Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jeremy Bentham: What is your ethics good for?

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1922) wrote on ethics. He proposed the utilitarian framework for developing ethics. In his Introduction to the Principals of Morals and Legislation, he begins by developing a justification for a utilitarian framework. Basically, the justification goes like this: It only makes sense to build ethics based on what will benefit mankind.

He then goes on to assert that utilitarianism is the best ethical framework because it is useful. He goes on to challenge the validity of other ethical principals by asking "what is it that the other principals can be good for?".

What other principals was he challenging? Well, some of the ethical ideas up to that time are:

Virtues ethics promoted by Aristotle and Plato propose you are supposed to nurture the virtues or moral character. Aristotle argues that you should be virtuous because when you really think about it, it is better in the long run. If you are not pursuing virtue, then you are allowing vice to control you, and vices (lying, cheating, drunkenness) will end up destroying you. Interestingly enough, the defense that Aristotle had for virtue ethics is that it is "useful" in the long run.

Divine Command ethics promote obeying the laws that God has given us. The immediately apparent reason to obey these laws is that they are supposed to improve your standing with God (evangelicals would say that it is not obeying the laws that improve your standing with God, but rather it is believing in Jesus, but it is all part of obeying the what God has commanded). However, there is a more subtle underlying reason for obeying these laws. If God created the universe, then He should know best what kind of behaviors result in the most long term benefit for us human (ie: what is the most useful).

It is interesting to think more about Jeremy Bentham challenge to Virtue and Divine Command ethics. His challenge is that they are not useful - or that usefulness is not their primary principal. I have countered that argument by showing that Virtue and Divine Command ethics are useful.

However, something subtle is happening here. I am playing by Jeremy Bentham game. That game is that we will evaluate anything based on its usefulness. Sure I can show that Virtues or Divine Command is useful, but is that the point?

I think that 2000 years ago, when Divine Command ethics were in full force people did not pursue it because of its "usefulness". There was also something about a mystery and fear of God. I also think that with Virtues ethics, they were not pursued because of their usefulness, but there was a value in society of being virtuous.

That fact that Jeremy Bentham can make use feel so convinced about the superiority of Utilitarianism over other ethical frameworks is an indication of how we value "usefulness" above everything else. I am sure as you are reading this you are asking: What is the point? Either it is useful or it is not. But that is exactly the point! Where has gone things like appreciating beauty for the sake of beauty, or appreciating spirituality just for the sake of a connection with the divine, or giving of yourself to someone else just for the sake letting go of your self and helping someone else out. All of these get lost when we strictly look at things based on the usefulness to ourselves.

I am glad that Jeremy Bentham wrote the challenge that he did because it is a wake-up call to myself. Am I going to make decisions based solely on the usefulness to myself, or am I going to dig deeper?

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