Utilitarianism is appealing in part because it makes moral reasoning appear simple: simple, though not necessarily easy. To discern the right, one must make sometimes difficult judgments about the possible consequences of actions. But once one makes those judgments, right and wrong follow straightforwardly. Compare the states of affairs that would result from each act. Calculate which state maximizes happiness. Perform the act resulting in that state.
Bart Schultz worries that this account obscures utilitarianism’s complexities, presenting utilitarians as “soulless manager drones” (1). His book, The Happiness Philosophers (THP) seeks to counter utilitarianism’s “pervasive caricatures” (4) by presenting the works of the great utilitarian philosophers—William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick—in the context of their lives. In this, Schultz hopes to improve utilitarianism’s legacy (6). Schultz, however, does not present new biographical information. While no monograph before THP treats the biographies of these four figures all together, many biographies of each have already been written. As Schultz acknowledges, many philosophically generative biographical details already occupy scholarly debate (30, 170). Thus, THP is not a new response to the “pervasive caricatures”; it is closer to a compendium of existing responses in one volume (6).
More important, however, is that while their biographies undermine stereotypes of the utilitarians, they do not trouble the arguments against utilitarianism, which Schultz dismisses as “too often tedious, misguided and inconclusive” (343). Critics of utilitarianism have argued that it is misguidedly monistic in two respects. First, it treats states of affairs as the only bearers of value. States of affairs may bear value but are neither the only bearers of value nor the fundamental bearers of value. Dispositions, actions, persons, and relationships are all candidate value bearers that don’t reduce to states of affairs. Second, utilitarianism takes pleasure to be the only value, or else the fundamental value upon which all other values depend. While pleasure is a value, it is neither the only value nor the ground of all other values: what of mercy, beauty, love, courage, and justice?
Schultz presents the loves of the utilitarians to show that their conceptions of happiness were more complex than the stereotypes allow. But these episodes do not challenge the fundamental worry that utilitarianism holds happiness as the only value. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft helped Godwin move from treating happiness as subject-neutral towards valuing emotional attachment (22-31). Furthermore, Mill’s “crude Malthusian … obsessions” once preoccupied his outlook on what happiness consisted in. But he came to value the happiness that obtains in poetry through his encounters with Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Shelley (the last due to his friendship with and marriage to Harriet Taylor) (128, 160-61). The monistic assumption about happiness persists, albeit in a more complex form than third-person quality-of-life units.
Readers of Reading Religion may have hoped for a discussion of one aspect of the history of utilitarianism that has been understudied: its religious and theological history. THP presents us with the de-conversions of Godwin, Mill, and Sidgwick, but otherwise does little to illumine their religious and theological lives. In a telling moment, Schultz refers to William Paley’s theologically grounded work as the “first influential” articulation of utilitarianism. Unfortunately, THP provides only the briefest outline of Paley’s account. Bentham and Godwin, we learn, were “spurred” by “Paley’s fame … to publicly defend a secular version of utilitarianism, taking the doctrine off its conventional religious foundations” (11). Schultz says very little about what Paley’s theological assumptions were, why Paley’s successors rejected those assumptions, or what followed from this crucial shift in the foundations of utilitarianism.
Passing over this aspect of utilitarianism’s history undermines THP’s discussion of the practical and political upshot of utilitarianism as a moral theory. The greatest political problem associated with the classical articulations of utilitarianism is its use in the justification of colonial and imperial projects (345). Much of THP, especially the chapters on Mill (192-201) and Sidgwick (esp. 327ff), is devoted to this problem. Mill and Sidgwick were optimistic that colonialism could bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number and endorsed it on these grounds. THP goes to great pains to explain without excusing, and contextualize without countenancing, their views. However, accounting for how utilitarianism narrowed the moral landscape might have clarified better its strengths and weaknesses. Did the invention of a monistic ethical theory help surface hidden moral questions, even as it obscured others? Did secularizing Paley’s theological utilitarianism resolve moral knots even as it generated new ones? Understanding the development of utilitarianism in this historical context might have helped answer these questions.
For centuries before the advent of Paley’s utilitarianism, Christian ethical thinkers had held both that states of affairs are not the only bearers of value and that pleasure is not the sole, basic unit of value. Attention to reasons for action that extend beyond the promotion of happiness—such as the virtues, or the exceptionless commands of God—grounded arguments against colonialism (e.g., Las Casas) and empire (e.g., Augustine) that eluded even the best utilitarians. Of course, a broader moral landscape than utilitarianism provides is neither sufficient (Juan Gines de Sepulveda) nor necessary (Jeremy Bentham, THP 56) to fund criticisms of colonialism and imperialism. Nonetheless, greater attention to the theological history of utilitarianism might demonstrate further than THP does the ways in which utilitarianism was especially given to “becoming … entangled in imperialistic politics” (345).
The earliest articulations of utilitarianism raise this question, but its relevance persists today. A powerful objection to updated versions of utilitarianism is its ready use in the justification of eugenics and torture in the 20th and 21st centuries on grounds akin to its function in 18th and 19th century debates about colonialism and imperialism. Here we find a prime example of a question raised by the “more theoretical works” (5) in the utilitarian tradition that matters a great deal for us today. Though THP promises to “take [the utilitarians’] lives seriously” to treat such questions, it does not shed new light on them, in large part because it glosses over significant aspects of utilitarianism’s life.
Bart Schultz is senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, An Intellectual Biography.
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