Utilitarianism as Part of the English Moral Philosophical Tradition

Protestantism's troubles, science's ascendancy, the century's taste for Natural Theology and distaste for Hell — all were parts of the general intellectual climate of the English eighteenth century. Whether one looked at God (Walker, 1964), at Nature (Willey, 1961), or at man (Sheriff, 1982), benevolence and good-naturedness abounded. As Willey put it (p. 10), the century lost its taste for the tragic sense of life. Naturally, there were detractors, critics, and renegades to this movement of thought as well, but even in disagreement they were obliged to speak in the vocabularies most men used. Nothing said so far differentiates utilitarian thought from a broader field of philosophical opinion. What was it then — besides the happiness principle — that defined and united utilitarians? What differentiated them from others?

Utilitarianism descended from a great tradition of English moral philosophy that stretched back to the Reformation (My discussion is based on Whewell (1858) and Stephen (1902, vol. 2.) One of the chief consequences of the Protestant Reformation had been the implication that parishioners' relationships to God would now be much more direct. The priestly intermediary had been removed and the confessional had gone with him. Lacking both, Protestantism was obliged to take a fresh perspective on sin and the events of the human conscience. If clergy could neither absolve sin nor clear consciences, what was their appropriate function to be? Perhaps the best that could be offered was moral instruction — which is to say, lessons in how to control oneself. The prevention of sin would have to replace its repentance. Since the provider of such instruction had no special authority or link with God, it followed that in moral matters "he was obliged to give his proofs as well as his results" (Whewell, p. 3). These considerations seem to have provided the foundations for English moral philosophy.

The earliest writings in this tradition were "casuistries" — detailed compendiums of cases in which right conduct was unclear. An early example of such work was entitled The Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience, distinguished into three books, taught and delivered by Mr. W. Perkins, published about 1600. The historical tendency of such literature was to move from issues of conduct to issues of conscience. There was a preference for the happenings of the mind, thus anticipating a long English preoccupation with subjective sensibilities. One reason for this focus was the Protestant conviction that the conscience provided a person's direct link with God's moral sentiments. Conscience, thus, came to be the ultimate test of good and evil. Yet another tendency moved this literature away from case-by-case commentaries and toward generalized principles of right conduct — that is to say, toward "Moral Philosophy." Whewell saw the seventeenth century as the zenith of these trends: he terms it, "the Epoch of the acknowledged authority of Conscience as the ground of Morality" (p. 10).

Hobbes shocked contemporary opinion with the notion that this moral sense, so revered by English moralists, might simply be the product of men's fear of one another. But it was John Locke who provided the starting place for the utilitarian branch of ethical thought. Locke's singular contribution was his exclusion of innate ideas from the human conscience — with them went innate moral ideas as well. Locke could find only the desire for happiness and the aversion of pain in the human mind — a sort of proto-utilitarianism. His embargo on innate ideas laid down challenge to subsequent English moralists: Could the moral feeling — which gives us approbation for the honorable act and hostility toward evil — be accounted for without recourse to innate ideas? In a broad sense the conflict here is between Locke's unwavering empiricism and the legacy of a Protestant commitment to direct communication between man and God.

Locke would win. Utilitarianism's point of departure from this tradition turned on the question of innate moral ideas. Gay's essay (1731) is the most convenient starting place. Surely there has never been an essay less likely to win a solid place in the history of ideas than John Gay's "Dissertation Concerning the Fundamental Principle of Virtue and Morality," for it was (1) published as a preface to someone else's book (Edmund Law's translation of King's Latin Essay on the Origin of Evil [1731]); (2) published anonymously; (3) Gay's only published work; (4) quite short; and (5) inclined to be overlooked by subsequent utilitarian writers who owed it acknowledgment. In any event, Gay lighted the way toward a Lockean/Utilitarian solution to the "moral sense" problem.

He began with with the universal utilitarian assumption of a Radically Benevolent God, in a passage I have already cited. A variety of themes may be read into Gay's paper, but the important line concerns his handling of one crucial question: How is it that men come to attach approbation or opprobrium immediately upon witnessing an action. The problem was this: Gay believed that happiness flowed from virtuous action. Thus, men's enlightened reason, alone, might lead them to be virtuous. But Gay was aware, too, that men experienced feelings of approbation or opprobrium when they witnessed actions that could have no bearing on their own happiness. Also, one might feel good about his own act without knowledge of its future payoff in happiness. How did men come to feel these emotions? Gay stated the problem thus:

the generality of mankind do approve of virtue, or rather virtuous actions, without being able to give any reason for their approbation; and also, that some pursue it without knowing that it tends to their own private happiness.

Here we have the phenomenon that the "moral sense" had in the past been called upon to account for. In a sense, Gay has already solved the fundamental Lockean problem. What Locke saw as the non-answers of happiness and pain, Gay has invested with moral implications. In Gay's hands, happiness and pain become moral loadstones. For Gay, God places happiness in men so that they will know how to behave, and men who follow the happiness loadstone, then, make themselves and their communities happy. This is theory distilled from a thickly theological brew. All that remains for Gay is to answer how men sense the virtue in action (which is to say, the happiness it will produce) when they cannot know or anticipate the happiness reward.

Gay's answer is that men come to associate the pleasurable rewards of past experience with the anticipated consequences of future action or action merely observed in others. He wrote:

We first perceive or imagine some real good, i.e. fitness to promote our natural happiness, in those things which we love and approve of. Hence...we annex pleasure to those things. Hence those things and pleasure are so tied together and will also occur. And the association remains even after that which at first gave them the connection is quite forgot, or perhaps does not exist, but the contrary (p. 783).

Gay gives the example of money: Men may start out in life desiring the things money can buy, but will in the end come to enjoy the acquisition of money for its own sake. He tells us that

...they join money and happiness immediately together, and content themselves with the fantastical pleasure of having it, and make that which was at first pursued only as a means, be to them a real end, and what their real happiness or misery consists in. Thus the connection between money and happiness remains in the mind; though it has long since ceased between the things themselves.

Mild as these comments may seem to us, this was a radical departure in perspective for Gay's contemporary readers. It would set in motion a chain reaction going from Gay to the associationist psychology of David Hartley, to Priestley's abridgment of Hartley, and thence to Bentham and James Mill. The crucial point was that Gay had managed to provide an empiricist explanation of the apparently internal moral sense. The theory also provided just what was wanted by both secular and theological camps. When secular utilitarians looked back on Gay, they saw a solution to both the vexing problem of the feeling of an interior moral sense and to the equally vexing fact that this feeling might operate at times when an action's consequences were not in clear view. On the other hand, when theological utilitarians looked back on the same writer, they saw a God who (1) made happiness the direct consequence of virtue, and (2) contrived matters so that happiness was remembered or associated with the moral actions that initially prompted it. In this way men's morality could persist beyond the occasions in which they directly experienced virtue's payoff. English utilitarianism, whether secular or theological, incorporated these two essentials, the happiness principle and an associationist model of moral sentiment.

Last modified 14 June 2007