Tuesday, 17 January 2012 07:23

The Utilitarian Thinkers

Written by 

This lecture reviewed the major utilitarian thinkers, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill. It also added the American William James to the mix. Utilitarianism is the belief that public policy should be guided by what does the most good for most of the people. Utilitarianism is now part of the liberal political ideology.


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

We have governments but what should those governments be doing for us? Conservative thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke tell us that the primary function of government is to protect the people. The people are self centered and in pursuit of their self interests do harm each other and the result is social conflict and insecurity so they need a third party, a government, to protect them. The primary function of government is to have an army to fight foreign invaders that threaten the polity and to have a police, court system and jails that protect people domestically. Okay, we need governments that protect the people and national security is the primary function of governments. But is that all? Shouldn't governments be doing something else? What should that something else be?

By the beginning of the nineteenth century a group of Englishmen argued that the government ought to do more than provide the people with security. They said that governments ought to engage in policy making that served the peoples welfare. That is to say that they wanted government to enter the arena of doing well for the people.

This is a new formulation of the function of government. It is now part of what is called liberalism, the belief that it is the function of the government to do what serves the peoples interests.

Most people are not aware that this is a new conception of the function of government. Liberalism, if by that we mean expanding the role of government so as to serve the peoples needs, is a recent idea. What is ancient is the perception that government existed to have an army with which it protected the people externally and internally. The Kings of Europe levied money on their subjects and used that money to pay for the military and used the military to protect their realm; it never occurred to them that it was the function of government to serve the peoples needs.

In so far that some one needed to serve the people, the Church was regarded as the proper party to do so. Thus, the poor and needy flocked to the poor houses that the Church had and at them were given food in exchange for believing in the Church's theology. The Church that way trained the poor to believe whatever it wanted them to believe in and sent the more intelligent ones to the colonies (America, Australia, New Zealand, and, later, Africa) to proselytize the natives and convert them to the church's views on God. Many of the evangelists sent to the third world were supported this way.

Today, in the Western world we essentially have two approaches to government. The conservatives (Republican Party in the USA, Conservative or Tory Party in England, Christian Democrats in Western Europe) still believe that the only rightful function of the government is to protect the people and they do not want to spend any money serving the peoples social needs. Pay taxes to support the military yes, but pay taxes for the people's education and welfare needs they say not.

On the other hand, are the liberals (Democrats in the USA, Labor in Britain and Social Democrats in Western Europe); liberals want the government to additionally serve the peoples social needs. The liberals want government to expand its role and include provision of public services. To do so government must collect taxes thus conservatives accuse them of being tax and spend liberals, and expanding government.

Conservatives say that a big government is ultimately a threat to the individual's liberty. They see big governments as able to suppress the people. Nanny government is what they now call such governments. They would rather government just protected the people and leave the people to go fend for themselves.

John Locke, one of the fathers of Anglo-Saxon conservatism, said that we must limit the function of Government to its bare minimum lest we run the risk of oppressive governments. The other father of conservatism is Edmund Burke (see his Reflection on the Recent Revolution in France; in it he argued against violently overthrowing established governments, as they just did in France, and breed chaos; he wanted gradual reform of established governments no matter how rotten they are; for the people are accustomed to their traditions, good or bad; in the Anglo Saxon countries his advice is taken to heart hence we do not throw out the monarchy but reform it until it becomes uselessness.)

Of course, there is the socialist or communist alternative. Here, the public sector does everything for the people. But experience shows that when the public does things no one takes ownership of the activity, no one is responsible for getting those activities done right, and communism tends to lead to inefficiency in the utilization of resources. Old Adam Smith is still right, self interested behavior is still the best way to utilize resources, allocate them to where they are needed and generate wealth. If you had the public provide electrical services it would probably take tend electricians to change a light bulb in your house. Simply stated, communism leads to inefficiencies therefore most people in the West do not take it seriously as a viable political ideology (it exists on the far left fringe on the political spectrum; fascism exists on the far right end of the political ideologies continuum).

Russia tried socialism and ended up with an economy less than that of California. That is correct, Russia, with a land mass that is twice that of the USA and with a population of about 150 million persons, has an economy whose GDP is not even the equal of the state of California with a population of about thirty five million persons. Communism is not productive and we need to take note of that reality, yet its insistence that we should "from each his abilities and to each his needs" sound appealing to our altruistic aspects.

These are not abstractions. The current debate in the USA as to whether the public should provide health insurance to the people is a case in point. What is your reaction to the debate? Do you believe that the government should provide health insurance to the people? If so then you are a liberal? Do you think that it is not the function of the government to provide health insurance to the people? If so you are a conservative. Libertarians go way out on the limb and say that governments do not need to do anything at all for the people (may be governments should call up an army to defend the people when they are attacked but should not have a standing army for the army threatens people's civil liberties). Libertarians attract those inclined towards anarchy and are therefore not serious in talking about governance.

In the West we have two basic approaches to government, liberalism and conservatism, with socialism appealing to the youth and fascism appealing to extreme nationalists.

If you accept that governments should engage in public policies that serve the people, hence a liberal, the question then is how do you determine what those policies should be? It is here that the utilitarian come in. Utilitarians are, if you like, psychologists of sorts. They say that individuals generally are motivated by the desire for pleasure and the fear of pain. People are said to do that which optimizes their pleasure and avoid that which gives them pain.

If this thesis is correct, and it appears so, why not ask the people what they want in lieu of public policy?

(This view is at the root of our present tendency to conduct public opinion surveys on public policy issues. Please note a problematic here; whereas the majority's opinion is relevant the fact is that the majority may have a backward opinion hence must be overruled when necessary. If you asked white Americans whether they wanted to end slavery or give civil rights to the African- Americans a majority of them would vote against it; it took the aristocratic Supreme Court to overrule the democratically elected Congress that represented the people's small mindedness on these issues. The point is that sometimes forward looking persons must disregard the uninformed opinion of the masses and do what they think is right for the polity, but if they do it too often they risk social instability; thus, good judgment is called for...should Obama disregard the opposition of conservatives to publicly paid health coverage for all Americans and go ahead and force that on the people, could he risk the rise of militia groups and attendant social disorder?)

If you polled the people they would ask the government to do those things that optimized pleasure for them and not do what gave them pain.

Therefore, in making public policy governments ought to do that which served maximal public pleasure and avoid what served public pain. This, in a nutshell, is what utilitarianism is all about. It is an approach that says that the function of government is to serve public good.

Obviously, utilitarian's are a wing of the liberal party. Conservatives could care less what serves public good, just have a military, police, courts, prisons and leave it at that; let the individual swim or sink or let private charity groups help failures in society.

Utilitarianism emerged in England when Jeremy Bentham forcefully articulated the views I made above. The utilitarian's are thus Bentham, John Mill and his son John Stuart Mill. I will add the American pragmatic thinkers, such as William James and John Dewey, to the group.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832):

Bentham wrote one significant book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. In it he explicated the philosophy of utilitarianism. That is to say that he explained that human beings are motivated by pleasure and avoidance of pain. People are by nature hedonistic, they desire what makes them feel good and avoid what makes them feel bad. There is nothing wrong with this hedonism. But hedonism is not the same thing as profligacy.

Hedonism is sort of like the ancient Greeks notion of Epicureanism: living well (didn't I tell you that there is no way that you can understand anything in the West without understanding ancient Greece; go back and read the lecture on the intellectual climate in ancient Greece, it is a necessity for understanding everything that takes place in the Western world; people change but the more they change the more they remain the same!).

Bentham went on to advocate making public policies on the basis of public good. Legislators ought to engage in what he called calculus of felicity. This meant asking certain questions, such as, is the proposed policy going to serve pleasure, how much pleasure, to how many people etc. If the greater number of people would benefit from a proposed policy then it ought to be enacted into law but if not it ought to be killed.

Bentham was not just an idle talker, he was a doer, and he sought ways to bring about the changes he sought. Bentham ran for public office and was a Member of Parliament where he tried to implement his ideas. He was one of the founders of the liberal movement in the English speaking world.

Bentham tried to redirect philosophy to activism. Thinkers should not just hide at universities where the tax payers pay for their upkeep and not engage in doing that which served the peoples welfare. He did not see why a university should pay a professor of philosophy to talk about Plato and he did not get involved in making public policies that helped the people.

Bentham was all over the place doing what he could to serve the people. His efforts led to reform of the English Penal System. He applied his philosophy to criminality, crime and punishment. How much pain did the criminal inflict on the public? That should be the criterion for determining his punishment? Punishment should fit the crime.

In jails Bentham wanted to reform the criminals so that they learned that it were better to give pleasure than to give pain to people; thus, he began the whole idea of transforming prisons to correctional system.

Bentham's influence on British politics was pervasive.

Bentham was instrumental in establishing the University of London and contributed immensely to it. He had one provision, that whenever the Board of Directors met that his mummified body would be present so that he would participate in their proceeding! To the present the dead body of Mr. Bentham is always wheeled into the Board room when the trustees meet. What an egotistical, vain chap, but a pleasantly vain one, I must admit(go bury the god dammed, shriveled carcass, as they have buried Lenin's body and put his mausoleum to a better function: a place where young persons come to get married; let the dead remain dead and leave the living to sort out their affairs).

John Stuart Mill (1808-1873):

John Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, was a Benthamite, a utilitarian. He was a civil servant though and as we all know civil servants are supposed to be faceless, so he did his job and wrote a few pamphlets supporting utilitarianism. In the meantime, he gave his son, John Stuart, the best education there was in England.

John Stuart Mill grew up to become the standard flag bearer of utilitarianism. His books, especially Utilitarianism, On Liberty, are required reading on the subject of utilitarianism.

Mill did not really add any new idea to the concept of utilitarianism laid down by Bentham. He made his mark in other areas, such as economics and writings on representative government. His name is still mentioned in economic classes and certainly on theories of representative government.

How is it that we elect some persons to represent the many in our republican form of government? Why don't we have all the people gather to vote for their leaders and for public policy, as they did at Athens? And when we have elected Parliaments why do we accept that the policy made by fifty one percent of the parliamentarians should prevail? Whatever happened to the rest, forty nine percent, do not their opinions count?

How do you manage majority and minority opinions? These are serious stuff for if you ignore the minority and ram the opinion of the majority into public policy war could start.

And before you ignore the minority, remember that the minority could be more warrior-like than the majority. The minority Republicans in America tend to join the army and fight and die for their stolen father land, so you cannot ignore their desires unless you want war.

See, in the current health care debate in the USA clearly over 72% of Americans want public health insurance but the less than thirty percent that oppose it are all over the place disturbing public meetings. If you ignore them you run a great risk. See, they are already packing their guns and bringing them to public meetings (send the police to arrest them, who are the police, it is mostly the conservative type that joins police). If you ignore these seeming deranged folk you could have a civil war in your hands.

Mature states men must manage minority desires if they want peace in their lands. Public policies therefore must not only reflect what the majority desires but what the minority desires. Thus, public policies tend to be compromises, a function of bargaining, logrolling, giving and talking. This is the nature of politics and Mill helped us clarify these issues.

Mill was a strong advocate of the equality of men and women. His efforts led to giving women the vote. Unfortunately, he did not extend the same charity to blacks. He saw blacks as not intelligent enough. Interestingly, he saw Asians as superior to white folks and predicted that civilization would move to Asia. He said that if the China man obtains the means of modernity that given his innate superiority to the white man that he would surpass the white man. And he said this in the mid 1800s. What do you see happening before your very own eyes? Asians are taking over the world. Genius has a way of knowing what is going to happen in the future.

Let me correct our benighted Englishman. By the twenty second century, Africans would have gotten their leadership acts together and would begin making their presence felt in the world. They are not as dumb as Mill believed that they are; they are just morally misguided; they habituated themselves to selling their people and not caring for their people, and their governments came to construe their role as not caring for their people but to just be big men (to mask their existential sense of inferiority). When Africans correct their obvious warped psychological states and start caring for their people, I doubt that they would be second to any other race.

William James ( )

As noted, the trio, Bentham, John Mill and John Stuart Mill, are the persons reviewed in philosophy classes on utilitarianism. However, I decided to add our American pragmatic friends, folks like William James, Pierce, and John Dewey. If you do not like my adding them to the utilitarian mix then skip this section. I Chose to add them not because of their seminal contributions to thought but because their approach to life seem utilitarian.

As I observed somewhere, Americans are anti intellectual. I have lived with Americans and know what I am talking about. Americans do not like to think; philosophy is not their cup of tea. You bore them to tears if you talk philosophy to them. They are a practical people. They just want to engage in action. And this includes their approach to science.

As you can see, America seldom contributes to scientific theory. America contributes to technology. Americans leave it to Europeans to think about the atom but once they figure out the intricacies of the atom Americans take that information and design a technology around it (electronics and electronic gizmos).

Simply stated, Americans are a practical, pragmatic people, not a thinking people. America has not produced a philosopher of note. Such persons as Emerson, Thoreau, James, Piece, Dewey etc are really folk thinkers not philosophers.

Emerson and Thoreau borrowed poorly understood Hindu concepts and called the world view they built around them transcendentalism. They came up with many pamphlets in which they jabbered about what they called the "over soul" that we are all part of. Transcendentalism is, if you like, the Americanization of Hinduism. Go study Hinduism rather than waste your time with Transcendentalism.

William James was not a serious philosopher. Although Americans make much of him but if you actually tried to read up on his actual writings you would find little. He was trained as a medical doctor and then dabbled in philosophy and eventually settled for psychology. He really did not understand psychology, yet his text on that subject was the standard text on psychology taught at American universities for over two decades. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard and occasionally gave lectures that might tantamount to philosophical musing.

He wrote a pamphlet on American pragmatism. In it he talked about the need not to get bogged down in German like philosophical idealism but to select from philosophy what is practical in the real world and employ it. Philosophy should be realistic to what works in the world. That is just about all he said. Big deal.

Human beings have a need to think and if that is the case why leave it at what is practical only?

He wrote a book on his religious experiences (Varieties of Religious Experience) which jabbered on and on and on mysticism. Again, this is poor conceptualization of mysticism. If you want serious understanding of mysticism you could read Evelyn Underhill's book on that subject and or Maurice Burke's Cosmic Consciousness.

I say that Americans have to learn to think a bit. Their parochialness annoys me. These people are too crude. They ought to learn about the joys of the mind. I actually believe that the reason there is too much drug addiction in the USA is because the people do not use their minds to solve their problems. When in distress they run to drugs to make them feel fine. Why not take your distress as a point of departure and think about the factors that depress human beings.

Talking about depression, why give depressed persons medications; why not solve their problems with thinking?

Why give oppositional defiant boys medications to quiet them down and make them conform to the social norms that they are rebelling against; why not redirect their rebellious energy to solving social problems. Look, I do not respect Americans lack of interest in thinking; they must learn to think if they are to earn my respect. I am sick and tired of dealing with Neanderthals masquerading as civilized persons.


In this lecture I reviewed the philosophy of utilitarianism and those associated with it. These days, not much is heard of the philosophy but it has not gone away; it is now subsumed in the political ideology known as liberalism.

* Next lecture, Existentialist Thinkers

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

August 28, 2009

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Read 6340 times
Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176