ideas about the good life. No individual or society whose conception of human welfare rested on fantasy could hope to attain happiness. ‘Oh truth, you are the divinity of noble souls’, Helvétius declared; and when princes can be brought to love truth, ‘happiness and virtue prevail under them in their empire’ (283–4).
The constructive problem for the philosopher, as Helvétius conceived it, had two main parts:
The object of the first must be the discovery of laws suitable to render men as happy as possible, to procure for them consequently all the enjoyments and pleasures compatible with the public good…. The object of the second must be the discovery of means by which one may insensibly raise the people from the state of misery they now endure to the state of happiness they are capable of enjoying (258–9).
The first was the more general task, calling on a knowledge of universal human nature; the second had regard to the peculiar institutions and conditions of life existing within a particular polity, such as France. Helvétius further hoped that a form of society could be devised in which no individual’s private interest would ever be contrary to the general good (294). This Utopian result was to be obtained not just by placing institutional constraints on people’s ability to acquire powers, privileges and property, but by devising an educational scheme to limit what they should want to acquire. Helvétius’s programme is both ambitious and disturbing; it not only places extraordinary demands on educators but, more worryingly, it seriously threatens the capacity of persons to live lives which express their own individuality. But in his more realistic moments, Helvétius refrained from condemning private interests which are merely in potential conflict with the public good, and required only that people be prepared to relinquish those interests in situations of actual conflict. Even this more limited objective, however, would require an educational system capable of turning out saints, and it would certainly not please those present-day critics who find utilitarians much too ready to demand self-sacrifice from individuals in the name of the general good.
But in pressing these criticisms we must take care not to lose our historical perspective. Helvétius’s intended target was not individuality, but the gross social disparities of rich and poor in eighteenth-century Europe. French utilitarianism was not so much careless of the individual, as careful of the mass of people whose interests were invariably
subordinated to those of rich and powerful minorities. The clarion call of public happiness in a pre-democratic age evoked different emotions, and raised different conceptual issues, than talk of the general utility does in the late twentieth century. Our present worries about the interests of individuals and minorities are premised on the political power of the majority in modern western states. What rightly mattered more to an eighteenth-century utilitarian was the domination of the many by the few. All men, Helvétius believed, had a right to an ‘equal felicity’ (194); and philosophers should help to ensure that they obtained it.
The Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) was the first to speak of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; more importantly, he bears the distinction of being the earliest writer to enunciate a philosophy that can without qualification be termed ‘utilitarian’. That this has not always been grasped is because Hutcheson is also a major representative of an approach to ethics which is often considered to be incompatible with utilitarianism, that which maintains that moral truth is revealed not by any form of reasoning but by a special ‘moral sense’. In Hutcheson’s case, however, there is no real opposition between these positions: moral sense and consequentialist reasoning are assigned different but complementary roles in moral reflection. In his early work An Inquiry concerning the original of our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good
(1725), Hutcheson argued that human beings are endowed by nature with benevolent as well as selfish impulses, and that the impulse to benevolence becomes ‘the universal Foundation’ of ‘a Sense of Goodness and moral Beauty in Actions, distinct from Advantage’ (Selby-Bigge 1897: vol. 1, 118, 114). A being who was totally indifferent to what happened to others could never approve of a charitable act or disapprove of a cruel one; he would be without the emotional equipment to perceive the beauty of the former and the vileness of the latter. But in Hutcheson’s view, a moral sense founded on benevolence focuses specifically on the advantageous and disadvantageous consequences of actions: so ‘when we are ask’d the Reason of our Approbation of any Action, we perpetually alledge its Usefulness to the Publick, and not to the Actor himself. And if we want to defend a censured action, we will argue ‘That it injur’d no body, or did more Good than Harm’ (118). The picture which emerges from Hutcheson’s discussion is of a division of labour, in which the moral sense causes us to look with favour on actions which benefit others and disfavour those which harm them, while
consequentialist reasoning determines a more precise ranking order of practical options in given situations. Our moral sense may, for instance, inform us of the beauty in general of acts of telling the truth and of saving innocent lives; but faced with a case in which an innocent life can only be saved by telling a lie, consequentialist reasoning will guide us towards telling the lie.
Hutcheson admittedly did not always make as clear as he might have done the relations of the roles of moral sense and moral reason. This is true even in a passage whose place in the development of early utilitarianism is significant enough for it to be quoted at length:
In comparing the moral Qualitys of Actions, in order to regulate our Election among various Actions propos’d, or to find which of them has the greatest moral Excellency, we are led by our moral Sense of Virtue to judge thus; that in equal Degrees of Happiness, expected to proceed from the Action, the Virtue is in proportion to the Number of Persons to whom the Happiness shall extend; (and here the Dignity, or moral Importance of Persons shall compensate Numbers) and in equal Numbers, the Virtue is as the Quantity of the Happiness, or natural Good; or that the Virtue is in a compound Ratio of the Quantity of Good, and Number of Enjoyers. In the same manner, the moral Evil, or Vice, is as the Degree of Misery, and Numbers of Sufferers; so that, that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery (106–7).
In spite of the explicit reference here to the moral sense, it is plain from the passage that Hutcheson means to accord a considerable role to consequentialist reasoning in the evaluation of actions. When we judge and compare actions, we need to weigh up rationally a number of factors: the amount of happiness or misery they will generate, the number of people potentially affected, and the ‘Dignity or moral Importance of [the] Persons’ concerned (for example, we should avoid benevolence which ‘encourages’ evil people ‘in their bad Intentions, or makes them more capable of Mischief (106)). Hutcheson adds that we may reasonably judge it right to perform an ill act for the sake of a greater benefit: for ‘an immense Good to few, may preponderate a small Evil to many’ (107; cf. Hutcheson 1755: vol. 1, 231). These consequentialist reflections are followed by a remarkable anticipation of Jeremy Bentham, when Hutcheson sketches out a ‘universal Canon to compute the Morality [i.e. the praiseworthiness] of any Actions’, involving the mathematical treatment of several variables including the ‘Moments’ of good and evil
(both public and private), and the degrees of ability and benevolence of the agent (Selby-Bigge 1897: section in.
xi). Such appraisal of actions and agents would obviously far outrun the capacities of a purely intuitive moral sense.
Hutcheson’s posthumously published book A System of Moral Philosophy (1755) repeats, in essence, the utilitarian content of the Inquiry, but is notable for its more subtle treatment of the nature of the good life, wherein it anticipates not so much Bentham as J.S. Mill. One important feature of the good life is that it will be a virtuous life. In Hutcheson’s view, ‘to maintain the calm and most extensive affection toward the universal happiness, able to control all narrower affections when there is any opposition, and the sacrificing all narrow interests to the most extensive … is the highest perfection of human virtue’ (Hutcheson 1755: vol. 1, 243). But Hutcheson displays a kindly tolerance towards those who find such demanding virtue too difficult. When narrower affections overpower wider ones, this is forgivable where the narrower affections are good in themselves: ‘any of those tender affections extenuate the guilt more than any merely selfish principle could have done’ (243).
Hutcheson believes that we are naturally inclined to want, and to work for, our own happiness and that of other people. As for what happiness is, it consists, for any being, ‘in the full enjoyment of all the gratifications its nature desires and is capable of (100). But he immediately explains that pleasures can be divided into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ categories, and that greater happiness ensues from pursuing the former than the latter...