Friday, September 11, 2015

John Grote on the problem of aggregating utility in Utilitarianism

“The principle of philosophical utilitarianism which has some value and is important, (viz. that an action is lost or worthless which does not promote some happiness, and worse than that if it simply diminishes happiness,) gives us, as I have said, no principle of distribution of our action for happiness, but of itself would leave it to be supposed that it was of no consequence whose happiness was promoted. This however will not make a moral system: there must be some hypothesis as to the distribution: and I suppose that the charm of equality of distribution to utilitarianism is that in certain respects it stands nearest to the former supposition; I mean that we might take it to signify that it was not of special consequence whose happiness was promoted ; in other words, that the reason why the happiness of all should be promoted alike was, that there was no reason why the happiness of one should be promoted more than that of another. In the view of some, probably, this principle of distribution derives an additional charm from the apparent association with the political idea of equality: but utilitarians have not I think necessarily been men of political views of this kind.  Doubtless also the idea of justice and of reason adds a strong support to the proposed principle on the ground of its seeming impartiality and disinterestedness.
One important view of morality which has entered into very opposite systems, is that which regards it as effecting a revolution in our natural judgment of actions, similar to that which took place in astronomical thought when the Copernican system was substituted for the Ptolemaic. Morality in this view bids us change our standing-point from ourselves, cease to be self-centred, and to refer everything to our own happiness, and calls us to put our standing-points it were in the centre of the universe, and to make ourselves, as thought of, be no more to ourselves, as thinking, than anybody else is. Just as, intellectually, reason binds men together, and if we may so speak, deindividualizes them, truth being common, or what so far assimilates one mind to another, while error is individual : so morally, the growth of virtue is a gradual deindividualization of men as to the purpose of their action also, substituting common purposes for private ones, and carrying sympathy to such an extent that individual interests will really vanish. Reason is the same for all, and the application of the principle of reason to morality abolishes the notion of self. One manner also of the action of religion has always been in this direction: we are taught to look at things as God sees them, and to love men as He loves them. But all this must begin with the notion of ourselves, and of something, whatever it is, which makes us what we are, and with the notion of others as differing among themselves, and with certain things which make them what they are: when our point of view is changed these views are altered, but still the first are the groundwork of those which are formed afterwards. Impartiality and disinterestedness are negative terms, which have no meaning except on the supposition of temptation to partiality and of possible interestedness in the first instance: they are guards and corrections and cannot be given to us as original principles. They can only mean acting as between two parties according to the relations which ought to guide action: not necessarily the giving no preference, but the giving no undue preference: and we have still then the meaning of ‘ought’ and ‘due’ to settle. Because a judge is impartial, it does not follow that he will divide the thing in dispute equally between the parties. Impartiality between two parties means, the not allowing any considerations to contribute to the judgment formed which ought not to do so.
The two great moral questions, the one, as between ourselves and others, the other, as between those to whom we are bound in any way and those to whom we are not bound, cannot be settled by any anticipatory determination to make no preferences.  It looks of course well to say, in Mr Mill’s version of our Lord’s words, ‘Love yourself and your neighbour alike :’ but it does not look well to say, ‘Love your father and your neighbour, your benefactor and your neighbour, alike ;’ yet this is in fact what the principle of ‘every body counting for one’ leads to. There are circumstances, I presume, in which we are to deal with our benefactor the same as with anybody else, and circumstances in which we are not:
and if we are to have utilitarian morality as a science to deal with our incitements to action, we certainly want besides it a morality of justice and duty to deal with these circumstances. For utilitarianism here, it appears, can only put us off with the very inapplicable doctrine of ‘no preferences:’ and this adopted not from any principle in utilitarianism itself, but because something must be adopted, and this seems least to commit utilitarianism to any principles dangerous to it.
In some respects, society, whether moral or political, may be considered an aggregation of similar units; but in far more important respects it is an organization of dissimilar members. The general happiness, as a fact, is the sum of the happiness of the individuals; but as an object to be aimed at, it is not this, but it is to be attained by the acting of each according to the relations in which he is placed in the society. It is these different relations, rendering as they do the individuals dissimilar in circumstances, which more truly convert mere juxtaposition into society than anything of similarity does. This latter is needed in certain most important respects, not indeed in any form of equality, but in the form of common understanding and sympathy: but the various need and the power of mutual benefit which dissimilarity of circumstance produces are as vital to the society as the other points, and do more to make it necessary and fruitful. By moral relations and moral society, as distinguished from political, I understand men as stronger and weaker, benefactors and benefited, trusters and trusted, or linked together in other moral relations similar to these, besides the natural relations, as of family, which partially coincide with these; lastly, supposing there is no other relation, as linked together in any case by the general relation of human brotherhood. And if we are to answer the question, whose happiness are we to promote? we must answer it by saying, not the happiness of all alike, ourselves taking share with the rest, but the happiness (if we are so to describe it) of each one with whom we have to do, according to the moral relation in which we stand to him. The happiness which we are to promote is that of those who are benefitable by us, who want something of us, or have claim upon us, according to their wants and claims. The satisfaction of such want and claim is the doing our duty.
And duty binds us, not first in the general (namely, to promote the general happiness), and in the particular only as a consequence of this; but first in the particular, duty in general being an expression for the whole of such particular duty. The particularity of duty and its felt stringency or urgency go together. Failure in duty is an injury to the person towards whom we fail, and it is not the diminution of the happiness of society or of happiness in general, which makes the point of the wrongness of it.
Speaking generally, sympathy follows duty, it being a part of the right working of human nature that feeling follows fact. Feeling, as for instance sympathy, involves in it constantly a great mass of indistinct but true perception ; it is what we may call undeveloped thought, and in cases (most abundant) where the fixing and expression of thought is difficult and slippery, feeling is a guide which often indicates fact and duty when thought and reason may be able hut very imperfectly to exhibit them. The feeling which accompanies the intellectual perception of particular moral duty is often of the intensest character. The idea of not failing to repay obligation and benefit, the idea of answering trust in us by truthfulness and faithfulness on our part, these and similar ideas are accompanied constantly by feeling, the intenseness of which arises entirely from the felt particularity of the relation: any mixture of this feeling with the other feeling, good enough in itself, that we ought to speak the truth because it is of vast importance to society that people’s word should be believed, would, so far as it had any effect, weaken the former. Thus it is that, in a right state of things, feeling which arises of itself, and reason, which makes us aware of moral fact (as of relation and of duty), work together.

And the utilitarian maxim, that ‘an action is right in proportion as it tends to promote happiness ’ is incomplete without having appended to it such an addition as this, ‘ and not merely happiness in general, clutde but such happiness in particular as the agent is duty specially bound and called upon to promote,’ the terms ‘bound ’ and ‘called upon’ being explained by the ideas of duty and sympathy in the manner which I have just described. It is so that the question, ‘Whose happiness?’ is to be answered.” 

-- (An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy by John Grote, pp. 93-98)

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