What is Utilitarianism


THE business of government is to promote the happiness of society by rewarding and punishing, especially by punishing acts tending to diminish happiness. An act demands punishment in proportion to its tendency to diminish happiness--i.e. as the sum of its consequences does so. Only such consequences are referred to as influence the production of pain or pleasure. The intention, as involving other consequences, must also be taken into consideration. And the intention depends on the state of the will and of the understanding as to the circumstances--consciousness, unconsciousness, or false consciousness of them.

Hence with regard to each action we have to consider (1) the act itself, (2) the circumstances, (3) the intentionality, (4) the attendant consciousness, and also (5) the motive, and (6) the general disposition indicated.

Acts are positive and negative--i.e. of commission and omission, or forbearance; external or corporal, and internal or mental; transitive, affecting some body other than the agent's, or intransitive; transient or continued (mere repetition is not the same as habit). Circumstances are material when visibly related to the consequences in point of causality, directly or indirectly. They may be criminative, or exculpative, or aggravative, or evidential.

The intention may regard the act itself only, or its consequence also--for instance, you may touch a man intentionally and by doing so cause his death unintentionally. But you cannot intend the consequences--though you may desire them--without intending the action. The consequences may be intended directly or indirectly, and may or may not be the only thing intended. The intention is good or bad as the consequences intended are good or bad.

But these actually depend on the circumstances which are independent of the intention; here the important point is the man's consciousness of the circumstances, which are objects not of the will, but of the understanding. If he is conscious of the circumstances and of their materiality, the act is advised; if not, unadvised. Unadvisedness may be due either to heedlessness or to misapprehension.

And here we may remark that we may speak of a bad intention, though the motive was good, if the consequences intended were bad, and vice versa. In this sense also, the intention may be innocent--that is, not bad, without being positively good.

Of motives, we are concerned with practical motives only, not those which are purely speculative. Those are either internal or external; either events in esse, or events in prospect. The immediate motive is an internal motive in esse--an awakened pleasure or pain at the prospect of pleasure or pain. All others are comparatively remote.

Now, since the motive is always primarily to produce some pleasure or prevent some pain, and since pleasure is identical with good and pain with evil, it follows that no motive is in itself bad. The motive is good if it tends to produce a balance of pleasure; bad, if a balance of pain. Thus any and every motive may produce actions good, indifferent, or bad. Hence, in cataloguing motives, we must employ only neutral terms, i.e. not such as are associated with goodness--as piety, honour--or with badness--as lust, avarice.

The motives, of course, correspond to the various pleasures as previously enumerated. They may be classified as good, bad, or indifferent according as their consequences are more commonly good, bad, or indifferent; but the dangers of such classification are obvious. In fact, we cannot affirm goodness, badness, or indifference of motive, except in the particular instance.

A better classification is into the social--including good will, love of reputation, desire of amity, religion; dissocial--displeasure; self-regarding--physical desire, pecuniary interest, love of power, self-preservation.

Of all these, the dictates of good will are the surest of coinciding with utility, since utility corresponds precisely to the widest and best-advised good will. Even here, however, there may be failure, since benevolence towards one group may clash with benevolence towards another. Next stands love of reputation, which is less secure, since it may lead to asceticism and to hypocrisy. Third comes the desire of amity, valuable as the sphere in which amity is sought is extended, but also liable to breed insincerity. Religion would stand first of all if we all had a correct perception of the divine goodness; but not when we conceive of God as malevolent or capricious; and, as a matter of fact, our conception of the Deity is controlled by our personal biases.

THE self-regarding motives are, ex hypothesi, not so closely related to utility as the social motives, and the dissocial motives manifestly stand at the bottom of the scale. In respect to any particular action there may be a conflict of motives, some impelling towards it, others restraining from it; and any motive may come in conflict with any other motive.

It will be found hereafter that in the case of some offences the motive is material in the highest degree, and in others wholly immaterial; in some cases easy, and in others impossible to gauge.

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