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A Special Supplement: Morality & Pessimism


There are currents of moral ideas which are partly philosophical and partly something less precise, changes in public consciousness. The honorable, even glorious, school of British utilitarianism, as represented by Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Sidgwick, was a school of moral thought, and a school also of general philosophy, that set out to do good in the world, even though it was only a philosophy; and it may even be judged to have succeeded in large part over many years in this aim.

It is certainly not easy, and perhaps it is not possible, to calculate the real effect upon men’s lives of any new system of moral ideas and of any new philosophy. But the utilitarian philosophy brought new interests into the study of political economy; into the theory and practice of public administration; into the rhetoric, and into the programs, of movements of political and social reform in Britain. Indeed the utilitarian philosophy became part of the ordinary furniture of the minds of those enlightened persons who would criticize institutions, not from the standpoint of one of the Christian churches, but from a secular point of view. In the minds of liberal and radical social reformers everywhere, the utilitarian philosophy was until quite recently a constant support for progressive social policies. Even the rare and strange adaptation of utilitarianism that appeared in the last chapter of G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica pointed toward liberal and improving policies: at least it did in the minds of Keynes, of Leonard Woolf, and of others whose lives were seriously influenced by Moore.

Moore himself wrote of his own moral conclusions as prescribing the aims of social policy, and, like Mill, he was marking the target of social improvements. The utilitarian philosophy, before the First World War and for many years after it—perhaps even until 1939—was still a bold, innovative, even a subversive doctrine, with a record of successful social criticism behind it. I believe that it is losing this role, and that it is now an obstruction.

Utilitarianism has always been a comparatively clear moral theory, with a simple core and central notion, easily grasped and easily translated into practical terms. Its essential instruction goes like this: when assessing the value of institutions, habits, conventions, manners, rules, and laws, and also when considering the merits of individual actions or policies, turn your attention to the actual or probable states of mind of the persons who are, or will be, affected by them. That is all you need to consider in your assessments. In a final analysis, nothing counts but the states of mind, and perhaps, more narrowly, the states of feeling, of persons; or, more generously in Bentham and G. E. Moore, of sentient creatures. Anything else that one might consider, in the indefinite range of natural and man-made things, is to be reckoned as mere machinery, as only a possible instrument for producing the all-important—literally all-important—states of feeling. From this moral standpoint the whole machinery of the natural order, other than states of mind, is just machinery, useful or harmful in proportion as it promotes or prevents desired states of feeling.

For a utilitarian, the moral standpoint, which is to govern all our actions, places men at the very center of the universe, with their states of feeling as the source of all value in the world. If the species perished, to the last man, or if the last men became impassible and devoid of feeling, things would become cold and indifferent and neutral, from the moral point of view; whether this or that other unfeeling species survived or perished, plants, stars and galaxies, would then be of no consequence. Destruction of things is evil only in so far as it is, or will be, felt as a loss by sentient beings; and the creation of things, and the preservation of species, are to be aimed at and commended only in so far as human beings are, or will be, emotionally and sentimentally interested in the things created and preserved.

This doctrine may reasonably be criticized in two contrary ways. First, as involving a kind of arrogance in the face of nature, an arrogance that is intelligible only if the doctrine is seen as a residue of the Christian account of this species’ peculiar relation to the Creator. Without the Christian story it seems to entail a strangely arbitrary narrowing of moral interest. Is the destruction, for instance, of a species of animal to be avoided, as a great evil, only or principally because of the loss of the pleasure that human beings may derive from the species? May the natural order be farmed by human beings for their comfort and pleasure without any restriction other than the comfort and pleasure of future human beings? Perhaps there is no rational procedure for answering these questions. But it is strange to answer them with a confident “yes.”

On the other hand, the doctrine that only human feelings are morally significant may be thought to belittle men; for it makes morality, the system of rights, duties, and obligations, a kind of psychical engineering, which shows the way to induce desired or valued states of mind. This suggests, as a corollary, that men might be trained, molded, even bred, with a view to their experiencing the kinds of feeling that alone lend value to their morally neutral surroundings. With advancing knowledge, states of the soul might be controlled by chemical means, and the valuable experiences of the inner life may be best prolonged and protected by a medical technique. So the original sense of the sovereign importance of human beings, and of their feelings, has been converted by exaggeration into its opposite: a sense that these original ends of action are, or may soon become, comparatively manageable problems in applied science.

From the standpoint of philosophy, in a full, old-fashioned sense of that word, we have moved, slowly, stage by stage, in the years since 1914, into a different world of thought from that which most of Sidgwick’s contemporaries inhabited; and by a “world of thought” here I mean the set of conditioning assumptions which any European who thought in a philosophical way about morality would have in mind before he started to think, assumptions that he probably would not examine one by one, and that he would with difficulty make explicit to himself. One such assumption was that, even if the transcendental claims of Christianity have been denied, any serious thought about morality must acknowledge the absolute exceptionalness of men, the unique dignity and worth of this species among otherwise speechless, inattentive things, and their uniquely open future. How otherwise can morality have its overriding claims?

A second assumption, explicit in J. S. Mill, and unchallenged by his utilitarian successors, was that both emotional sensitiveness and intelligence in the calculation of consequences can be expected to multiply and increase, as moral enlightenment spreads and as standards of education improve, into an indefinite and open future. In this open future there will be less avoidable waste of human happiness, less unconsidered destruction of positive and valued feelings, as the human sciences develop and superstitions become weaker and softer. The story of the past—this is the assumption—is essentially the story of moral waste, of a lack of clear planning and contrivance, of always repeated losses of happiness because no one methodically added the emotional gains and losses with a clear head and undistracted by moral prejudices. The modern utilitarian policy makers will be careful social economists, and their planning mistakes will be progressively corrigible ones; so there is no reason why there should not be a steadily rising balance of positive over negative feelings in all societies that have a rational computational morality. A new era of development is possible, the equivalent in morality of high technology in production.

This implicit optimism has been lost, not so much because of philosophical arguments but perhaps rather because of the hideous face of political events. Persecutions, massacres, and wars have been coolly justified by calculations of long-range benefit to mankind; and political pragmatists in the advanced countries, using cost benefit analyses prepared for them by gifted professors, continue to burn and destroy. The utilitarian habit of mind has brought with it a new abstract cruelty in politics, a dull, destructive political righteousness: mechanical, quantitative thinking, leaden academic minds setting out their moral calculations in leaden abstract prose, and more civilized and more superstitious people destroyed because of enlightened calculations that have proved wrong.

Suppose a typical situation of political decision, typical, that is, of the present, and likely to be typical of the immediate future: an expert adviser has to present a set of possible policies among which a final choice has to be made; advantages and disadvantages of various outcomes are to be calculated, and a balance is to be struck. The methods of calculation may be quite sophisticated, and very disparate items may appear in the columns of gain and loss. The death of groups of persons may, for example, be balanced as a loss against a very considerable gain in amenity to be handed down to posterity; or a loss of liberty among one group may be balanced against a very great relief from poverty for another. Such calculations are the everyday stuff of political decision, and they seem to require a common measure that enables qualitatively unrelated effects to be held in balance. The need to calculate in this manner, and to do so convincingly, plainly becomes greater as the area of government decision is widened, and as the applied social sciences render remote effects more computable.

Given that the vast new powers of government are in any case going to be used, and given that remote and collateral effects of policies are no longer utterly incalculable, and therefore to be neglected, a common measure to strike a balance is certain to be asked for and to be used; and apparently incommensurable interests will be brought together under this common measure. The utilitarian doctrine, insisting that there is a common measure of those gains and losses, which superficially seem incommensurable, is in any case called into being by the new conditions of political calculation. Any of the original defects in the doctrine will now be blown up, as a photograph is blown up, and made clearly visible in action.

For Machiavelli and his contemporaries, a political calculation was still a fairly simple computation of intended consequences, not unlike the strategems of private intrigue. He and his contemporaries had no thought that a political calculation might issue in a plan for the future of a whole society or nation, with all kinds of dissimilar side effects allowed for and fed into the computation. Computation by a common measure now seems the most orthodox way to think in politics, although this kind of computation had originally been almost scandalous. At first the scandal and surprise lingered around the notion that moral requirements, and moral outrages, could be represented as commensurable gains and losses along a single scale. Yet now those who talk about being responsible in political decision believe that the moral issues must be represented on a common scale, if they are to be counted at all. How can the future of an advanced society be reasonably discussed and planned, if not on this assumption?

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