Utilitarian Reasonings I

The ancient Epicureans’ contractarian ideas on justice have greatly influenced contemporary libertarianism, and conceptions of hedonic calculus–the comparative evaluation of the pleasure versus pain generated by our choices and avoidances–have been applied, sometimes in a manner that is not very artful, to public policy in attempts to demonstrate their relevance and usefulness. But pleasure is a highly individualistic ethical principle, and there are some problems with the application of hedonic calculus to policy at the collective level. Many Epicureans express doubt that hedonic calculus can or should be applied to entire communities or states, while others–like Michel Onfray–enthusiastically speak of a hedonic covenant that seeks to maximize the other’s benefit and pleasure in order to secure and maximize our own.

Utilitarians–like Bentham and Stuart Mill–have been the main proponents of equations and formulas that seek to use hedonic calculus in policy and ethical decision-making at the collective level. This in spite of the fact that, from the onset, Jeremy Bentham in
An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, says that “community is a fictitious body” (Chapter 1.4), which echoes to some extent accusations that we’ve seen in Epicurean discourse along the lines of most of what we think of as community is Platonic, and can be contrasted with natural community. Might we be able to revisit Utilitarian theories in view of these considerations?

Here is the first problem that Utilitarianism faces. If, by its own admission, Utilitarianism concedes that community is fictitious–and therefore, that only individuals are real–then, why not stick to individual and strictly interpersonal ethics if we are hedonists? I imagine Utilitarians would argue that public policy is a messy and complicated matter, and that the Utilitarian project reflects the sincere efforts of policy-makers to apply some scientific standard to their responsibilities.

Utilitarianism also has the effect of providing the left and progressive movements with a framework and a tool that helps us to assuage the (sometimes narcissistic and unhealthy) extremes of the West’s individualism. The eradication of ignorance, poverty, and contagious disease can be said to increase the benefit and pleasure, and the decrease the loss and the pain of all the members of society, so that a pretty uncontroversial case can be made for these projects at the level of public policy rooted in hedonist and utilitarian ethics. Other, more controversial cases can be made in favor of progressive causes like cannabis legalization, but these controversies arise from cultural convention and not from common-sense, careful evaluation of facts in light of the mutual advantage principle.

I will begin by setting up some of the basics, and in future blogs will explore more in depth some of the more complex dimensions of the Utilitarian doctrine.

Utilitarianism Is a Hedonism

One of the first insights that we get from reading both Bentham’s and Mill’s writings advocating Utilitarian ethics is that they are convinced that their tradition is firmly founded on the recognition that the pleasure and pain faculties are the guides that our own nature has given us to help us live ethical lives, and that these faculties are essential for our moral compass.

Their reasonings start from the declaration of the doctrine that the end that our own nature seeks is pleasure and happiness, and Mill also refutes the concept of virtue as an end, seeing it instead as a means to pleasure, and adamantly advocates for the avoidance of sacrifice except for a higher pleasure.

In addition to denouncing needless self-sacrifice, we also find an adamant denounciation of ascetism in Bentham’s foundational work, as the anti-hedonism and as a danger to human happiness. With ascetism being the domain of “moralists and religionists” in their own words, it is clear that we must make room for Utilitarian intellectuals in the firmament of our counter-history of philosophy.

We also see that Utilitarian intellectuals consider it their task to argue that pleasure and pain, as the guides of life, are natural and scientific standards, and that even non-hedonist thinkers have had to concede that real criteria are needed and that arbitrary ones only serve tyranny, corruption, and moral confusion. This is reminiscent of modern thinkers–like Sam Harris–and ancient ones like our third Scholarch Polystratus, who argued for a moral realism and against culture-based relativism.

Finally, we see in the foundational writings of the Utilitarians that, like Epicurus and Aristippus, they argued that the goodness and choice-worthiness of pleasure and the badness and avoidance-worthiness of pain are self-evident to our senses and faculties. Epicurus specifically refused to argue this issue with rationalists. This is not a matter of logic. We can argue with our own nature, but when it comes to pain and pleasure, these are real criteria provided by nature and we argue and rebel against nature only to our detriment.

Utilitarianism is Founded on Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines

… the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.

… the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded- namely, that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.

– John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, Chapter 2

Jeremy Bentham (Chapter 1.2) also defines utilitarianism along the same lines. The key quotes that will help us understand to what extent their utility principle is one and the same as Epucurus’ mutual advantage principle can be found in Principal Doctrines 31-38. Here, we see the requirement of a “pledge” by an agent, a free man or woman with the power to make decisions and enter into contracts with others.

In Mill and Bentham, the problem of agency is addressed in many nuances, but more liberties are taken to argue that policy-makers have the power and responsibility to account for the happiness of non-agents, so that the welfare of animals and small children is accounted for. Outside of this, it seems that the mutual advantage principle that Epicureans associate with natural justice is identical in most important respects to the utility principle.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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