Utilitarianism, Chapter 2, decoded

What utilitarianism is

The Greatest Happiness Principle is this: actions are right if they tend to promote happiness, wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness I mean pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the absence of pleasure.

Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only things people really want. Everything else we only want because it brings us pleasure or prevents pain.

Of course, many smart people think that I am wrong. They think that utilitarianism is a doctrine for pigs and partiers, since utilitarians put pleasure above everything else. Many think that ours is a philosophy of crassness and simplicity.

The Epicureans responded simply. If you think that men can only find pleasure in the same things as pigs, you are crass, and you are simple. Epicureans (and utilitarians) think that many noble things are pleasant. Intellect, sentiment, emotions, imagination, and morality are all pleasant.

That said, I admit that most utilitarians have said the intellectual goods are better only because the bodily pleasures are fleeting or expensive. We certainly could have done better.

Some types of pleasure are of a higher quality than other types. We know this because there are some pleasant things that we would never trade for any amount of another, yet worse, pleasant thing.

Nobody, for instance, would give away her intellect and be changed into an animal, even for all the beast’s pleasures. No poor genius would like to be changed into a rich idiot. No ethical person would be selfish, stupid and base, even if it came with some—or even many—advantages. Because no quantity of base pleasure adds up to even the smallest quantity of higher pleasure, the two pleasures are clearly of different qualities.

Certainly, a smart person is harder to make happy and easier to make sad. Still, nobody would prefer to be stupid. Perhaps it is pride; maybe it is love of liberty. I think that it is a sense of dignity that prevents the intelligent from wishing they were not.

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 a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Of course, I know that some good, noble, educated people do succumb to lower pleasures. They do it because have weak characters, and they usually do so only momentarily. Of course, some young idealists become selfish, lazy, and obnoxious. Nor does this disprove my point. Sensitivity is like a tender plant, easily killed. We must all take care to ensure that our aspirations and our intellectual tastes are not damaged or destroyed when our way is blocked or our ambitions are thwarted by the workings of the world.

So it is settled. There are different types of pleasure, some higher, and some lower. As it turns out, though, this past discussion is not entirely necessary. The utilitarian standard is not one’s own happiness, but everyone’s happiness in total. The best actions lead to the greatest happiness for all people.

Some people say that renunciation of all desire is preferable. First, they say, happiness is unattainable. Second, they ask, what right have you to be happy? A good point, I suppose. Yet even if we cannot be happy, we can be not unhappy. Further, a good life is not a life of constant bliss. It has its ups and downs. But only a very few of us have a good life right now; the rest of us work in demonic industries and get no chance at happiness whatsoever.

Perhaps human beings, if they were taught to consider the happiness of all people as their goal, would only want a small share for themselves. Great numbers of humanity have been satisfied with much less.

It seems to me that every person born in a civilized country could have an intellectual life of pleasure. In a world in which there is so much of interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, everyone who has even a moderate amount of moral and intellectual ability is capable of a wonderful life. There is almost no great cause of human suffering that could not be fixed if we directed our attention to it.

Of course, nobody needs to be happy. The great bulk of us are not happy, even in the parts of the world not knee-deep in barbarism. In fact, being able to do without happiness is probably the best strategy for finding it. Only that kind of attitude can make a person aware of the chances of life, and make him or her immune to ill fate and evil.

Again, it is not a person’s own happiness that matters. It is the happiness of all. A person should try to be an objective spectator. She should count herself and her own happiness as one among many. Jesus said to do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself. That is our ideal, too. We believe that laws and social arrangements should harmonize individual interests with the interests of the whole, and that education should establish in each person the association between her own happiness and everyone’s happiness.

Some say that it is too hard to be a utilitarian. They think that it is impossible to act with society’s interests in mind all the time. That is a mistake: the Greatest Happiness Principle is a standard, not a rule that needs to always be followed. Ninety-nine percent of our actions will be motivated by other considerations. We can always judge the actions, though, by the Greatest Happiness Principle. Motive, though, has nothing to do with the morality of an action. He who saves a fellow creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive is duty or the hope of being paid.

Other critics say that it is impossible to calculate the outcomes for all people and for all time. Most of us never need to do this. It is enough to just keep in mind the people nearest the action you are considering. You do not need to stop to consider, for instance, whether you are rescuing a saint or a monster from icy water.

Finally, some critics say that utilitarians are cold. They say this because we are interested only in the outcomes of an action, not who does the action. We think that this is a virtue. If the pope does wrong, we will say so. If Hitler did good, we would say so. In the long run, however, the best proof of a good character is good actions. On average, a good person will do good things; a bad person will do bad things. Sometimes, a good person will do a bad thing. We alone will say so.