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…

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