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Creative Potential Ethics
History of Utilitarianism
by Jeffrey Sax
December 17, 2002
Updated March 9, 2003
This is the first part in a five part series on
Creative Potential Ethics, a
development of utilitarianism where the sum of
individuals' capacities to create is used as the utility function.
Our emotions are a built-in sense that measures this potential. This is a work
in progress. If you have comments or suggestions, please
Since Creative Potential Ethics is a development of utilitarianism, it is
desirable to start with some background. What follows is a brief overview of
the history of utilitarianism, starting with Epicureanism.
One of the first to see happiness or pleasure as a standard for moral behaviour
was Epicurus (c. 341-271 BC). His ethics are a form of egoistic hedonism: only
one’s own pleasure has any intrinsic value. Anything else is only valuable to
the extent that it enhances this personal pleasure, or avoids pain. He
contended that every action taken by humans is driven by this principle. This
is true even for actions that involve self-sacrifice. Long-term pleasure is the
goal, and a short-term discomfort is subordinate to that.
In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) formulated
the principle of utility. It was an attempt to provide a practical
ethical theory that offered a sound and scientific basis for making policy
Bentham defined the desirability of actions in terms of their utility or
usefulness in promoting the greatest happiness or pleasure. Happiness is
identified with pleasure and the absence of pain. Desire for happiness
is universal and recognized intuitively as the greatest good.
Bentham's efforts were in part a response to the social and political chaos
left behind by the American and French revolution. Political decisions should
be made based on the utility of their consequences, i.e. to what extent they
would promote happiness and . For this to be meaningful in this context, the
utility is linked to overall happiness rather than individual happiness.
Consensus was considered an unreliable decision process. The utility
principle provided a basic principle that decisions could be based on.
Bentham created a felicific calculus that could be used to determine the
effectiveness of an action. It includes the intensity, duration, likelihood of
pleasures and pains.
All sentient beings counted for Bentham. Anything
capable of feeling pain, including animals, had to be taken into
consideration when calculating the total amount of pleasure and pain involved
of any law or action.
John Stuart Mill
The principle of utility was further developed by Johm Stuart Mill (1806-1873),
who published his essay Utilitarianism in 1861. Contrary to Bentham,
Mill believed there was a clear hierarchy of pleasures. Some pleasures are higher
or qualitatively better than others. In particular, intellectual pleasures are
morally superior to sensual and 'beastly' pleasures.
In the overall assessment of an action, both quality and quantity of pleasure
must be considered. A smaller quantity of a higher pleasure can outweigh a
lower pleasure. In Mill's own words: “It is better to be a human being
dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a
Mill defined additional rules to choose between pleasures that appear to be
equivalent. Active pleasures, where creative action is involved, are
qualitatively better than passive pleasures. If in doubt, he says, consult
someone with much life experience. Anyone who has experienced the consequences
of both choices will be a good judge of which is more pleasurable.
There is a constant tension between the descriptive and normative aspects of
utilitarianism: the individual's quest for happiness on the one hand, and the
overriding principle of greatest happiness on the other. Determining pleasure
requires an impartial observer, who does not consider her personal happiness
above that of others.
Mill was followed by Henry Sigwick, who proposed a version of utilitarianism
based on three self-evident principles. These principles are: justice (what is
right for me is right for everyone), prudence (all moments in a person's life
are equally important), and rational benevolence (all persons are equally
More recently, Richard Hare has proposed a two-level version of utilitarianism.
Simple decisions are governed by generally accepted principles of utility. In
more complicated cases, the full, rational utilitarian method is applied.
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