s Currin V. Shields points out in his introduction to James Mill’s Essay on Government, “one legitimate test for evaluating a political theory, and especially a theory in which a premium us put on ‘reason,’ is that of logical coherence” (28), and at several points Utilitariansm doesn’t quite make sense, or, as Shields puts it, the theory “suffers from some unresolved logical difficulties.” Utilitariansm’s difficulties begin with the fact that unlike earlier political theory, “the Benthamites, following David Hume, professed to repudiate natural law.” Jeremy Bentham himself thought natural rights a fiction and utility the only test of proper conduct. According to Utilitarian dogma, governments “should promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number since every individual seeks happiness,” and they should treat the interests of every individual the same only because “each and every individual has a natural right to happiness” (30-31). That assumption of course depends on the very notion of natural rights, which Bentham so forcefully denied.
Another equally problematic assumption of Utilitarianism is that its proponents identify the identification of the greatest happiness of a single individual with the the greatest happiness of society (that is, of all individuals). To the rather obvious objection that “in practice individual self-interest does conflict with the interests of others; the majority’s happiness is apt to be at the expense of the minority’s interests. The Bethamites dismissed this difficulty by the claim that the conflict is apparent, not real. There is no conflict of individual interest and social interest provided men act rationally. . . . But if every individual acted rationally there would be no need for a Utilitarian theory prescribing how men should act to achieve happiness” (30).
Nonetheless, despite such major logical and empirical flaws at the heart of their creed, Utilitarianism, as Shields explains, had enormous influence on Victorian thought and law. Although utility, the focus of Benthamite thought, “provided scant grounds for justifying any law. Yet it supplied ample grounds for opposing legislation.” Beginning from this negative approach to governmental action, James Mill proposed an essentially Libertarian theory of government, concluding with the claim “that the function of government should be restricted to protecting private property. Only by intervening to prevent one individual from violating the property of another does government promote the greatest happiness” (30). Such an approach, which denied national and local governments any power over industries that polluted the environment or employed children in mines, obviously primarily served the interests of the factory owners and others central to the industrial revolution.
This ideology based on deeply flawed philosophical, economic, and social theories nonetheless permeated Victorian life.
Thanks to their reform efforts, the Utilitarians’ beliefs and practices were gradually incorporated to a marked degree into nineteenth-century British life. The social and political influence of the merchant, manufacturer, and professional groups did increase, to match their economic position. The influence of the landed aristocracy did decline under the onslaughts of middle-class reform. Victorian England was a fine tribute to the success of the Utilitarian movement. 
Ironically, its very success created a problem that ultimately led to Utilitarianism’s abandonment, for its central emphasis on the greatest happiness for the greatest number, which had originally served to attack the landed aristocracy on behalf of the rising middle classes and those whom Thomas Carlyle called the Captains of Industry, then turned to the plight of the factory worker and the urban poor. Liberalism then fractured, dividing in two diametrically opposed groups — those who clung to laissez faire theories of economics and government and those who believed only a strong government could produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Thus, the early proponents of liberalism turned into what their opponents believed to be extreme conservatives. Utilitarianism’s great success ended up convincing an increasing number of Britons to embrace strong central government, legal constraints on industry and trade, collectivism, and socialism. Ultimately, a philosophy, ideology, and political stance suited to the early years of the Industrial Revolution produced those required by the problems it caused. Of course, both Benthamite thought and its ironic progeny, socialism and communism, saw no role for the landed aristocracy and Britain’s nobility. Powerful groups that believed themselves timeless eventually found themselves out of time.
- Main Currents in Victorian Intellectual History — Some Handy Oversimplifications
- Bentham and Coleridge: Seminal Minds
Mill, James. An Essay on Government. Ed. Currin V. Shields. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Press, 1955.
Last modified 21 July 2019