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- A Handbook of Ethical Theory - 30/52 -


May I, should I, on occasion, sacrifice myself? Thoughtful men generally recognize self-sacrifice, not only as possible, but as actual, and believe it to be at times a duty. But the moralist gives forth here an uncertain sound.

Self-interest and benevolence have been left to fight out their quarrel in a court without a judge to decide upon their conflicting claims; [Footnote: See Sec 102, the citations from Butler and Clarke.] self- sacrifice has been enjoined; [Footnote: KANT, see, later, chapter xxix.] it has been declared impossible; [Footnote: See, above, the position of Green, Sec 97; cf., below, Sec 126.] it has been denied that it can ever be a duty; [Footnote: FITE, _An Introductory Study of Ethics_, chapter vii, Sec 5.] the kind of self-sacrifice in question has been regarded as significant. [Footnote: SIDGWICK, _The Methods of Ethics_, Introduction, Sec 4.]

He who has rejected as unworthy of serious consideration the naive egoism of an Aristippus or an Epicurus is not on that account done with egoism, by any means. [Footnote: The question of self-sacrifice recurs again in chapter xxvi, 3.]

CHAPTER XXV

UTILITARIANISM

105. WHAT IS UTILITARIANISM?--The division of things desirable into those desirable in themselves, and those desirable for the sake of something else, is two thousand years old. Those things which we recognize as desirable for the sake of something else, we call useful.

What we shall regard as useful depends in each case upon the nature of the end at which we aim. If our aim is the attainment of pleasure, the preservation of life, the harmonious development of our faculties, or any other, we may term useful whatever makes for the realization of that end.

Hence, we can, by stretching the application of the word, call utilitarian any ethical doctrine which sets an ultimate end to human endeavor and judges actions as moral or the reverse, according to their tendency to realize that end, or to frustrate its realization. As the ends thus chosen may be very diverse, it is obvious that widely different forms of utilitarian doctrine may come into being.

It is, however, inconvenient to stretch the term, "utilitarianism" in this fashion. Certain forms of doctrine which, in its wider sense, it would include, have come to be known under names of their own; and, besides, the especial type of utilitarianism advocated by Bentham and John Stuart Mill appears to have a claim upon the appellation which they set in circulation. Common usage has thus limited the significance of the word, and we naturally think of the doctrine of these men when we hear it uttered. It is in this sense that I shall use it.

"The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle," writes Mill, "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." This means, he adds, "that pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all desirable things ... are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain." [Footnote: _Utilitarianism_, chapter ii. In the pages following, when I leave out a reference to pain in discussing the utilitarian doctrine, it will be for convenience and for the sake of brevity. The intelligent reader can supply the omissions. ]

The pleasure here intended is not the selfish pleasure of the individual. Utilitarianism is not Cyrenaicism. The goal of the utilitarian's endeavors is the general happiness, in which many individuals participate. The moral rules which control and direct the strivings of the individual derive their authority from their tendency to serve this end.

106. BENTHAM'S DOCTRINE.--Most uncompromising is the utilitarianism set forth in the writings of Mill's master, that most benevolent and philanthropic of men, Jeremy Bentham. He is true to his principles and he makes no concessions.

He regards that as in the interest of the individual which tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures or to diminish the sum total of his pains. And he understands in the same sense the interest of the community. [Footnote: _Principles of Morals and Legislation_, chapter i, Sec 5.] That which serves that interest he sets down as "conformable to the principle of utility." What is thus conformable he declares ought to be done, what is not conformable ought not to be done. Right and wrong he distinguishes in the same manner. "When thus interpreted," he insists, "the words _ought_, and _right_ and _wrong_, and others of that stamp, have a meaning; when otherwise, they have none" [Footnote: _Ibid_., i, 10.]

Of differences in quality between pleasures Bentham takes no account. In his curious and interesting chapter entitled "Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, how to be Measured," he enumerates the circumstances which should determine the value of a pleasure or a pain. They are as follows: [Footnote: _Ibid_., chapter iv.]

1. Its intensity. 2. Its duration. 3. Its certainty or uncertainty. 4. Its propinquity or remoteness. 5. Its fecundity. 6. Its purity. 7. Its extent.

The first four of these characteristics call for no comment. By the fecundity of a pleasure Bentham understands its likelihood of being followed by other pleasures; by its purity, the likelihood that it will not be followed by pains. The characteristic "extent" marks off utilitarianism from egoism, for it has reference to the number of persons affected by the pleasure or the pain. The greater the number, the higher the value in question. The greatest number of pleasures of the highest value, as free as possible from admixture with pains, is the goal of the endeavors of the utilitarian. Naturally, when the interests of many persons are taken into account, the question of the principle according to which "lots" of pleasure are to be distributed becomes a pressing one. Bentham decides it as follows: "Everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one." [Footnote: See the discussion of Bentham's dictum in its bearings on justice, J. S. Mill, _Utilitarianism_, chapter v.] In other words, the distribution should be an impartial one.

At first sight, this account of the relative desirability of pleasures and undesirability of pains seems sensible enough. Men do desire pleasure, and they undoubtedly approve the preference given to pleasures more intense, enduring, certain, immediate, fruitful in further pleasures, free from painful consequences, and shared by many, over those which have not these characteristics:

"_Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure_-- Such marks in _pleasures_ and in _pains_ endure. Such pleasures seek, if _private_ be thy end: If it be _public_, wide let them _extend_. Such _pains_ avoid, whichever be thy view; If pains _must_ come, let them _extend_ to few."

[Footnote: _Principles of Morals and Legislation_, chapter iv, i, Note.]

These mnemonic lines may well strike many readers as embodying a very good working rule of common-sense morality; as paying a proper regard to prudence and to benevolence as well. But there are passages in Bentham calculated to shake such acquiescence. He writes:

"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." [Footnote: _Ibid_., chapter x, 10.]

"Let a man's motive be ill-will; call it even malice, envy, cruelty; it is still a kind of pleasure that is his motive: the pleasure he takes at the thought of the pain which he sees, or expects to see, his adversary undergo. Now even this wretched pleasure, taken by itself, is good: it may be faint; it may be short; it must at any rate be impure: yet, while it lasts, and before any bad consequences arrive, it is as good as any other that is not more intense." [Footnote: _Ibid_, note.]

Reflection upon such passages may well lead a man to ask himself:

(1) Is it, after all, the consensus of human opinion that pleasure is the only good and pain the only evil?

(2) Are some pleasures actually regarded as more desirable than others, solely through the application of the standard given above?

(3) Can the pleasure of a malignant act properly be called _morally_ good at all?

107. THE DOCTRINE OF JOHN STUART MILL.--Bentham's purely quantitative estimate of the value of pleasures has aroused in many minds the feeling that he puts morality upon a low level. [Footnote: In justice to Bentham it must be borne in mind that his prime interest was not in ethical theory, but in legislative reform. His doctrine, such as it was, and applied as he applied it, was a tool of no mean efficacy. Bentham must count among the real benefactors of mankind.] Mill attempts an improvement upon his doctrine. "It is quite compatible with the principle of utility," he writes, "to recognize the fact that some _kinds_ of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that, while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone." [Footnote: _Utilitarianism_, chapter i.]

Thus, Mill distinguishes between higher pleasures and lower, and he gives a criterion for distinguishing the former from the latter: "Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure." He refers the whole matter to the judgment of the "competent;" and, in accordance with that judgment, decides that: "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides." [Footnote: _Ibid_.]

That some pleasures may properly be called higher than others moralists of many schools will be ready to admit, but to Mill's criterion of what proves them to be higher they may demur. Of the delight that a fool takes in his folly a wise man may be as incapable as a fool is of the enjoyment of wisdom. With mature years men cease to be competent judges of the pleasures of boyhood. To each nature, its appropriate choice of pleasures. That human beings at a given level of intellectual and emotional development actually desire certain things rather than certain


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