History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Bentham Lecture 3

I. Last time I argued that Bentham's defense of the principle of utility derives from arguing that it is the only standard, appeal to which can function in moral debate and discussion that meets these criteria:

  1. what is asserted in debate is clear and intelligible;
  2. the discussion is non-coercive;
  3. it consists of assertions that can coincide or conflict on a common issue;
  4. it can issue in conclusions that can effectively guide collective action.

In particular, Bentham argues that (b) requires that participants in such discussion be prepared to appeal to an ``extrinsic ground'' or ``external standard'' for their expressed approbation or disapprobation of policy or action. If they do not, and if they mean their, say, disapprobation of an action to advance ``a standard … with respect to every other man'', then this will be ``despotical''. (IPML ch. 1, para 14, No. 5) Only if participants are bound to point to some justification or ground, the acceptance of which does not require the acceptance of their own moral feelings and judgments, will, Bentham believes, moral debate be able to escape coercion.

II. Let's begin by considering some more passages that reinforce that this really is Bentham's view. In IPML ch. 2, para 14, he asserts that ``the various systems that have been formed concerning the standard of right and wrong'' all apparently conflict with the requirement of liberal moral discussion that participants appeal to an external standard: ``they consist all of them in so many contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept of the author's sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself.''

And then, in a quite amazing footnote, he proceeds to catalogue virtually all of the going ethical theories of the past century or so, including, Hutcheson's ``moral sense'', Thomas Reid's ``common sense'', Richard Price's ``rule of right'', Samuel Clarke's ``fitness of things'', and so on. In each case he thinks that, because these views abjure basing moral judgment on some external, nonmoral justification, they must all be rejected, at least as ideas that can be appealed to in liberal moral discussion.

``The mischief common to all these ways of thinking and arguing (which, in truth, as we have seen, are but one and the same method, couched in different forms of words) is their serving as a cloke, and pretence, and aliment, to despotism: if not a despotism in practice, a despotism however in disposition: which is but too apt, when pretence and power offer, to show itself in practice.'' (IPML, Ch. 2, para 14, note)

Although he doesn't explicitly bring it out here, part of what Bentham must have in mind is the tight connection between thinking something wrong and thinking it worthy of reproach, if not punishment, lacking adequate excuse. Thus, if one condemns conduct, but without appeal to any further ``external'' justification, then one must think another person who doesn't in fact share one's disapprobation of what he did, might merit reproach, or punishment, even though there be no justification for the reproach that the person could be expected to accept without already sharing one's moral feelings.

Bentham lampoons this thought as follows: ``if you hate much, punish much: if you hate little, punish little: punish as you hate. If you hate not at all, punish not at all: the fine feelings of the soul are not to be overborne and tyrannized by the harsh and rugged dictates of political utility.'' (IPML, Ch. 2, para 13)[in this latter case, obviously, he is contemplating cases where ``fine feelings'' don't mandate punishment, although considerations of utility would.]

III. Later in the same footnote, Bentham gives a summary of his thinking:

```But is it never, then, from any other considerations than those of utility, that we derive our notions of right and wrong?' I do not know: I do not care. Whether a moral sentiment can be originally conceived from any other source than a view of utility, is one question: whether upon examination and reflection it can, in point of fact, be actually persisted in and justified on any other ground, by a person reflecting within himself is another; whether in point of right it can properly be justified on any other ground, by a person addressing himself to the community, is a third. The two first are questions of speculation: it matters not, comparatively speaking, how they are decided. The last is a question of practice: the decision is of as much importance as any can be.'' (IPML, Ch. 2, para 14, note) [n.b.: ``in point of right''. One is almost tempted to conclude that Bentham's principle of utility as the ground of liberal moral discussion is based on a fundamental right not to be coerced.]

IV. The principle of utility, then, is uniquely suited to function as the external standard necessary for liberal moral discussion and debate. In Chapter IV, Bentham turns to the question of how utility is to be measured. Utility is pleasure and the absence of pain. And pleasures have no intrinsic qualitative differences; as pleasures, they vary only in their intensity and duration. How much (intrinsic) utility a series of pleasurable experiences has, then, depends on how intense these are, and how long they last. Evaluating the overall net utility associated with various alternative actions is a matter of assessing how much total net pleasure (taking pain as offsetting pleasure) will result from any action, taking into account all affected, and comparing this with that arising from alternative available acts.

V. Bentham holds that utility is the only standard for judging what a person ought to do.

``The only right ground of action, that can possibly subsist, is, after all, the consideration of utility, which if it is a right principle of action, and of approbation, in any one case, is so in every other …'' (IPML, Ch. 2, para 19)

Bentham is especially clear that the motive from which an agent might do something is irrelevant to whether she should act (or should have so acted). However, he thinks it understandable that we might sometimes think that motive is relevant:

``When the act happens, in the particular instance of effects which we approve of, much more if we happen to observe that the same motive may frequently be productive, in other instances, of the like effects, we are apt to transfer our approbation to the motive itself, and to assume, as the just ground for the approbation we bestow on the act, the circumstance of its originating from that motive.'' (IPML, Ch. 2, para 19)

This, however, if understandable, is error. The only ground for approving of an act is not its motive, or of what sort of motive it would eventuate from, but only its consequences.

It is fascinating to recall Hume on just these points. On the one hand, his official view is that actions derive whatever merit or demerit they have from their actual or usual motives. On the other hand, his psychological account of how our approbation of motives arises is that it works by an association of pleasure felt in sympathy with considered pleasurable consequences of the motive back with the motive itself. In effect, Bentham is saying that Hume makes, and Hume's psychological theory explains how we make, the very error against which Bentham warns.

VI. Finally, Chapter X reinforces the message that no motive can be bad. Motives are good or bad only in virtue of their consequences (with an exception noted below). Bentham alludes to two kinds of arguments here. First, the very same motives can lead to quite good or bad acts depending in circumstances.

``1. A boy, in order to divert himself, reads an improving book: the motive is accounted, perhaps, a good one: at any rate not a bad one. 2. He sets his top a spinning: the motive is deemed, at any rate, not a bad one. 3. He sets loose a mad ox among a crowd; his motive is now, perhaps, termed an abominable one. Yet in all three cases the motive may be the very same: it may be neither more nor less curiosity.'' (IPML, Ch. 10, para 17)

Second, he argues that all motives are instances of the desire for some pleasure or to avoid some pain. But, to this extent, every motive is intrinsically good.

``A motive is substantially nothing more than pleasure or pain, operating in a certain manner.'' (IPML, Ch. 10, para 9)

``Now, pleasure is in itself a good: nay even setting aside immunity from pain, the only good: pain is in itself an evil; and indeed, without exception, the only evil; or else the words good and evil have no meaning. And this is alike true of every sort of pain, and of every sort of pleasure. It follows, therefore, immediately and uncontestably, that there is no such thing as any sort of motive that is in itself a bad one.'' ((IPML, Ch. 10, para 10))

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