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  Roger Smith, Lecture 5, ‘Utility’
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Roger Smith, Lecture 5, ‘Utility’

Roger Smith, Some Key Philosophical Words in English

Lecture 5, ‘Utility’


A. Introduction

‘Utility’ – ‘the condition or fact of being useful’. A criterion of value. The tradition which defines ‘the principle of utility’ as ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’.

Place in philosophical ethics.

Place in English-language culture: ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ (Napoleon); ‘shopkeeper’s philosophy’ (Nietzsche).


B. Early history

Rise of bourgeois society: political events (The Low Countries, England) and government legitimated by ‘interests’. Natural Law theory understands ‘interests’ in terms of human nature. S. Pufendorf (1672) proposes ‘to make Enquiry into that most General and Universal Rule of Human Actions, to which every Man is oblig’d to conform as he is a reasonable Creature …’

Thomas Hobbes (1651) and John Locke (1690) on the natural basis of actions in individual pleasure and pain (‘appetites’ and ‘aversions’): ‘That we call Good which is apt to cause of increase Pleasure … we name Evil, which is apt to produce or increase any Pain …’

Pleasures and pains understood to be social and reciprocal.

Discussion of the moral sense introduces ‘the greatest happiness principle’: Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725): ‘That Action is best, which accomplishes the greatest Happiness for the Greatest Numbers.’

Bernard Mandeville, The Grumbling Hive (1705), expanded as The Fable of the Bees; or Private Vices, Public Benefits (1729) – the ‘law of unintended consequences’.


C. Enlightenment

Human nature and experience the basis of rational social order:

i) Theories of ‘the natural identity of interests’. Christian Providence/human nature makes people naturally sociable. E.g. David Hume, A Treatise f Human Nature (1739-40): ‘The mind by an original instinct tends to unite itself with the good and to avoid the evil …’

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) – natural ‘sympathy’.

William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) – anarchism.

ii) Theories of ‘the artificial identity of interests’ – law and education make social order.

C.-A. Helvétius, De l’homme (1772) – everything depends on education: ‘There is no idiot servant girl whom love does not make clever.’

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and of Legislation (1789): defines ‘utility’ and introduces ‘Utilitarian’; proposes reformed legal system, influencing Napoleonic Code; designs ‘felicific calculus’ and ‘Panopticon’.


D. Contemporary questions

The contribution of ‘utility’ concept to ‘Reform’.

The centrality of ‘utility’ to Political Economy (specialised ‘Economics’ fom late 19th century) and the close relation/confusion of commercial utility and ‘happiness’.

Economics and the ‘marginalist revolution’ of 1870s – mathematical modelling of utility’; W. S. Jevons (1870) – ‘value depends entirely on utility’, and J. S. Mill, ‘What we produce is always a utility. Labour is not creative of objects but of utilities’.

Modern cost-benefit analysis and its extension from business to social policy – education, medicine, the arts. Modern ‘ideology’? The problems with the criterion of utility:

i) what is useful? – a debate about ends;

ii) for whom is something useful? – a debate about power;

iii) quantification of qualities.