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Voluntarism and the Origins of Utilitarianism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2009


In the paper I offer a brief sketch of one of the sources of utilitarianism.

Our biological ancestry is a matter of fact that is not altered by the way we describe ourselves. With philosophical theories it is otherwise. Utilitarianism can be described in ways that make it look as if it is as old as moral philosophy – as J. S. Mill thought it was. For my historical purposes, it is more useful to have an account that brings out what is specific about Benthamism and its descendants. Let us try to make do with the following. First, utilitarianism asserts that the fundamental requirement of morality is that we are to maximize good, for everyone and not just for the agent. This basic principle presupposes that it makes sense to think of aggregating goods to make a total, and of comparing amounts of good thus aggregated. Second, the good to be brought about is located in feelings of pleasure, and the evil to be avoided in feelings of pain. These feelings have inherent value or disvalue regardless of how they are caused to exist and regardless of their own consequences. Third, all moral principles can be derived from the requirement that good be maximized. The principles involved in evaluating agents as well as in giving moral direction to action are nothing but applications of the basic principle.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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1 This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the Fourth Conference of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies, held in Tokyo, 27–29 August 1994.

2 See the opening paragraph of Utilitarianism, ed. Robson, John M., Toronto, 1969Google Scholar, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, x. 205.Google Scholar

3 The term ‘maximize” is not one used by seventeenth century writers, but I shall use it for convenience.

4 Paley remarks that the virtuous agent must deliberately act in compliance with a moral or religious rule in order to deserve a reward at God's hands. See Paley, William, Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, London, 1785Google Scholar, Book I, ch. vii. See also Book II, ch. vii. This does not entail that action from a rule is a conceptually necessary condition of possessing or producing happiness.

5 The quotations in this paragraph come from the Sixth Set of Replies, in Cottingham, John et al. , Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., Cambridge, 19851991, ii. 291–2, 293–4Google Scholar. See also the Correspondence in Philosophical Writings of Descartes, iii. 23, 25, 103Google Scholar; and the ‘Conversation with Burman”, iii. 343.Google Scholar

6 Traherne, Thomas, Christian Ethicks, [1675], ed. Marks, Carl L. and Guffey, George Robert, Ithaca, 1968, p. 71.Google Scholar

7 In my account of Leibniz I rely very largely on the Theodicy, as the most important systematic exposition of his views that Leibniz published, and the most widely read. I give references only to the English translation by Huggard, E. M., Salle, La, Illinois, , [1951], 1985Google Scholar, indicated in the text as Theod.

8 In what follows I cite Cumberland, Richard from A Treatise of the Law of Nature [1672], trans. Maxwell, John, London, 1727Google Scholar. I give the page number of this edition, indicating the volume as TLN.

9 Cumberland suggests that power is not the same as right. Quite early he insists that we must use moral terms we understand as we seek to know God's moral nature (TLN, 15Google Scholar). Thus our notion of right is not to be shaken, and Hobbes is mistaken in reducing it to power. Leibniz's repeated criticism of voluntarism on the ground that it cannot explain why God is praised for being just similarly supposes that our moral vocabulary is not to be shaken by theory. Cumberland's denial that God ever dispenses from the need to obey the laws of nature is another anti-voluntarist move (TLN, 31).Google Scholar

10 Though Cumberland earlier says he will not argue from God's nature, preferring to argue from the effects we can observe to what God's causal nature must be to explain them (see TLN, 219–26Google Scholar), he takes the a priori way in a later chapter (TLN, 318–19Google Scholar).

11 See Leibniz, , Die philosophischen Schriften [1890], ed. Gerhardt, C. J., Hildesheim, 1978, vii. 74–7Google Scholar for a good summary.

12 In ‘The Ethical System of Richard Cumberland and its Place in the History of British Ethics”, Mind, new series xxi (1912), 371–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar, F. C. Sharp argues that Cumberland is a hedonist. In a way this is quite right, but it is too simple. Cumberland would rather be a perfectionist; his hedonism is part of the battle against voluntarism.

13 In contrast to Malebranche's God, who sets policy but does not concern himself with the details of its execution.

14 Haakonssen, Knud, ‘The Character and Obligation of Natural Law according to Richard Cumberland”Google Scholar, in Stewart, M. A., Studies in Seventeenth Century Philosophy, Oxford, 1994, forthcoming.Google Scholar

15 Since a plurality of equally good worlds is possible, in Cumberland's view, he might think God's commands important because they indicate to us which one God has decided to realize. But he never suggests anything remotely like this – perhaps because it re-introduces an element of the voluntarism he is trying to avoid.

16 The quotations are from Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A., London, 1970 (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham), pp. 16, 28n.Google Scholar