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    Geoffrey Scarre

London and New York


    First published 1996

    by Routledge 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE

    Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada

    by Routledge 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

    Routledge is an International Thomson Publishing company.

    ? 1996 Geoffrey Scarre

    Typeset in Times by Ponting-Green Publishing Services, Chesham, Bucks Printed and bound in Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham PLC, Chatham, Kent All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

    A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

    Scarre, Geoffrey.

    Utilitarianism/Geoffrey Scarre.

    1. Includes bibliographical references and index. 2. Ethics. 3. Utilitarianism. I. Title. BJ1012.S336 1995

    171‟.5-dc20 95-38889


ISBN 0-415-09527-1 (hbk)

    ISBN 0-415-12197-3 (pbk)



     Preface vii

     I Introduction: The Character of the Theory 1

     II Four Ancient Moralists 27

     1 Mo Tzŭ 27

     2 Jesus 33

     3 Aristotle 37

     4 Epicurus 39

     III Utilitarianism and Enlightenment 48

     1 Chastellux and Helvétius 50

     2 Hutcheson 53

     3 Hume 57

     4 Priestley and Paley 60

     5 Godwin 66

     6 Bentham 72

     IV John Stuart Mill 82

     1 Early years 82

     2 James Mill 85

     3 The importance of character 87

     4 Higher and lower pleasures 90

     5 The „proof of utility‟ 96

     6 Utility and justice 101

     V Some Later Developments 106

     1 Intuitional utilitarianism: Sidgwick 106

     2 Ideal Utilitarianism: Moore and Rashdall 114

     3 Rule-utilitarianism 122


     VI Happiness and Other Ends 133

     1 Preference and happiness 133

     2 Dominant-and inclusive-end conceptions of happiness 137

     3 Problems about multiple ends 141

     4 Two contrasting responses 144

     VII Maximisation, Fairness and Respect for Persons 152

     1 Is utilitarian justice just? 152

     2 Panem et circenses 155

     3 „Whoever debases others is debasing himself‟ 158

     4 But should the consequences count? 162

     5 Limitations of the self-respect argument 166

     6 Archangels, proles and the natural man 172

     VIII Utilitarianism and Personality 182

     1 Does utilitarian morality demand too much? 182

     2 The hard line: utilitarians should be saints 186

     3 A softer line: utilitarians may be human 187

     4 Maximisation and alienation 193

     5 Non-alienating direct utilitarianism 199

     Notes 205

     Bibliography 212

     Index 222



    A few words about structure are in order. Following an introductory chapter setting out the basic features of modern utilitarianism, four historical chapters provide a critical survey of some of the most important utilitarian thinkers from the fifth century BC to the present. There is no sharp transition from the historical to the non-historical parts of the book; the final section of Chapter V, on rule-utilitarianism, appraises a debate within utilitarianism which began over half a century ago and is still going strong. The last three chapters are purely analytical and focus on what I believe to be the three most important areas of concern for contemporary utilitarian moral theorists: the definition of a philosophically viable concept of utility; the justification of utilitarian ideas about justice and fair treatment; and the defence of utilitarianism against the charge that it is too demanding a moral doctrine, requiring of individual agents a readiness for self-sacrifice that is possible only for moral saints. Special emphasis has been laid, in the historical sections, on the contributions made by older writers to clear thinking in these problem areas.


    I am very grateful to Jonathan Wolff and to an anonymous reader for the publisher for extremely helpful comments on an earlier draft of this work. I have learned much also from spirited discussion of many of its themes with colleagues and students in the University of Durham. All have forced me to clarify the exposition and sharpen the argument at many points. It is hoped that the errors it contains will be fewer and less egregious for their assistance. I should also like to express my gratitude to my copy-editor, Marguerite Nesling, for exemplary editing of the text.

    After some hesitation, I have decided to follow the traditional practice of using masculine word-forms throughout in gender-neutral contexts. It is difficult to incorporate „she or he‟ and „his or her‟ into a text while retaining tolerable prose, and the switch to feminine forms constitutes merely a kind of stylistic „out of the frying pan into the fire‟. The only really

    satisfactory solution would be to introduce some new gender-neutral terms into the language: a task to be attempted by some bolder writer of the future.

    Ancestors of two sections of the text have appeared in the pages of Utilitas: „Epicurus as a

    forerunner of utilitarianism‟ was a longer version of Chapter II, section (4), while „Utilitarianism and self-respect‟ corresponds to the first half of Chapter VII; fuller references are given in the Bibliography.

    Geoffrey Scarre

    Durham, June 1995




    everything of importance.

    This book is concerned both with the history of utilitarianism as an ethical theory and with the lively contemporary debate over its forms, problems and prospects. It will become clear as I proceed, but it it is only fair to declare at the outset, that my own sympathies run broadly in favour of the utilitarian point of view, though I am not convinced that a wholly satisfactory form of the theory is yet available. Perhaps the best that can


    currently be said about utilitarianism is that it is a very bad form of moral philosophy, but that all the others are so much worse. At any rate, I am far from believing, as some philosophers profess to do, that the days of utilitarianism are numbered. Reports of the death, or imminent demise, of utilitarianism have been greatly exaggerated. „Utilitarianism is destroyed,‟ claimed John Plamenatz in 1949, „and no part of it left standing‟ (Plamenatz 1966:145). Yet there was

    still enough life left in the corpse a quarter of a century later for Bernard Williams to hope that „The day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it‟ (Williams 1973: 150). Twenty years further on we hear as much about utilitarianism as we ever did, and the flow of new writings on the subject is unceasing. For a viewpoint often accused of simple-mindedness, utilitarianism has demonstrated a striking ability to go on stimulating forceful and subtle argument on both sides of the case. If the utilitarian theory is wrong, proving it to be so is

    taking a remarkable amount of intellectual effort.

    John Stuart Mill believed that the appeal of utilitarianism, to a certain cast of mind, was perennial. In every age of philosophy, he thought, one of its schools had been utilitarian (J.S. Mill 1838:87). But in every era too, the doctrine had provoked virulent opposition: from a very early period, the theory of utility had by some been designated as „utterly mean and grovelling‟ and „worthy only of swine‟ (J.S. Mill 1861:210). Utilitarianism is to the present

    day the moral philosophy par excellence which people love to hate, though recent debate has

    mostly been couched in more temperate language than in the days of Mill. It should be noted, however, that utilitarianism is not so much a single theory of morals as a family of theories, of markedly differing sophistication and plausibility. Few contemporary utilitarians would now defend without large quali-fications the views of a Godwin or a Bentham, and the failure of the more primitive versions of the doctrine does not entail that all varieties of it must fail. But the existence of several forms of utilitarianism gives rise to a problem of definition: it is not easy to say in few words exactly what the essence of utilitarianism is.

    Consider, for instance, Mill‟s thumb-nail characterisation of it at the beginning of


    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 (210).


    This is inadequate even as a statement of Mill‟s own theory, though it is a fair representation