Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Note on Utilitarianism

[The following is the substance of two Articles which I published in the Pall Mall Gazette, in June 1869, on the subject of "Utilitarianism." It was suggested by some criticisms on a work of Mr. Lecky's, which have lost their interest. I have accordingly omitted all reference to Mr. Lecky and his critics, but I reprint the substance of the Articles, because they explain systematically my views on a subject which is glanced at in several places in this work.]

All moral controversies may be reduced under four general heads. First, what is the sphere of morals, what part of human life do they cover, and of what other elements in human nature do they assume the existence? Secondly, what is the nature of the distinction between right and wrong? Thirdly, how are we to ascertain whether given actions are right or wrong? Fourthly, why should we do what is right and avoid what is wrong? Of these four questions the second, third, and fourth have been discussed in every possible way from the most remote times. The first, which is of extreme importance, has as yet been hardly touched. It is in respect to the other three questions that the points of difference and agreement between the two great schools of intuition and experience have displayed and continue to display themselves.

It is necessary, in order to appreciate this, to show first what is the meaning of the leading doctrine of the two great schools in question, and next, how each of them deals with each of the three questions above mentioned. In the first place, it is obvious that there is no contradiction between intuition and experience, for all experience assumes and presupposes intuition. All men in all ages have been and are now profoundly affected by the contemplation of the conduct of other men. There never was a time or country in which people were in the habit of observing each other's conduct with the indifference with which they might watch the ebb and flow of the tide or the motions of the heavenly bodies. However we may account for it, the feelings which we call sympathy and antipathy, praise and blame, love and hatred, are, in fact, produced by observing particular kinds of conduct, and in each particular man at any given time those sentiments are as involuntary as the pain which follows a blow, or the pleasure produced by an agreeable sound or taste. If, when it is asserted that morality is intuitive or depends upon intuition, all that is meant is that the contemplation of human conduct produces involuntary emotions of various kinds in every spectator, Austin or Bentham would have admitted the truth of those propositions as much as their most vigorous opponents. They would even have gone a step farther and have owned that there is, as a matter of fact, abroad general resemblance between the acts which are regarded with sympathy and antipathy, and which excite praise or blame, in different generations and distant parts of the world, No one ever doubted that some degree of indifference to the infliction of suffering has at all times and places been blamed as cruelty, or that a wish, under some circumstances or other, to promote the happiness of others has always and everywhere received praise under the name of benevolence. The controversy between the two schools of morals relates not to the facts but to the manner in which they are to be interpreted, and this will be best displayed by considering the way in which each school would treat each of the three questions above mentioned.

The first question is, What is the difference between right and wrong? As a fact, certain classes of actions are in popular language called right and wrong, and are regarded by the world at large with praise or blame respectively. Is this an ultimate fact beyond which we cannot go?

The analogy which exists between this inquiry and kindred questions on other subjects is often overlooked, and ought to be observed. Take, for instance, such words as "heavy" and "light," "up" and "down," "wet" and "dry." No words can seem clearer; yet experience has shown that it is impossible to use them philosophjcally, or to get any but the most confused, unintelligible results from the attempt to throw them into systems, until they have been interpreted by certain broad general principles which show their true relation to each other. For instance, till it was proved that all bodies attract each other under certain conditions, and that the earth is a proximately spherical body revolving in a certain course, it was impossible to use such words as "up" and "down," , "heavy" and "light" in a really scientific manner. The utilitarian answer to the question, "What is the difference between right and wrong?: is an attempt--successful or otherwise, as it may be--to do for ethics what those who made the great elementary discoveries in physics did for the mass of observed facts, and for the expressive but indefinite words descriptive of those facts which the unsystematic observation of ages had accumulated about the heavenly bodies and common natural objects.

Of course, if we are content to confine ourselves upon these subjects to inconclusive rhetoric, it is possible to do so. There is no course of conduct for which dyslogistic or eulogistic epithets may not be found. Any given act may be described as severity or cruelty, courage or rashness, obstinacy or firmness, gentleness or weakness, according to the sympathy or antipathy which it happens to create in the speaker; and in cases which present little difficulty, and in which the only object is to bring public opinion to bear upon some action as to the moral complexion of which there is no real question, little more is required. When, however, commonplaces can be plausibly adduced on both sides, it becomes apparent that such language is useful only as a relief to the feelings, and that it supplies no guide at all to conduct. Take such a question, for instance, as alms-giving. The beauties of charity on the one side and the beauties of independence on the other, the claims of the individual and the claims of the public, may be balanced against each other indefinitely; but the process can never lead to any definite result at all, unless some general principle is laid down which enables us to affix a precise meaning to the general words employed, into which, when we wish to bring the controversy to a definite issue, they may be translated.

The utilitarian answer to the question, What is the meaning of right and wrong? is an attempt, successful or not, to supply this precise meaning to popular language. The utilitarian says, I observe that, speaking broadly, men desire the same sorts of things, and I call the attainment of these objects of desire by the general name of happiness. I also observe that certain courses of conduct tend to promote, and that others tend to prevent or interfere with, the attainment of these objects of desire by mankind, and that the popular use of the words "right" and "wrong" has a marked general correspondence to these two classes of conduct. Speaking generally, the acts which are called right do promote or are supposed to promote genetal happiness, and the acts which are called wrong do diminish or are supposed to diminish it. I say, therefore, that this is what the words "right" and "wrong" mean, just as the words "up" and "down" mean that which points from or towards the earth's centre of gravity, though they are used by millions who have not the least notion of the fact that such is their meaning, and though they were used for centuries and millenniums before anyone was or even could be aware of it. Our language begins by being vivid and inexact. We are enabled to render it precise and so to assign what may be conveniently called its true meaning, only when experience has informed us of the relations of the subject-matter to which it applies.

Believers in moral intuitions may answer the question, What do you mean by right and wrong? in one of two ways. They may say you cannot get beyond the fact that these .words and their equivalents are, in fact, applied to certain courses of conduct. Those who give this answer are bound to go on to say that the courses of conduct to which the words in question are applied are always and everywhere the same, and that they denote a specific quality like the words red or blue, which may be immediately and distinctly perceived by everyone who considers the subject; for, if they do not, the result will be that the use of the words will denote nothing except the individual sympathy or antipathy, as the case may be, of the persons by whom they are used, and this confessedly varies from time to time and place to place. On the other hand, they may say that the words have the meaning which utilitarians assign to them, and may say nothing about their moral intuitions till they come to the second of the questions referred to.

This second question is, How am I to know right from wrong? It is independent of the first question, though they are not unconnected. The utilitarian answer is, that the knowledge of right and wrong does not differ from other branches of knowledge, and must be acquired in the same way. An intuitive moralist would say that there is a special function of the mind--namely, conscience--which recognizes at once the specific difference which is alleged to exist between them, whether that difference consists in their effect upon happiness or in anything else. It is, however, to be observed that almost all utilitarians admit the existence of conscience as a fact. They admit, that is, that men do pass moral judgments on their own acts and those of other people, that these moral judgments are involuntary when the moral character is once formed, and that whether they apply to the acts of the judge himself or to the acts of other persons. They would say, for instance, that an ordinary Englishman of our own time, who shares the common opinion of his country as to monogamy and polygamy, would be as unable to regard a given act of bigamy with approval as to think that on a given day the earth did not move round the sun. They deny, however, that conscience is the ultimate test of right and wrong in the sense of being able to tell us with unerring certainty whether a given action is or is not in accordance with a rule calculated to promote the general happiness of mankind, or what in respect to a given subject matter those rules are. They also deny that conscience recognizes any specific difference between right and wrong actions, and that there is any such specific difference other than the one already stated to be recognized. It is also to be observed, on the other hand, that there is nothing inconsistent in believing that right and wrong depend upon the tendency of actions to produce happiness, and that we have in conscience a specific quality or power which enables us to recognize this tendency in any action to which we turn our attention.

The third question is, Why should I do right? Upon this several observations arise which are continually overlooked. The first is, that people usually write as if every moralist were bound to supply a satisfactory answer to it; whereas, it is perfectly conceivable that there may be no answer. A man may give a full definition. of health, and may point out the measures by which healthy symptoms may be distinguished from the symptoms of disease, and he may yet be quite unable to lay down rules by which health can be secured. Thus it is possible that a consistent meaning can be assigned to the words "right" and "wrong," and that the appropriate means for distinguishing between them may be pointed out, but that there may be no sufficient reason why people in general should do right and avoid doing wrong.

The second observation is that the fact that there is so much wrongdoing in the world seems difficult to reconcile with the theory that right and wrong are recognized by intuition; and that as soon as the rightfulness of an action is recognized the fact is of itself a sufficient reason why it should be done.

The third observation is that the question itself cannot be put except in a form which assumes that the utilitarian answer is the only one which can possibly be given. That answer is, I ought to do right, because to do right will conduce to my greatest happiness. It is impossible to assign any otber meaning than this to the words "why should I" or to any equivalent which can be devised for them. The words "why should I" mean "what shall I get by," "what motive have I for" this or that course of conduct. The instant you assign a motive of any sort whatever for doing fight, whether it is the love of God, the love of man, the approval of one's own conscience, or even the pleasure of doing right itself, you admit the principle that the question relates to the weight of motives. The only acts, if acts they can be called, which do not fall under this principle are acts which cannot be helped. If upon recognizing a given course of conduct as right a man had as little choice about doing it as he has about dying of a mortal wound, it would be taken out of the utilitarian principle, otherwise not.

These remarks bring us to the question itself, which is beyond all doubt the most difficult as it is the most important of the great ethical questions. I have already given the utilitarian answer, but, before noticing the standard objection to it, it may be as well to expound it, so as to show what it implies. It implies that the reasons for doing right vary indefinitely according to the nature of the right act to be done, and the circumstances of the person by whom it is to be done. There is no one sanction which applies with precisely equal weight to every conceivable case of doing right. For instance, why should not the Lord Chancellor commit given theft? Because amongst other things by committing theft he would fall from a very high to a very low position. Why should not an habitual pickpocket commit the same theft? Because he would confirm a wicked habit and risk punishment, but as for his character and position he has none to lose. The reasons, therefore, why the two men should or ought to abstain, the elements of their respective obligations, are different. To use Jeremy Taylor's appropriate though obsolete expression, they are not "tied by the same bands." Obligation is simply a metaphor for tying. This of course suggests the standard difficulty upon the subject. Why should A. B. do a specific right action when it happens to be opposed to his interest?

The answer usually given is not very satisfactory. It is to the effect that the utilitarian standard is not the greatest happiness of one man, but the greatest happiness of men in general; and that the rule of conduct which the whole system supplies is that men ought to act upon those rules which are found to produce general happiness, and not that they ought in particular cases to calculate the specific consequences to themselves of their own actions. I This answer is incomplete rather than untrue, for, after all, it leads to the further question, Why should a man consult the general happiness of mankind? Why should he prefer obedience to a rule to a specific calculation in a specific case, when, after all, the only reason for obeying the rule is the advantage to be got by it, which by the hypothesis is not an advantage, but a loss in the particular case? A given road may be the direct way from one place to another, but that fact is no reason for following the road when you are offered a short cut. It may be a good general rule not to seek for more than 5 per cent. in investments, but if it so happens that you can invest at 10 per cent. with perfect safety, would not a man who refused to do so be a fool?

The answer to the question involves an examination of the meaning of the word "ought" and its equivalent "should." When they are freed from their latent ambiguities the answer becomes easy. These words always denote that which would have happened if some principle tacitly assumed by the speaker to be applied to the case in question had been acted upon. It Is true that most frequently their use implies that the speaker regards with approval the application of the principle which he assumes to the facts which he assumes, but this is not always the case. The following examples illustrate this:-- "Did my servant give you my message? He ought to have done so." This implies that the servant was ordered to give the message, and that if he had obeyed orders he would have given it, and that the speaker would approve of the regulation of the servant's conduct by the principle of obedience to orders. "They ought to be in town by this time. The train left Paris last night." This implies that the journey from Paris to London by a certain route occupies a certain time under circumstances which the speaker assumes to apply to the case of which he speaks. "I ought to have five shillings in my purse, and there are only three." This implies that the speaker has made an arithmetical calculation as to the money which he had at a given time and the money which he had since spent, and that, applying the rules of arithmetic to the facts known to him, the result does not correspond. As no one doubts the truth of the rules of arithmetic, it is a way of saying that the facts assumed to exist are incomplete. In these cases no approval on the part of the speaker is indicated by the word "ought."

We can now answer the question, what is meant by such expressions as "He ought not to lie," or "He ought to lie"? They mean, first, that the speaker assumes human conduct to be regulated by given principles, and that the application of those principles to some state of facts will or will not result in lying; but they may mean, secondly, that some one or other, the speaker or the person referred to, would regard with approval such a course of proceeding. Thus the word "ought," even when explained, is still equivocal; for It may refer either to the principles accepted by the speaker himself or to those which are accepted by the person referred to. Thus the expression, "You, as Christians, ought to love one another," is an argument ad hominem. You acknowledge principles which, if applied to practice, would make you love one another. "I cannot say that a Mahometan ought not to practise polygamy," would not convey any approbation of polygamy on the part of the speaker. It means merely that no principle admitted by Mahometans condemns polygamy.

When, therefore, utilitarians are asked whether a man who upon the whole thinks it for his advantage to commit a gross fraud ought or ought not to commit it, the question is ambiguous. It may mean either, Would utilitarians in general blame a man who so acted? or, Would the man himself act inconsistently with any principle admitted by him to be true? To the first question the answer will be that the man ought not to act as suggested. To the second, the answer will be that he ought.

The explanation and illustration of the second answer will serve to explain the first. A man who, upon the whole and having taken into account every relevant con- sideration, thinks it for his interest to do an act highly injurious to the world at large, no doubt would do it. But let us consider what would be the state of mind implied by the fact that he did take this view of his interest. A man who calmly and deliberately thinks that it is upon the whole his interest to commit an assassination which can never be discovered in order that he may inherit a fortune, shows, in the first place, that he has utterly rejected every form of the religious sanction; next, that he has no conscience and no self-respect; next, that he has no benevolence. His conduct affords no evidence as to his fear of legal punishment or popular indignation, inasmuch as by the supposition he is not exposed to them. He has thus no motive for abstaining from a crime which he has a motive for committing; but motive is only another name, a neutral instead of a eulogistic name, for obligation or tie. It would, therefore, be strictly accurate to say of such a man that he--from his point of view and upon his principles--ought, or is under an obligation or is bound by the only tie which attaches to him, to commit murder. But it is this very fact which explains the hatred and blame which the act would excite in the minds of utilitarians in general, and which justifies them in saying on all common occasions that men ought not to do wrong for their own advantage, because on all common occasions the word "ought" refers not to the rules of conduct which abnormal individuals may recognize, but to those which are generally recognized by mankind. "You ought not to assassinate," means if you do assassinate God will damn you, man will hang you if he can catch you, and hate you if he cannot, and you yourself will hate yourself, and be pursued by remorse and self-contempt all the days of your life. If a man is under none of these obligations, if his state of mind is such that no one of these considerations forms a tie upon him, all that can be said is that it is exceedingly natural that the rest of the world should regard him as a public enemy to be knocked on the head like a mad dog if an opportunity offers, and that for the very reason that he is under no obligations, that he is bound by none of the ties which connect men with each other, that he ought to lie, and steal, and murder whenever his immediate interests prompt him to do so.

To regard such a conclusion as immoral is to say that to analyse morality is to destroy it; that to enumerate its sanctions specifically is to take them away; that to say that a weight is upheld by four different ropes, and to own that if each of them were cut the weight would fall, is equivalent to cutting the ropes. No doubt, if all religion, all law, all benevolence, all conscience, all regard for popular opinion were taken away, there would be no assignable reason why men should do right rather than wrong; but the possibility which is implied in these "ifs" is too remote to require practical attention.

This brings us to the consideration of the answer which a believer in moral intuitions would return to the question, Why should not I do wrong? The answer must be, that there is in man an irreducible sense of obligation or duty--a sort of instinct-- an intuitive perception of a higher and lower side to our nature which forbids it. The objection to this answer is that it is not an answer at all. Nothing is an answer which does not show that on full computation the balance of motives will be in favour of doing right. The existence of a sense of duty in most men at most times and places is not in dispute. Upon utilitarian principles it is one of the chief sanctions, in all common cases it is the chief sanction, of morality; but, like all other motives, its force varies according to circum- stances, and anyone who will consider the matter for a moment must see that it often is too weak to restrain men from every sort of iniquity, even when it is backed by all the sanctions of religion, conscience, law, and public opinion.

What would it be if all these sanctions were withdrawn? It would be simply an irrational, instinctive shrinking from a particular set of acts which men are prompted to do by motives which in practice frequently prove strong enough to overpower not only that instinct, but the fear of punishment, of infamy, and of self-reproach as well. Suppose that a man neither feared God nor cared for man, but had a sensitive conscience, what reason can be assigned why he should not systematically blunt it? The admission that conscience represents the higher side of our nature, whatever that may mean, proves nothing. Conscience is, no doubt, a motive of action, but it is impossible to regard it as anything else j and if it is regarded as a motive, it must come into competition with other motives, and so the utilitarian answer to the question, "Why should I do right?" must be given.

This review of the points at issue between believers in the principle of expediency and believers in moral intuitions shows where the real difference between them lies and how far it extends. Unless those who believe in moral intuitions go so far as to assert the existence of specific moral rules expressed in a definite form of distinctly intelligible words, capable of being applied at once to human conduct, and perceived by some specific faculty of the mind to be absolute unvarying ultimate truths, they assert nothing which utilitarians are interested in denying. Probably no one in these days would make such an assertion.

Again, as Bentham pointed out, the principle of moral intuitions, or, as he called it, the principle of sympathy and antipathy, never can, from the nature of the case, be so applied as to lead to any definite result. It proposes no external standard to which disputants can appeal, and its adoption would involve as a necessary consequence the hopeless perpetuation of all moral controversies.

It is impossible to express any proposition affecting morals in words which are perfectly perspicuous and free from metaphor, and it will be found that as soon as an attempt is made to explain the words which are inevitably employed, and so to reduce to a precise meaning the propositions which are constructed out of them, it is absolutely necessary to have recourse to the principle of utility. A moral intuition, or any other intuition which does not go so far as to enunciate definite propositions in express words, is only a fine name for those inarticulate feelings which utilitarians recognize like every one else, and which their system attempts to name, to classify, and to arrange. Take an instance. Even if our moral intuitions told us that it is wrong to commit murder, they would be of no use unless they also told us what no moral intuition ever yet told any one--namely, what was the meaning of the word murder, and how the killings which do amount to murder are to be distinguished from those which do not. To say that the moral intuitions tell us only that a tendency towards humanity is good and a tendency towards cruelty bad, is only to put the difficulty one step further back; for neither a moral intuition nor anything else can enable us to define cruelty or humanity except as that attitude of mind with respect to the causing of pain which, upon the whole, and under given circumstances, produces a maximum of happiness; and this varies from age to age.

It is sometimes urged as an objection to utilitarianism that happiness is a vague and unsettled idea. No doubt it is. Happiness has a very different meaning to a fierce pastoral tribe in Central Asia; to an ignorant husbandman in Bengal; to a cultivated modern European; to a naked savage in Central Africa, to say nothing of the different conceptions of happiness which are formed by different individuals similarly situated. But what does this prove? Merely that morality is not fixed but varying, that there is no such thing as absolute, unchangeable morality, and that it is therefore hardly possible that there should be moral intuitions, and this is the plain truth and ultimate result of these speculations. Bring any considerable number of human beings into relations with each other. Let them talk, fight, eat, drink, continue their species, make observations, form a society, in short, however rough or however polished, and experience proves that they will form a conception more or less definite of what for them constitutes happiness; that they will also form a conception of the rules of conduct by which happiness may be increased or diminished that they will enforce such rules upon each other by different sanctions, and that such rules and sanctions will produce an influence upon individual conduct varying according to circumstances. Moreover, notwithstanding the great differences which exist between nation and nation, country and country, the substantial resemblance between one man and another is so great that it will be found upon examination that the great leading outlines of all these systems will, in fact, closely resemble each other, and the only profitable or solid way of studying morality is to consider, to underst~nd, and to compare these different systems, and to try to discover how far the specific rules of any particular one which may be chosen for examination really contribute to the attainment of its specific ideal; how far that ideal corresponds to the existing state of knowledge in the community which entertains it; and what are the sanctions which, at a given time and place, affect the individuals who live under it.

All this, moreover; must be taken subject to an observation of which it is impossible to overstate the importance, though much of the speculation which is in fashion at the present day studiously keeps it out of sight. It is that the conception which a given society will form of happiness--that is to say, of the general and permanent object of human life--must always depend to a very great extent upon the view which they take as to what is in fact the nature of the world in which they live and of the life which they lead in it, and that any serious change in this conception will produce corresponding changes in all moral conceptions whatever. The question whether this present life is all that we have to look to arid provide for, or whether there are reasonable grounds for supposing that it is a stage in a longer and probably larger life, and the further question whether the universe in which we live is a mere dead machine, or whether it is under the guidance of a being with whom we share the attributes of consciousness and will, overshadow all moral philosophy. The notion that two men, of whom one does and the other does not believe in God and in a future state of existence, will form the same conception of happiness, of the means by which it is to be attained, and of the motives which would dispose him individually to promote the happiness of others, is a dream as wild as any that ever was contradicted both by theory and by practice. Let it be distinctly proved and universally understood that religion is a mere delusion; that whatever else we have to love, to fear, or to hate, we need take no account at all of either God or devil, and the sun at noonday is not clearer than the conclusion that every moral conception which we can form will have to be recast. Morality would, no doubt, survive in some shape or other. There was plenty of morality in Old Rome amongst men who had little or no religion, but its whole character differed from that which was founded on Christianity. The question which moral system was the best depends principally upon the question whether the heathen philosophers or the Christian preachers were right in their estimate of the facts. To suppose that Christian morals can ever survive the downfall of the great Christian doctrine of a future state of rewards and punishments is as absurd as to suppose that a yearly tenant will feel towards his property like a tenant in fee simple. To say, that, apart from the question whether there is or is not a future state of rewards and punishments, it is possible to compare the merits of Christian and heathen morality, is as absurd as to maintain that it is possible to say how the occupier of land ought to treat it without reference to the nature and extent of his interest in the land. Now the questions whether we ought to believe in God and in a future state are questions of fact and evidence, and thus the truth of the utilitarian system is proved, for it is shown that the rightness of an action depends ultimately upon the conclusions at which man may arrive as to matters of fact.

[The End]

Revised June 25, 2004.