January 25, 2006

Poetry and Society: Utilitarianism

Some of you have had a few problems in thinking about utilitarianism and literature, so here are a few thoughts to help you out.

Jeremy Bentham first theorised on the notion of utility; his ideas emerged from the notion that man was under the power of two masters: pain and pleasure. Bentham thought that these were determining factors in influencing moral choices that humans made in their everyday life. Bentham's principle of utility was based on the assumption that the consequences of human actions determine their moral value or merit. The effect on the community and society supersedes other exigencies in making moral decisions. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham writes that it is 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong'. This kind of thinking is sometimes labelled as 'hedonistic' because it privileges happiness of a community above all else.

However there are a number of criticisms of utilitarianism as posed by Bentham. How does the individual fit into this view of life? Is this a kind of mechanization of human life in its systematic thinking? Shouldn't the prevention of suffering take precedence over an action in a scenario in which an action would affect someone who was already happy? Is life simply a balance of pleasure over pain?

John Stuart Mill is different to Bentham because he notices differences in the quality of pleasures to be had. (Mill's Utilitarianism was published in 1861.) So people can experience different kinds of pleasure experienced in various qualitative ways. And how can one know that such pleasures exist unless one has experienced them all and is able to make comparison? Mill is adamant that it is morally important to promote higher kinds of pleasure rather than the lower, more bodily pleasure.

By Bentham, beyond all others, men have been led to ask themselves, in regard to any ancient or received opinion, Is it true? and by Coleridge, What is the meaning of it? – J.S. Mill
The permanency of the nation and its progressiveness and personal freedom depend on a continuing and progressive civilisation. – Coleridge
Man is never recognised by Bentham as being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end. – J.S. Mill
[Wordsworth's poems were] the very culture of the feelings which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from an inward source of joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared by all human beings. -J.S. Mill

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