In Defense of Utilitarianism

Rebuttal Rounds

This is part of a September Feature at Legally Flawed, where writers choose an article and try to rebut it using logic and reason. Enjoy Rebuttal Rounds!


In February, Legally Flawed had published a post highlighting the drawbacks of Utilitarianism. It questioned the aspect of individuality, often overlooked in our quest for the greater good. In this blog post, author Apoorv K. C. will defend the concept of Utilitarianism. Read on to know his 3 pronged defense for Utilitarianism.


Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy propounded by Jeremy Bentham and his successors in the eighteenth century. From being one of the most popular moral philosophies, particularly in the nineteenth century, it has become a punching bag for the critics. Particularly after the horrors of Nazi Germany, utilitarianism has fallen out of favour with moral philosophers. This article would provide a three pronged defence of utilitarianism. Firstly, it argues that historical context of the philosophy and argues that for its time, utilitarianism was more preferable over the other doctrines of natural law. Secondly, it argues that utilitarianism has left its lasting legacy which cannot be discarded. Thirdly, it argues how utilitarianism as a philosophy is still relevant for the present times, and not something suited only for nineteenth century. Before moving on to its defence, it is essential to have a brief overview of utilitarianism.

What is Utilitarianism?

Quote by Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham, who could be considered as the founder of utilitarianism (as we know it), attributes human conduct to two sovereign masters- pain and pleasure. Mankind (or peoplekind, if you like the term) wants to avoid pain and attain pleasures. The principle of utility is meant to maximise happiness in the society by avoiding pain and maximising pleasure.

Utilitarianism, particularly the version given by Bentham has been subjected to a lot of criticism, mainly on account of the concern that such ideology stands for rule by majority. Applying greatest good for greatest number would lead to scenarios where rights of the minority or dissenters would be crushed to maximise happiness of the majority of population. An instance would be the Roman show of gladiators in Coliseum. A minority of population of gladiators could be sacrificed to the lion to satisfy the majority of population. Similarly, in slavery and untouchability, a section of the population is kept apart from the society for its greater good.

Defences

a. Historical Context of Philosophy

To understand utilitarianism, it would be useful to look into the context and several competing theories to it. For instance, the social contract theory given by John Locke. As admirable as the Lockian concept of life, liberty and property is, it does not provide any hint to the legislator who makes laws or the judges who interpret them. The American Constitution, which incorporated these ideas into its preamble, recognised slavery till the middle of nineteenth century, differentiating between the liberty of a slave and the liberty of a free man.

We can take another example of Kant’s categorical imperative. In brief, categorical imperative implies that a person ought to act as if his act becomes a universal law and humanity should always be treated as an end and not as a means for oneself. Kant’s theory works perfectly on a theoretical plane but practically, it mostly doesn’t work. For instance, a college professor teaches in college because he is being paid to do so. If tomorrow, the college stops paying the professors, most would try to look for greener pastures. For most professionals, it is the desire to sustain their families which come first, and not the greater good of the humanity.

Secondly, Kant focusses a lot on the principle that human actions must be based on goodwill, and not on the end results. Suppose a dacoit asks where his valuables are kept in the house. If a person tells a lie, it would be wrong according to the categorical imperative. This imperative does not take into account the lies or the wrongs done for the sake of greater good. A utilitarian, on the contrary, always have the interests of the society in mind. Thus, utilitarianism presents a better alternative to the contemporary philosophies of the era.

b. Legacy in the form of Legislations

Utilitarianism has left a lasting legacy in form of legislations, particularly in common law countries like India. In the nineteenth century, James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill was quite influenced by the ideas of utilitarianism and his influence was evident in the British approach towards India. The early phase of British rule in India was dominated by Orientalists which preferred the status quo. Later, when the utilitarians dominated the offices, it led to large scale reform and legislations. For instance, Lord Macaulay, who can be called the father of Indian Penal Code, was heavily influenced by utilitarian ideas of Bentham. The legacy of British codes like Indian Penal Code and Indian Contract Act continues to this day. Another legacy of utilitarianism is the social reforms like Sati Prohibition. There are hardly any moral philosophies of eighteenth century with an impact as big as utilitarianism.

c. Relevancy in Current Times

Finally, utilitarianism is not an ideology for eighteenth century, but also relevant for the present times. For instance, before any project, we do a cost benefit analysis of the same. Similarly, we do a social impact assessment and environment impact assessment to see if the utility of the project outweighs its social, economic and environmental costs. This is an economic implementation of utilitarianism in the present times.

Moreover, most political theories of the present times start either with a critique or an appreciation of utilitarianism. Take for example John Rawls’ concept of veil of ignorance. The theory says that the legislator should imagine himself in a society where he does not know of his position. He criticizes the utilitarian approach saying that such a person should not adopt utilitarianism, lest she belongs to the minority which may be sacrificed for the sake of majority. His theory presents a modified version of utilitarianism wherein people legislate for an advanced notion of utility.

Thus, utilitarianism may have its own shortcomings and there are better approaches to justice available in the present times. However, to say that utilitarianism is an obsolete ideology would not be a correct statement.

References:

  1. Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What is the right thing to do?
  2. John Locke, Second Treatise of the Government
  3. Jeremy Bentham, An introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
  4. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals
  5. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
  6. John Rawls, A theory of Justice

Apoorv K. C.

Apoorv Kumar Chaudhury is an alumnus of National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi. He is also the recipient of the very prestigious Junior Research Fellowship. He is also a prodigious reader of an eclectic collection of books, when not busy studying.

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