Utilitarianism and Business Ethics
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Bentham rejected Christianity and was influenced by David Hume (1711-76) and the French philosophe Helvitius, who argued that true justice was synonomous with the good of the whole. He formulated the greatest happiness principle: "By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question."
• There is one good, pleasure, and one evil, pain.
• Human nature is naturally motivated by "two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain". We are pleasure-seekers (hedonists). Other motives such as duty, respect, are irrelevant.
• The empirical calculation could be done with a hedonic calculus which allocates hedons of pleasure to different choices.
• Social goals should be fixed by aggregating personal goals in terms of maximising pleasure and minimising pain.
• The aim of government is to harmonize conflicting interests by passing laws with appropriate penalties for those who cause pain to others - hence modifying their behaviour.
Bentham became convinced that the British Government was influenced solely by self-interest rather than some idea of the common good. He came to argue for the abolition of the monarchy, universal male suffrage (not just linked to land), and rule by parliament as judge of the common interest.
JOHN STUART MILL (1806-73)
Mill's version of utilitarianism was so different from Bentham's that it almost seems that he rejects it. Mill was concerned to move away from what he once called a "swinish" philosophy based on base pleasures, to something subtler.
• Goodness was based on more than just pleasure, but on the virtue of sympathy for our fellow human beings, a concern for their rights and our duty to promote the common good.
• Pleasures were distinguishable between lower bodily pleasures and higher intellectual or spiritual pleasures - and if you wanted to know which was better ask someone who'd experienced both.
• Mill was suspicious of universal male suffrage, and advocated education for all as a key to graduating to the happy life.
• Mill was keen to see fairer distribution of wealth and income and rejected the extreme form of free market economics.
• Mill argues for a weak rule utilitarianism. We maximise happiness by obeying laws and social conventions which experience has shown promote the common good - such as respect for life, personal freedom and private property, or good manners and politeness. However, when two principles or rules come into conflict, such as the choice to lie to save my friend's reputation, I revert to being an act utilitarian - making my decision based on a balance of outcomes - choosing that action which maximises happiness.