A Genealogy of the Doctrine of Utility

This blog is really turning into a scrapbook, now. I attended a lecture by Niall O'Flaherty (who first taught me on the history of political ideas) and I just wanna jot down some thoughts.

The basic idea is that the secular British utilitarianism of the 19th century has its roots in the theological utilitarianism of the 18th century. Here's how it works. In explaining the origin of morality, natural theologians sought a middle ground between Mandeville's reduction of all motives to self-interest and Hutcheson's divine 'moral sense'. The solution was that we associate goodness with utility, but then form abstract rules based on those associations to the point where we follow those rules even when they are not useful. Hence: a moral sense born out of self-interest.

(I think this looks a lot like Hume's idea of justice, but more on that below.)

The problem here is universality: you only get local moralities with this system. So you need something else. You need God. God has designed human beings to be happy, thus whatever promotes their happiness is moral. All that association and abstraction gets in the way of this simple fact and needs to be ditched. And so: utilitarianism.

Hume, being an atheist, can't go for the God option. Both his and Adam Smith's (also Rousseau's) moral systems remain products of social environment. Maybe that's why they didn't track into the 19th century? Instead you've got Paine's adaptation of natural law, Kant's categorical imperative, Bentham's utilitarianism... Maybe Hume needed a more secular era to get his due?

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