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In ordinary language, of course, utility just means usefulness, which explains the common misuse of the term utilitarian to refer to something designed to be useful. In its technical sense, it has been used in two ways. First, to refer to the instrumental value of some object as a means to some other, non-instrumental value (usually the greatest balance of pleasure over pain). Second (and this is now pretty standard), to refer to a non-instrumental value – in particular, well-being or the ‘good’ of individuals.

Roger Crisp
Roger Crisp

Professor Crisp, what is – in the philosophical classics and modern thought – the relationship between morality and utility?

In ordinary language, of course, utility just means usefulness, which explains the common misuse of the term utilitarian to refer to something designed to be useful. In its technical sense, it has been used in two ways. First, to refer to the instrumental value of some object as a means to some other, non-instrumental value (usually the greatest balance of pleasure over pain). Second (and this is now pretty standard), to refer to a non-instrumental value – in particular, well-being or the ‘good’ of individuals. This can be understood in various ways: hedonistically, or in terms of the satisfaction of preferences, or as consisting in various ‘objective’ goods, such as knowledge or friendship.

The relation between morality and well-being is central to ancient ethics, of course, and one way to see ancient ethics is as an attempt to close the gap between those two ideas. So Aristotle, for example, sees a person’s well-being as consisting in, and only in, the exercise of the moral virtues.

In modern times, utility has been especially important in the utilitarian tradition, as the good which is to be promoted (usually, maximally).

Professor Crisp, there is discussion about utility in reference to egoism and individualism. At present, in the western society – so-called post-modern society – is it possible to define utility according to its philosophical traditional meaning (as in utilitarianism)? I’m thinking about personal, social and political relationships.

Clearly, some forms of post-modern thought make it difficult to use any normative concepts. But as far as I can see, the notion of what’s good or bad for individuals is a very basic and straightforward one for most human beings, and most people will thinking about their relationships very much in the light of their conception of what is best for them.

Is utility necessarily something that excludes solidarity or moral autonomy?

Well, some moral theories – such as act utilitarianism – will often allow room for notions such as solidarity only as ‘secondary’ to the promotion of the overall good. But even this view might incorporate these values in an objective conception of utility. Further, I cannot myself see how one could explain the value of solidarity or moral autonomy without some significant reference to the notion of well-being or utility.

Do you believe that the crisis of the ideological systems in the 1990s has excluded the sense of  public ethics, reducing the idea of utility  to mere opportunism?

Well, for millennia, many people have thought that their own good consists in wealth, power, and other forms of opportunity. It must be true that this view was more popular in the 1980s 90s than it is now. Indeed there is now a sense, internationally, that what matters in politics is not economic growth, but the happiness (or utility) of individual citizens. Here I would refer your readers to Action for Happiness, set up by Professor Lord Richard Layard in the UK:

http://www.actionforhappiness.org/

Do you believe that today the economic idea of human relationships is dominant?

Capitalism is of course flourishing, and capitalists will be especially interested in their relationships with those producing capital. But I see no reason to think that people living under capitalism will see their own personal relationships in those terms.

Are there some differences between western peoples in the way they conceptualize utility?

There are the philosophical differences I mentioned above, between hedonists, desire theorists, and so on. And there is a lot of variation between people in what they see as important to well-being. But much of this variation could be explained in terms of people’s different preferences and situations. Consider someone who values accomplishment highly, and someone who values relaxation highly. Both of them will probably agree that the other value matters – and they may even agree that it is up to individuals to decide on how to rank the various components of well-being in their own lives.

Professor Crisp, how is it possible today to define the relation between Business Ethics and utility?

I would say: in terms of philosophical theory. Nor do we have to think that businesses have merely economic aims, so that consideration of them in the light of utility is irrelevant. Wealth is not a good in itself; it is good only in so far as it promotes other goods (well-being, justice, or whatever).

If Utilitarianism was a conception which it is good to promote happiness, how are we to reconcile this idea in the context of the cohabitation of freedoms? And which consequences will this have for democracy?

This is of course an issue which Mill famously discussed in his On Liberty. His view in that book, as I read him, is that liberty is secondary to utility. In other words, what is valuable in a free society is the well-being of the citizens of that society. The same instrumental attitude has been taken, on the whole, to democracy within the utilitarian tradition. But, though we can imagine cases where serious restrictions on freedom or some dictatorship might best promote utility, in the ‘real world’ there is a very strong utilitarian case to be made for both freedom and democracy.

How much influence is there today, in the conscience and culture of western peoples, including the religions in the public square, by the relation of the ideas of utility and democracy?

I believe we see this relation in play every day in political discussion. Consider the language used to describe the good effects of certain events in the ‘Arab spring’. On the one hand, democracy is often said to be the aim of the uprisings; on the other, it is understood that this is what the people of the relevant countries – or many of them – want, with a view to their own well-being.

John Stuart Mill sought to base justice on utility, understood in terms of pleasure and pain. Can he hold solid the idea of justice? In particular, how can justice fit with the view that each person seeks her own pleasure?

Mill denied the view that each person always aims at her own utility above all else. His view of justice is that it is secondary to utility, like liberty. But he believed that we should operate on a daily basis through reference to simple principles of justice, which would, for example, require a judge not to frame some innocent person for the sake of the greater good. His utopia would consist in a world in which no person saw any conflict between her own good and that of the good of all (see the third chapter of his Utilitarianism).

The last question. Professor Crisp, in politics, at present, how much does personal utility offend the common good? Do you believe that it changed the relationship that Hannah Arendt defines between truth and lie in politics?

Well, I think what you are referring to is the clash between a person’s own interests and the good of all, and I think that is a genuine clash, one which each of us should come to terms with. It seems undeniable that Arendt would have been prepared to see the emergence of restrictions on the freedom of expression, for example, as arising on occasion through self-interest, whether properly conceived or not. The re is here an interesting overlap between Mill and Arendt. Both of them believed that each of us should be prepared to limit any interest of our own so as to allow the free expression of idea s in the public realm that will enable progress.

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