© Michael Lacewing
Utilitarianism: acts, rules and pleasures
1. Mill on Bentham
In his essay ‘Bentham’, Mill says a moralist needs to survey human nature, which takes two qualifications – one’s own rounded experience, and an ability to learn from others. Bentham failed on both counts. He had a dogmatic attitude toward other ideas of morality, measuring the ethics of other ages only by their appreciation of the principle of utility. And he was cut off from many of the strongest natural feelings and most powerful experiences we have, and lacked imagination – he didn’t know prosperity, adversity, passion, satiety, ill-health, or dejection. He recognises only pleasure and pain, self-interest and sympathy, and thereby overlooks or misunderstands self-respect, conscience, love of honour, beauty, order, power, and action, ideas that relate to the pursuit of spiritual or moral perfection for its own sake. “No one, probably, who, in a highly instructed age, ever attempted to give a rule to all human conduct, set out with a more limited conception either of the agencies by which human conduct is, or of those by which it should be, influenced… If he thought at all of any of the deeper feelings of human nature, it was but as idiosyncrasies of taste, with which the moralist no more than the legislator had any concern” (‘Bentham’, 97, 101). Indeed, he thought ideas of taste were simply dogmatic, as if we can’t or shouldn’t say, from someone’s tastes, that they are cultivated or ignorant, sensitive or callous, benevolent or selfish: “quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry”.
Benthamism cannot answer the question of what welfare might consist in beyond removing the ills of human life. What values are there for us to pursue once we no longer suffer pain and deprivation? What are the perennial sources of happiness? It was to this question that Mill addressed his distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Mill’s utilitarianism is not one of Benthamite calculation, taking in all minor pleasures and pains; it is one of a grander scope: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being” (On Liberty). And these permanent interests include freedom, truth, the development of character and individuality, and qualities of mind and spirit.
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