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5 - Utilitarianism, God, and Moral Obligation from Locke to Sidgwick

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

Warren Breckman
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Peter E. Gordon
Affiliation:
Harvard University, Massachusetts
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Summary

The standard account of the origin of utilitarianism is derived from Leslie Stephen, who argued that the doctrine developed from the rejection by John Locke (1632–1704) of innate ideas and his identification of good and evil with pleasure and pain, respectively. Stephen identified two strands of utilitarianism. One strand was ‘theological utilitarianism,’ propounded by a ‘school’ of moral philosophers, most famously represented by William Paley (1743–1805), which held that what was useful or expedient, and hence virtuous, was what accorded with God’s will, and thereby attached a religious sanction to utilitarian moral behavior. If men were virtuous, that is, promoted the happiness of the community and hence did God’s will, they would be rewarded in an afterlife with the pleasures of heaven, but if they were vicious, they would suffer the pains of hell. The other strand was developed by David Hume (1711–1776) and borrowed in essentials by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), and aimed to formulate a ‘scientific’ system of morality. The foundation of ethics was laid in an objective human psychology, which was common to all men and would motivate them in the same way, all other circumstances being equal. Taking Bentham and Paley as the representative thinkers of the two strands, Stephen remarked that “The relation … of Bentham’s ethical doctrines to Paley’s may be expressed by saying that Bentham is Paley minus a belief in hell-fire.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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