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Jeremy Bentham: Utilitarianism and Deontology

The two-level utilitarianism developed by Hare is based on the recognition of the artificial nature of the dichotomy between deontologism and consequentialism. Very general moral rules, such as the no-harm rule, are most of the time useful and sufficient to live happily in a group by making the right choices, but, when they are at fault in a particular case, they should be preferred. calculating the costs and benefits of one action against another. The rule utilitarianism and the consequentialist utilitarianism of the Bentham felicific calculus are therefore complementary and not opposed. The first will, for example, lay down the principle of non-nuisance and the second will allow it to be qualified by prioritizing the nuisances by calculating their respective costs.

However, on closer inspection, it is in fact only one and the same consequentialist principle. Indeed, we only accept moral rules because their happy consequences are, on average and until further information, greater than their unfortunate consequences. But, when they are insufficient to guide a given action, we turn to a more precise examination of the likely consequences of that action. We do not see otherwise what the usefulness of very general moral rules could be.

Also, the opposition between utilitarianism and deontology (δέον, deon (“what fits, what is suitable”) with the suffix –logy) is common although not well founded since Bentham himself uses the notion of deontology as “knowledge of what is right| or proper ; and it is here specially applied to the subject of morals, or that part of the field of action which is not the object of public legislation. As an art, it is the doing what is fit to be done ; as a science, the knowing what is fit to be done on every occasion.”.

Thus, it opposes the idea of ​​”public opinion” in the sense that opinion is not happiness, the latter remaining linked to pleasure and not to moral law. The law, in positive law, is indeed what founds the discourse of the priest, the moralist, or the politician, that is to say a set of injunctions aimed at determining normal action outside of individual contingencies. But Bentham tells us, “legislation has intruded too far into a territory which does not belong to it. It has frequently interfered with actions, when its interference has only produced a balance of evil ; and, what is worse, it has interfered with opinions, particularly on religious topics, where its interferences have been in the highest degree pernicious”. And indeed, any sanction taken as such is an action which first of all causes pain, suffering, pain, and which is opposed to utilitarianism basing action on happiness.

”The principle, then, on which Deontology is grounded, is the principle of Utility ; in other words, that every action is right or wrong worthy or unworthy deserving approbation or disapprobation, in proportion to its tendency to contribute to, or to diminish the amount of public happines^ And that the public sanction will, in as far as the subject is understood, be given to that line of conduct, which most promotes the public happiness, is a corollary requiring no arguments for its establishment.” (Jeremy Bentham)

It is interesting to note that Bentham opposes deontology and public morality and introduces the expression “private morality”, considered as “the science by which happiness is created out of motives extra-legislatorial while Jurisprudence is the science by which law is applied to the production of felicity.”

Here, even though utilitarianism is strictly opposed to Kantian thought, one can question whether from an ethical point of view, they do not meet. When Kant questions the “private” or “public” use of reason in What is the Enlightenment?, what founds the public expression of all thought is its freedom and its universality. But in Bentham, if these two notions do not come under Kantian definitions but rather from the pleasure and pain felt by all men, the expression of an authority necessary for the conduct of all morality is common to both authors in the sense where it must start from an individual origin rather than a common opinion, but nevertheless appear universal and impose itself on everyone. In both cases, the state of guardianship exercised by the State is problematic since it exercises individual repression.

Utilitarianism and economics

We find among the theorists of the economy some disciples of utilitarianism, in particular John Austin (who is not an economist), James Mill, Herbert Spencer (who is not an economist either) and John Stuart Mill who have left a lasting mark on the history of economic thought.

But, contrary to a widespread idea, utilitarianism has little to do with economic theory and is in no way the basis of the microeconomic theory of the consumer. This is a selfish descriptive theory, and not a utilitarian normative theory. She claims that an individual always tries to obtain the maximum satisfaction from his consumption. It will therefore optimize, given its budget constraint, the personal utility that it derives from its consumption, and not the general utility. The prisoner’s dilemma, formalized in 1950, further illustrates the fact that utilitarianism and egoism can be incompatible.

In prescriptive economics, as Walras underlines, the economist does not intend to pass a moral judgment on such or such act of consumption, that is to say, refuses from the outset any ethical position in the field.

On the other hand, some authors of the economics of well-being and the theory of collective choice are inspired by utilitarianism (among others, Alfred Marshall, Arthur Cecil Pigou and John Harsanyi).

Translated from Wikipedia

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