What's utilitarianism?

A viewer asked this question on 8/11/2000:

Please tell me something about political theories expounded or advocated by Judith Shklar, Nietzsche or J.S. Mill, Tocqueville or Sheldon Woling Madison

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/14/2000:

John Stuart Mill wrote "On Liberty", if you'd like to see a detailed outline of his entire political philosophy. But he is most remembered for the political philosophy of "utilitarianism."

The gist of Utilitarianism is that you count up how much good an action does, both for you and for everyone else in society. By comparing the sum total of good from an action to the sum total of good from alternative actions, you can decide public policy in an objective manner. Once you achieve the difficult process of summing up the amount of good, the public interest is best served by implementing the policy that generates the largest sum total of good, or alternatively, the least sum total of bad results.

The problem with Utilitarianism is the difficult process of summing up what's good and what's bad, and in trying to quantify them. It would be hard enough to simply sum up the effects of any policy on each member of society -- but it becomes impossible when you have conflicting views of the effects on different people. Such conflicting views are inherent in the political process and hence Utilitarianism never really caught on as a political method.

Utilitarianism was invented (by J.S. Mill's father, James Mill, and his colleague, Jeremy Bentham; but J.S. Mill made up the term) in the mid-1800s. The thinking at the time was that sufficient knowledge would solve all of the world's problems by objective means. It certainly was a reasonable assumption then, at a time when industrial progress was rapid and scientific advances seemed to herald a new era of understanding everything in more and more detail forever into the future. A few decades later, it had become apparent that knowledge would not advance forever into more detail like that, and it has come now to seem arrogant to think that we could ever have enough information available to successfully implement Utilitarianism.

The same reliance on unlimited knowledge, and the same problem of faulty implementation when information is limited, might be applied to Mills' contemporary, Karl Marx.

In terms of political theory, utilitarianism harkens all the way back to Plato, who espoused a society run by "philosopher-kings" who would wisely decide every issue based on the best interests of society. Utilitarianism would provide the tools to make such wise decisions.

In my opinion, all knowledge-based, objective political theories, including Mills, Marx, and Plato, will always fall subject to corruption by leaders who don't have enough information, or even if they do, act on personal interests instead of societal interests.

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