The philosophy of Utilitarianism


WHAT is the ultimate sanction of the principle of utility? Whence does it derive its binding force? Why am I bound to promote the general happiness? If my own happiness lies elsewhere, why may I not prefer that?

The principle of utility has, or might have, all the external and internal sanctions, which belong to any other system of morals. As external sanctions it has the hope of the favour and the fear of the displeasure of our fellow-creatures, or of the Ruler of the Universe, together with the sympathy and affection we feel for our fellow-creatures, and the love and awe we feel towards Him, inclining us to do His will. As internal and ultimate sanction it has the pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility, and this sanction is strengthened by collateral associations derived from sympathy, from love, from fear, from religious feelings, etc.

The ultimate sanction, therefore, of utilitarianism is the conscientious and social feelings of mankind. The foundation of utilitarian morality is the social instinct of mankind; and if this instinct were developed by religion, by education, by example, I think that no one would need to feel any misgiving about the sufficiency of the ultimate sanction of the, happiness morality. The social feeling is in most individuals much weaker than the selfish feeling, and may be wanting altogether; but to those who have it, it possesses all the characters of a natural feeling, and makes the mind work with and not against the outward motives to care for others afforded by what I have called the external sanctions.

Of what sort of proof is the principle of utility susceptible? The sole evidence that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it, and people do actually desire happiness. But people desire other things besides happiness; they desire virtue, for instance, and hence the opponents of utilitarianism maintain that there are other ends of human action besides happiness, and that happiness is not the standard of conduct. To this utilitarianism replies that there is no original desire for virtue save through its conduciveness to pleasure and especially through its protection from pain.

But through the association thus formed it may be felt a good in itself, and desired as such with as much intensity as any other good; and with this difference between it and the love of money, of power, or of fame, that all of these may render the individual noxious to the other members of the society to which he belongs, whereas there is nothing which makes him so much a blessing to them as the cultivation of the disinterested love of virtue. And, consequently, the utilitarian standard, while it tolerates and approves those other acquired desires up to a certain point, enjoins the cultivation of the love of virtue up to the greatest strength possible, as being, above all things, important to the general happiness.

It results, then, from the preceding considerations that there is in reality nothing desired except happiness. Those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain; or for both reasons together. Whatever is desired otherwise than as a means to some end beyond itself, and ultimately to happiness, is desired as itself a part of happiness, and is not desired for itself until it has become so. Briefly, nothing is a good to human beings but in so far as it is either pleasurable or a means of attaining pleasure or averting pain.


THE idea of justice supposes two things--a rule of conduct and a sentiment which sanctions the rule. The first must be supposed common to all mankind and intended for their good. The other (the sentiment) is a desire that punishment may be suffered by those who infringe the rule. There is involved in addition, the conception of some definite person who suffers by the infringement, whose rights are violated by it. And the sentiment of justice appears to me to be the animal desire to repel or retaliate a hurt or damage to oneself, or to those with whom one sympathises, widened so as to include all persons by the human capacity of enlarged sympathy and the human conception of intelligent self-interest. From the latter elements the feeling derives its morality; from the former its peculiar impressiveness and energy of self-assertion.

When we call anything a person's right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law or by that of education and opinion. To have a right is to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of.

If I am asked why it ought, I can give no other reason than general utility. If that expression does not seem to convey a sufficient feeling of the strength of the obligation, nor to account for the peculiar energy of the feeling, it is because there goes to the composition of the sentiment, not a rational only, but also an animal element--the thirst for retaliation; and this thirst derives its intensity, as well as its moral justification, from the extraordinarily important and impressive kind of utility concerned.

The utility concerned is security, and on it depends the whole value of all and every good, beyond the passing moment; since nothing but the gratification of the instant would be of any worth to us if we could be deprived of everything the next instant by whoever was momentarily stronger than ourselves. The feelings concerned are indeed so powerful, and we count so positively on finding a responsive feeling in others (all being alike interested), that ought and should grow into must, and recognized indispensability becomes a moral necessity.

If the preceding analysis, or something resembling it, be not the correct account of the notion of justice; if justice be totally independent of utility and be a standard per se, which the mind can recognize by simple introspection of itself, it is hard to understand why that internal oracle is so ambiguous, and why so many things appear either just or unjust according to the light in which they are regarded.

Is, then, the difference between the just and the expedient merely imaginary? By no means. While I dispute the pretensions of any theory which sets up an imaginary standard of justice not grounded on utility, I account the justice which is grounded on utility to be the chief part, and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality, since it concerns the essentials of human well-being more nearly than any other rule for the guidance of life. The moral rules known collectively as justice, which forbid mankind to hurt one another or interfere with one another's freedom, are more vital to human beings than maxims which merely point out the best way of managing some department of human affairs. And the same powerful motives which command the observance of these primary moralities enjoin the punishment of those who violate them; and as impulses of self-defence, of defence of others, and of vengeance are all called forth against such persons, retribution becomes closely connected with the sentiment of justice.

JUSTICE is involved in the very meaning of utility or the greatest happiness principle. That principle is a mere form of words unless one person's happiness, supposed equal in degree (with the proper allowance made for kind), is counted for exactly as much as another's. All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse, and all social inequalities which are inexpedient are unjust.

The considerations which have now been adduced resolve, I conceive, the only real difficulty in the utilitarian theory of morals. It has always been evident that all cases of justice are also cases of expediency. The difference is in the peculiar sentiment which attaches to the former, and if this difference has been sufficiently accounted for, if there is no necessity to assume for it any peculiarity of origin, if it is simply the natural feeling of resentment moralised by being made of co-extensive with the demands of social good; and if this feeling not only does, but ought to, exist in all classes of the cases to which the idea of justice corresponds, that idea no longer presents itself as a stumbling-block to the utilitarian ethics. Justice remains the appropriate name for certain social utilities which are vastly more important, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others are as a class; and which therefore ought to be, and naturally are, guarded by a sentiment distinguished by the definite nature of its commands and by the stern character of its sanctions.

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