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STEP - St. Thomas Education Project


September 20-25, 2005


Law and Liberty:

Ethics and Politics for the XXI Century



Utilitarianism, Rights and Happiness·




Giacomo Samek Lodovici

Catholic University of Milan




The utilitarian consideration of justice and equality


A well-known common argument against Utilitarianism concerns the problem of justice and equal distribution. The utility principle imposes the maximization of the good, the greatest aggregation of pleasure or of realization of preferences. Thus, Rawls argues that the calculation for the maximization ignores differences in the distribution of utility. In fact, when two actions or two rules get the same quantity of utility, considered any consequence, utilitarians have no reason to choose one instead of the other, whether they reason in terms of particular actions (Act Utilitarianism), or in terms of rules (Rule Utilitarianism).

Utilitarians hold three[1] argumentative strategies to justify themselves when accused of being indifferent to an unjust distribution.

The first strategy is to incorporate a fair distribution into the greatest possible utility. According to some authors, this would be already Bentham’s idea, whose utility principle – they say – doesn’t impose a purely aggregative maximization of utility, but a distributive maximization[2].

Nonetheless, one should not neglect the fact that, for Bentham, equality is only the secondary purpose of the legislation and not the primary one, which is the maximization of utility.

Indeed[3], Bentham firmly believes that when someone tries to divide the goods as equally as possible, will likely produce more utility, thus the purpose is always to pursue the greatest possible utility, not to realize an equal distribution[4]. For Bentham, in given circumstances it is possible that one must distribute 100 apples with equity, rather then without equity, but only because in given circumstances such a distribution produces more overall utility. For the marginal utility rule, to give an apple to someone who has already many apples, produces less utility then to give an apple to someone who has none.

Moreover, another less relevant purpose of the legislation is to make the citizens feel safe. Then, a redistribution of goods which eliminates inequities, could arise a strong sense of insecurity, and just because utility is the primary purpose, such purpose could impose to give up equality. On the contrary, ‘when safety and equality clashed with each other, one should not hesitate. It’s equality that has to submit’.[5]

Given these premises, Bentham maintained the idea which he expressed in one of his earlier texts: ‘let’s consider two actions, the purpose of the first is to give to 10 people a certain amount of happiness, the purpose of the second is to give to 5 people two amounts of happiness. The result of the actions is exactly the same: there is no reason to prefer one action instead of the other’.[6]

This argument shows the coherence of Bentham because shows that it’s impossible to incorporate the equal distribution principle into Utilitarianism, as W. Frankena confirms: ‘the utility principle can’t tell us which type of distribution we should choose: only a principle of justice separate from the utility principle can tell us’.[7]

It’s interesting to observe that Mill already knew the objection to Utilitarianism based on justice and he didn’t solve it differently from Bentham. It is true that first he maintains that ‘society should treat everybody equally only if they deserve the same amount of goods from it’, because ‘social and distributive justice […] is part of the concept of utility itself’[8]; but then, he proposes the following rule: ‘that every individual should have the right to be treated equally, except for when social conventions impose the contrary’.[9]

Not much longer after Mill, Edgeworth reconfirmed that the process of incorporating justice into utility is logically impossible: ‘the supposition that happiness […] should be distributed equally is repulsive for the purpose of Utilitarianism’.[10]

Therefore, Utilitarianism can have justice as its purpose only if it becomes a pluralist theory, which from the start distinguishes the end of the equity and rises it to the same level of the end of the maximization; but in this way, Utilitarianism encounters the same problem that it rebukes to deontologists.

So, we have to agree with Mill, when he argues, as a right interpreter of Bentham, that the benthamian principle ‘everybody should count for one, nobody for more than one’ is referred to units of utility and not to persons.[11] This means that ‘certain amounts of happiness are equally desirable by both the same and different person’ and shows that same parts of utility have the same value and should be treated equally. According to Hare (who adapts the argument to Preference Utilitarianism), the principle commands that ‘we pay the same attention to the same preferences’[12], but it does not command that every man should be treated equally, ‘it doesn’t mean that everybody should necessary count’.[13]

In Bentham’s specific case, the utility units, to be equally considered and to be calculated without discriminations in the maximizing consideration, are units of pleasure. Thus, only those who experience pleasure and pain in the same way should be treated equally, because ‘persons are [] mere channels or places where what has same value is to be found’[14]. In other words, ‘for Utilitarianism, the sensations of pleasure or of satisfaction felt by persons have some value, but persons have no value in themselves’.[15]

Therefore, as an example, if we do not consider the consequences, a murder could be justified because people have no value in themselves: ‘under certain circumstances even to kill a man is a good action’.[16] In particular, a murder is worth of disapproval neither because it has as a consequence the death of a human being, as persons have no intrinsic value; nor because it causes pain to the murdered, at least not in those cases when a natural death would have caused much more pain. More likely, a murder is worth of disapproval because it spreads terror and therefore pain among other human beings.[17]

Moreover, note that the quantities of utility always preside over any other consideration according to which animals, children and man are to be treated. Indeed, if we consider that for Utilitarianism only sensations have value (or preferences in the case of Preference Utilitarianisms) and that only persons who experience pleasure and pain in the same way are to be treated equally, we can se how animals, children and man are to be considered differently.

Though animals experience pleasure and pain, therefore the units of pleasure that they can experience are not to be neglected in the maximizing calculation. But since they lack of anticipating ability, they can experience a less amount of pleasure and pain if compared to men, therefore they cannot be treated as men.

Children are able to experience pleasant and painful sensations, therefore the units of pleasure and pain that they can experience are to be considered. But again, the amount of pleasure that they can experience is small. Therefore, according to Bentham, ‘the amount of pain that hundred thousand babies feel when being killed is less than that a man feels when he has his tooth pulled out from the root’[18], therefore they are not to be treated as adults.

Now, a murder is quite always harmful (even if some times, as we said, it can be praiseworthy) because it spreads terror and pain among men; this terror is not present among children if a child is killed. Thus, regarding infanticide, there is no moral responsibility for neither killing a human being, nor for spreading terror-pain among human beings. Infanticide in itself is even less harmful and it can be legitimately performed in order to spare unmarried mothers the pain and the brand of infamy. Therefore, if we apply Bentham’s logic as recently P. Singer did,[19] infanticide can be condemned only if the total amount of its consequences is negative. In fact, even though the killing of a child doesn’t cause particular pain to another child, it can cause pain to the person who is close to him.

Besides, not only children are to be treated differently from adults, but adults are to be treated differently too if they experience pain and pleasure differently because only who experiences pain and pleasure in the same way should be treated equally, as the same units of utility are to be considered equally.

For example, apart from the consideration of other consequences, a judge who has to condemn two persons guilty of the same offence, has to inflict a minor punishment to the person who experiences more pain or who has many babies which will particularly suffer for their father’s imprisonment, and to inflict a major punishment to the person who experiences less pain or has less children or no children at all.

To summarize the debate about equality and justice: if two persons experience the same amount of happiness or unhappiness, they are to be treated equally; if one of the two experiences a major amount, he is to be treated differently.

The maximization principle imposes that people should be treated in a way in order to produce the greatest possible utility and prescribes that equity should be considered only if it promotes the maximization. If Utilitarianism wants to avoid inequity and realize equal distributions, it has to assume from the start another purpose in addition to the utility one, but in this way Utilitarianism has to resolve the conflict between utility and equity.

So far, we have seen the first argumentative strategy which utilitarians have to justify themselves when accused of neglecting distributive justice, and we have stated that this strategy is incoherent. We will soon consider the remaining two strategies that we left behind.


The consideration of liberty and the Panopticon


For the moment we can still examine the first strategy considering the criticism that accuse Utilitarianism to suppress freedom and to include totalitarian applications.

In this case, the first defensive strategy affirms that the maximization of utility requires the protection of freedom, and we suggest that this idea was already expressed by Bentham. Certainly, Bentham maintains that in some context the lawgiver cannot intervene directly but only indirectly[20]. In doing so, he strengthens the social approval and disapproval. The fact that Utilitarianism doesn’t impose any coercion or restriction of freedom and doesn’t force control in every context of human behaviours can be seen as the sign of the purpose to assign a value to freedom and to protect some fields of our life against the interference of a maximizing coercion.

But the fact that the lawgiver’s action is restricted doesn’t mean that freedom has an intrinsic value, since[21] utility remains the main purpose. If the lawgiver would claim for himself the right to regulate every aspect of human life, it would be necessary to start up a capillary web of controls, a system of surveillance so complicated that not only it would prove inefficient, but it would also require police forces to be withdrawn from areas where control and surveillance are fundamental.

Then, whenever it proves to be beneficial, freedom can be suppressed in favour of superior total utility needs. This is also evident if we consider Bentham’s treatment of slavery. He states that slavery should be abolished, but only for total utility reasons. In fact ‘a free man produces more than a slave’[22], because a slave is a lazy and unwilling participant to the work he has been forced to do; and ‘there is evidence that the slave is not responsible for his condition which he will invariably almost always dislike’[23]: therefore his condition reduces utility.

Thus, if the utility is the moral aim, there is no reason why freedom cannot be completely abolished if it is possible and if it is likely to prove beneficial. Personal utility contributes to collective utility, and for Utilitarianism every aspect of human private life affects the total quantity of utility; therefore, there isn’t a single aspect of human behaviour which cannot be controlled in order to produce optimal results, as long as we have an efficient system at our disposal to achieve this.

Bentham tried to create such a system through his Panopticon[24]. It is essentially a design for a kind of penitentiary which he tried to build at various time. The Panopticon would embrace technology in order to overcome surveillance problems.  The building[25] is structured on  a circular pattern and cells are around the perimeter. The cells are separated by ray-shaped walls from the perimeter to the centre in such a way that prisoners cannot communicate with each other. Between the perimeter and the centre there is an empty room, a sort of ring, which is the inspection lodge. The lodge is surrounded by iron blinds which permit the inspector to see the prisoners without being seen. From the centre to every cells a pipe is extended, a sort of modern microphone, through which the inspector communicates with the prisoners so that he doesn’t need to speak loudly in order to be heard and through which he can hear everything that is said in the cell. This system makes it impossible for a prisoner to hear what is being said to another one, so that he can never know if the inspector is busy with other prisoners. In other words, prisoners don’t know if they are being watched or not. The pipe, when it’s open, allows the inspector to hear what’s going on in a cell, but doesn’t allow the prisoner to hear what’s going on in the lodge.

The Panopticon’s architectural structure allows ‘to see without being seen’[26], it makes possible ‘the apparently omnipresence of the inspector’[27]and, prefiguring Orwell’s Big Brother, creates a surveillance which is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.

The design of the project has also the intention[28] of resolving the aporia of the ideal platonic State, the problem of quis custodiet ipsos custodes. In fact, in the cell every inmate supervises the other inmates and is supervised by them (and by the inspector), the inspector’s subordinates are under his control so that they cannot unfulfill their duties, and the Panopticon has free access to visitors, to grant exposure to ‘the public judgment of the world court’[29], so that the inspector and his register are periodically controlled. In this way, according to M. Foucault, the Panopticon ‘is a machine in which everyone is caught up, both the persons who have power and the ones under it’[30]. It is clear that this system expresses the desire to completely suppress freedom in favour of total utility, and it achieves the greatest efficiency by controlling the actions of each prisoner and every aspect of his lifes. Moreover, being watched without knowing it, not only prevents the prisoner from behaving badly, but it affects progressively the inner life of the prisoner: it creates ‘a power of mind over another mind’[31], killing his thought and wish of doing bad actions.

It could be argued ‘that the Panopticon offers a well-succeeded example of the utility principle in a particular case: to punish’[32], so that this desire to completely suppress freedom concerns only prisoners and thus it doesn’t legitimate the complete suppression of freedom. But Bentham proposes to apply his system in every possible aspects of life, ‘in every context’[33]: it can be employed, without exception, in every building where a certain number of people is to be supervised in a room not too huge, whether […] to punish the incorrigible, to guard the insane, to reform the vicious, or to confine the suspects, to employ the idle, to maintain the helpless, to cure the sick, to instruct the willing in any branch of industry, or to train the rising race in the path of education: in other words, whether there are prisons, death chamber, penitentiaries, factories, or madhouses, or hospitals, or schools[34].

Bentham admits that his system risks transforming the exposed individuals into machines. He replies: ‘you can call them soldiers, you can call them enemies, you can call them machines: but if they are happy, I won’t be interested’[35]. It is the total utility which counts, not the persons, which instead are mere utility objects. So, the system can produce ‘Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burthen lightened, economy seated’[36].

It could be argued that some aspects of the Panopticon reflect concentration camps. Bentham is aware of these aspects and instead of denying them he has the courage and the coherence to accept them. These aspects are without any doubts gloomy, but they represent the application of the utilitarian logic in  the area of freedom and Bentham doesn’t try to refuse them.

An example of attempted immunization is Mill’s On Liberty where he expresses doubts about whether or not there is an aspect of human private life which is immune from any social interference. If we analyze it further, Mill himself admits that such a private dimension of existence doesn’t exist, and he has to face the serious problem to reconcile the protection of freedom with the utility principle: for what reason should society not suppress liberty, if this overwhelming action produces utility?[37]

Then, if it’s true that the social and reformatory impulse of Utilitarianism has historically contributed to increase certain liberties, it’s also true, as A. Sen argues, that ‘these liberties are only a fortuitous result of the utilitarian policy’[38].


The consideration of the right to life and the principle of Caifa


So far, it is clear that a coherent interpretation of the utilitarian theory generally implies not only the possibility but also the rightfulness to trample on the right of equal distribution and the right to  freedom.

In can be also similarly argued that the utilitarian principle can ignore the right to life, and this is evident when we examine the so called ‘principle of Caifa’ ascribed to Utilitarianism. This principle states that it is good that a man dies for the salvation of a people[39], and prescribes the killing of an innocent for the superior public utility. For example, a sheriff understands that in the town under his jurisdiction some riots may break out, with the consequent death of many people, if he doesn’t find a scapegoat to punish in an exemplary way, in order to hush up the public opinion; therefore, he kills an innocent.

The first defence of some utilitarians consists in considering imaginative those cases, as R. M. Hare[40] does when he settles Williams’s example[41], where the vicissitude of a man called Jim is described. Jim is obliged to kill another man, otherwise, if he refuses to do it, many American Indians will be killed instead of a single man.

Now, far from being mere fantasies, similar cases are real as the proceedings[42] against Paul Touvier, a French man who lived during Vichy time, testifies. He was ordered to kill seven Jews  and during the trial he tried to prove his innocence explaining that in doing so he soothed the desire for revenge of the Head of the Gestapo, who in reprisal for the action of the French Resistance wished to kill a thousand Jews. Other similar cases could be mentioned, or, as J. Finnis[43] notes, we can individualize the application of the Caifa’s Principle on a larger scale. For example it can be seen in the policy adopted during the second World War, when the direct annihilation of non-belligerent civilians was performed in order to win the war.

Having considered this strategy, we can now examine the next two defensive strategies of Utilitarianism, namely the second. So far, we have examined the first which states that justice, liberty and right to life are goods to be maximized because the utilitarian maximization depends on their maximization. As we have seen, instead, utility is an aim by full right superior to justice, liberty and right to life and consequently overwhelms them.

The second defence certain utilitarians choose, is to say that the utility aim is superior to justice, liberty and right to life: they recognizes that, if seeking those ends the utility may be damaged, then one is obliged to neglect such ends. However, this defence affirms that these cases in which the utility is to be sought to justice, freedom and right to life disadvantage are empirically impossible, because there is never opposition between these ends and the utility. This second strategy is not convincing too,  because it’s evident that in certain case, (for example in the case of the punishment of the innocent), it is rightful to produce utility to disadvantage of justice (punishing in an unjust way), of freedom (punishing with a restriction of liberty), and of right to life (punishing with the deprivation of life). This strategy tries to prove that Utilitarianism never orders such acts, since, for many reasons, they imply a uselessness that is superior than their carrying out. In the case of the sheriff, this strategy maintains that the whole criminal law institutions would be in danger[44], because for example, the trust in institutions would collapse. But this answer is not binding, because in case the scapegoat’s innocence can be kept secret, there should be no negative consequence that might counterbalance the utility produced by acts similar to the one above discussed[45]; then it is not only lawful but also rightful to kill an innocent in favour of everybody’s utility[46] .

Besides, according to the utilitarian theory the advantageous punishment of an innocent determines that the victim of the punishment is not really ‘innocent’, since the punishment implies the production of a minor utility compared to the one produced by the punishment[47]. And for similar reasons, consequently Bentham doesn’t reproach even torture when it is useful[48].


The consideration of the rights


These examples of the utilitarian’s attitude towards justice, freedom, killing of an innocent, can converge in the analysis of the criticism which accuses Utilitarianism of violating the rights[49]: in certain cases Utilitarianism can prescribe to violate them and Bentham admits it. Now, we can here report the third strategy left behind.

The point of this strategy is that such objections, towards Bentham and towards a coherent Utilitarianism, based on the rights, aren’t cogent. As a matter of fact, even though the coherent utilitarian solutions of the problem of justice, freedom and punishment of the innocent can make someone shiver, these solutions cannot be reproached if we consider their consequentialist logic. If human acts have no intrinsic moral quality, but they gain it in relation to their consequences, then it’s not blameworthy to do an unjust distribution,  to eliminate freedom, to commit an infanticide, to kill an innocent, to punish who is not guilty etc., there is nothing that makes you shiver or scandalize you. Bentham understands this, therefore he is more coherent than those utilitarians which deny the violation of the rights.

But then the objection about the violation of the rights is not fatal for an utilitarian agent who is coherent and admits their violation from the start: ‘the dispute on the Utilitarianism’s permission to violate the rights when duties clash together or when utility requires the suppression of a right, is not an inner objection to Utilitarianism” [50]. Apart from the not convincing reply already analysed, Hare explains it coherently: ‘neither political freedom, nor equity are necessary goods in themselves: all depends on how much men desire them and on how much they are willing to sacrifice their own or other people’s interests in order to achieve them. In fortuitous circumstances, it has happened that some societies flourished under tyranny and slavery. I strongly believe that, considering the facts, it is improbable for such a society to take any advantages from a systems that allows slavery. [] but the reasons I can give for this are only beliefs related to fortuitous circumstances. If we can demonstrate that these fortuitous cases are false, then the moral dispute here considered could induce me to defend slavery and tyranny’[51]. Rather, the strict utilitarian could be proud to reform the common sense and its current norms because ‘the public moral responsibility is based on elements that are superstitious, morally evil and confused’[52].

Therefore, if you want to debate efficiently Utilitarianism it is not enough to denounce that it violates the rights, but you have to debate the consequentialist logic that stays underneath and over the theory of the value from where this interpretation descends. Otherwise a coherent Utilitarianism has no difficulties in violating rights, because it doesn’t set any value to persons but only to utility units, thus it can easily turn the imperative of Kant upside down ordering: behave in order to treat the other as a mean in view of the utility, not as a person in himself. In short, the limit of these criticisms is to reproach Utilitarianism of being Utilitarianism.


The consideration of personal integrity and of the bonds of affections


We can adopt the same argument for another criticism against Utilitarianism done by B. Williams[53] who accuses it of attacking personal integrity, meaning with integrity ‘the man’s quality of acting under those dispositions and motivations that are most deeply-rooted in him’[54]. Williams’s criticism is explained in the following example. It can happen a situation where (as happened to Jim and the American Indians) if a person decides to kill a man, his action will prevent other people from killing 20 men, otherwise these 20 men will be killed and instead of a single death, 20 persons will die. The example represents all the situations in which if the agent doesn’t do something that he disapproves, because it is in contrast with his deepest beliefs and ideals, someone else will do it and the consequences of the other person’s action will be worse than the one caused by the agent if he does it. Utilitarianism asks you to give up your plans and ideals which you are deeply involved in, with which you identify yourself and which you have based your life on, when they are in contrast with the greatest possible utility. Utilitarianism attacks personal integrity, because it produces a sort of dissociation in the agent, alienates him from his firm beliefs and commands him to leave them apart  in order to be ‘a mere channel between the input of everybody’s – own included – plans and an output of optimized decision’[55], as to say a sort of self-annihilation and suicide.

Now, firstly the Utilitarian replies denying that the output of an act similar to what Jim did is prescribed by Utilitarianism and he gives arguments[56] similar to the ones we already considered not valid. In fact, we have seen that a coherent Utilitarianism can, at least in certain cases, prescribe acts that have the killing of an innocent as a consequence.

A second reply underlines that the disgust and the suffering caused by behaving against one’s most deep beliefs, which give sense to one’s life, are to be considered in the consequentialist calculation because they belong to the total sum that one has to realize. Therefore, Utilitarianism wouldn’t prescribe one’s separation from personal firm beliefs, because the consequent agent’s annihilation would have an overwhelming disutility. But it’s evident that such a reply is not decisive, since, if it is true that in certain cases the sense of annihilation and the suffering caused by the completion of this act damage the total utility, it is not true that this always happens: a case can be given in which the total utility will be increased by such an act, even considering the agent’s tragedy.

Moreover, the objection to integrity, if we understand it rightly, is not persuading for another reason. In fact[57], humans assume often immoral or false beliefs and  have immoral plans, or they base their life on unjust motivations. So Ethics asks them to give up their aims and straighten their motivations. Thus, it’s not understandable why integrity should be morally protected.

One could reply that Utilitarianism ask not only the immoral man but also the man who has right plans, right aims and ideals, to give up his integrity. But this reply misses the fact that for Utilitarianism there are no plans, aims and ideals that can be left out of consideration of their consequences: when the consequences are bad, they are not just but unjust.

Moreover, an effective criticism should show that only in given cases there are obligations which are not to be neglected, and actions which are not permitted. However, this can only be explained if we question the Consequentialism itself and not its consequences. Again, the criticism about the integrity doesn’t involve the utilitarian consequentialist premise of Utilitarianism. This arguments only criticizes its effects, that are easily accepted by a coherent utilitarian. Therefore if you want to criticize Utilitarianism you have to debate Consequentialism and not its consequences.



The paradox of happiness[58]


If we want to criticize Utilitarianism, we must understand that it’s not useful to dispute on its violation of the rights, and that we have to dispute on Consequentialism itself.

Otherwise it’s possible to follow another road, which is the road that shows the failure of Utilitarianism caused by the paradox of happiness, explaining that Utilitarianism is an unsuccessfully theory because it doesn’t allow to achieve the results it promises.

In  order to understand this paradox, we can start from some testimonies within the utilitarian tradition. Bentham said in one of his manuscripts that ‘for each seed of joy you sow in the breast of another person, you will find a crop in your breast, whereas each sorrow that you remove from another man’s thoughts and feelings will be replaced by a wonderful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul’[59]. Mill noticed soon the paradoxical side of happiness: ‘for how much this assertion can be paradoxical, the conscious ability of giving up one’s own happiness is the best way to achieve such a happiness. Nothing apart from such a consciousness can raise an individual above the vicissitudes of his life and assure that he would never be overwhelmed by them, for how adverse fate and fortune can be’[60]. And it was always Mill that stated in his Autobiography: ‘I have never doubted that happiness […] is the aim of life. But now I think that such an aim can only be obtained if you don’t seek it as a direct aim. Only those individuals whose minds are focused on something else than their own happiness are happy; on other people’s happiness or on improving the mankind, or in some arts or jobs sought not as a mean but as an ideal aim. Pointing out on something else, they find the happiness on the way’. As for him, Sidgwick speaks about ‘a fundamental paradox of hedonism’, which consists in the fact that ‘if the impulse towards pleasure is too predominant, it will nullify the aim itself’. More precisely, ‘our active enjoyments […] can’t be achieved if our body is consciously concentrated on them’[61]. If we aim at certain pleasures, Sidgwick carries on, we diminish them and in these cases it is enough to weaken the attention towards them in order to make it less predominant; but there are other cases in which it’s necessary to take completely away the attention from those pleasures and forget that they are your aim in order to achieve them. For Sidgwick this is the case of the pleasure of intellectual research, artistic creation and benevolence. Regarding the last things, Sidgwick explains that ‘they seem to imply, in order to experience them properly, the pre-existence of the desire to do other people’s good independently from our own good[62]’. Therefore, Sidgwick explicitly points out egoism as the major obstacle for their achievement, sharing Butler’s opinion: ‘egoism […], this excessive concentration of someone’s attention on his own happiness […], makes impossible for an individual to sympathize with other people’s pleasures and sorrows. The attention which is continuously directed towards one’s own self  deprives the pleasures of their intensity and taste, and causes a quick saturation and boredom’[63].

Outside the utilitarian tradition, confirmations of the paradox of happiness proliferate and we can only consider some examples. The major part of the classical moral philosophy teaches that happiness is the consequence and result of an action which is not directed to happiness and has not it as its end: in other words happiness is the corollary of a virtuous life, its echo, a welcome gift, but it is not directly achievable. In the IV B.C. century, Aristotle already understood this: if there is something ‘which is given as a gift to man by gods, it is reasonable that happiness too is a god’s gift, all the more that it is the greatest good’[64]. In the XX century, for example, S. Weil explained this in an interesting way: ‘the most precious goods are not to be sought but to be awaited. The man cannot find them with only his own strengths, and if he starts to seek them, he will find in their place only false goods, the falsity of which he will not recognize’[65].

In a first approssimation, we can share Scheler’s opinion that the only goods that a man can produce are only marginal goods, as the sensible pleasures, whereas spiritual pleasures, such as happiness in its psychological meaning of joy, are not producible. In fact, egoism can be, in the short time, a source of sensible pleasure because it implies the fulfilment of the man’s sensible nature. In general, men can produce consumer goods, can improve the quality of life, the well-being and the comfort, but this kind of satisfaction is disappointing, it is not the true happiness. In this way in some societies where the standard of life is higher, some authors have found signs of unhappiness: the increase of the number of suicides; crisis of family and the proliferation of divorces, that nowadays are made easier by the law, but are also signs of a malcontent among men, who don’t realize anymore themselves in marriage or family (the disbelief in family and in marriage is a recent phenomenon; since the beginning of his existence men have always considered marriage and parenthood one of the main expressions of happiness); increase of psychological pathologies often caused by a feeling of resignation and deep disappointment towards life; sex and drug abuse as a substitute of happiness.   

Anyway, the best judge of one’s condition is the subject himself and in a sociological survey, reported by L. Bruni[66], emerges, as some economist have already stated, that ‘in those societies with a high income, even to have a higher income doesn’t make you happier’. For example the number of Americans describing themselves as very happy is diminishing in percentage compared to their per capita income. The index very happy of the U.S. National Surveys’ questionnaire has dropped from 7,5 to 7%, whereas the per capita income has strongly increased (from 6.000 up to 20.000 $). Many researches prove the fact that happiness is diminishing, or at least it is not increasing in societies with an advanced Economy[67]. So we can conclude that a deep happiness goes beyond the  context of a sensible satisfaction.

But, if further analyzed,human experience proves that even such sensible satisfaction is doomed  to diminish and fade progressively. In fact, in the long run, an action based only on the achievement of a sensible pleasure causes a diminishing of the sensible pleasure itself. We see a decreasing satisfaction and an even more increasing desire that can degenerate into frustration and pathology[68]. A psychological view of this theme already exists and it is supported by many clinical experiences in psychiatry: ‘happiness in each of its forms, from the most sensible one, as pleasure, to the strongest one, as the ecstasy, is the consequence of a vital activity which is not intentionally directed towards it. The self-transcendent quality of the human existence creates a situation observed day by day by the clinician, which manifests that the search of the pleasure is self-destroying. In other words, the seek of happiness is self-destroying: it is a contradiction in itself […]; as much as an individual starts to seek directly happiness or tries to seek it, he cannot achieve it. The more he tries to gain it, the less he attains it”[69].

Remaining in the psychotherapeutic area, V. Frankl’s logotherapy has inferred from clinical experience that happiness and pleasure are the corollary and the consequence of joining a value, and that they cannot intentionally be achieved: ‘the pleasure is not directly reachable, you cannot directly look for it: it can only be achieved spontaneously without being sought. The more you seek it, the more it escapes from you. The pleasure principle, if brought to extreme consequences, inevitably fails; this because it is an obstacle to itself. The more you try to achieve it with all your strengths, the more difficult is to achieve it’[70]. When pleasure is the aim of your intention, the specific subject of your reflection, the cause of happiness and the pleasure itself disappear.’[71]

Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick already showed us the way to understand the above statement in an anthropologic way. They all assert that, somehow, the complete happiness and the interpersonal relation are both connected.

But it is a synergic interpretation done by Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropagite and Thomas Aquinas which explains the connection between love and happiness.

We can start stating that the activities that we perform with affection are joyful, even though they should be hard and difficult.  But  we need to give an explanation for this.

According to Aristotle, Thomas states that delectatio, whether it is a sensible pleasure or a psychological joy, is the result of a connatural operation which achieves a connatural aim. Now, if we really consider the connatural good of that personal agent that is man, we clearly understand that it can only be the person (and the Person), who posses the most ontological perfection in the universe[72]. Indeed, it is love that explicates the interpersonal communication: transcending the incidental qualities of the other person, which are qualities that can be similar to other people, love reaches her personal substantial centre, that is unique and unrepeatable, and it opens her inner side. True love reaches the other person and considers her irreplaceable. Only successively it considers the other person’s psycho-physical incidental qualities. On the contrary, egoism reduces the other to a bundle of incidental and reproducible qualities, which (but this is irrelevant) subtend the person, who remains at a ‘second level’, and whose value is only reduced to a support of such qualities and till such qualities stir up emotion and passions.

Moreover, the best way to attain one thing is to identify oneself with it and to live its life without destroying it. According to Dionysius’ theory, love is vis extatica, which projects towards the beloved, and vis unitiva, which establishes a communion with him. We can now understand the connection between love and happiness: love is the action that has as object what is connatural to man and is the action that achieve its aim in the most perfect way[73]. Besides, humans are open to the infinite, omnium capax[74],  their nature is essentially characterized by openness and it is constitutively directed towards the union with everything. Therefore, not only love has an object that is connatural to man, not only it reaches its aim better than any other action, but it seems to be the action most connatural to man because, being vis extatica, it is the expression and the connatural realization of a nature projected towards the outside, and, being vis unitiva, it is the expression and the connatural realization of a nature that can somehow join everything and be in communion with it.

Indeed, we can understand that joy is a reflection of love if we reverse the question. When is a man unhappy? When his existence is characterized by true loneliness: a man who is really alone is dreadfully unhappy[75]. Now, in order to find a remedy for loneliness, it is not enough to live among other people, because one can be alone even if among a crowd. If one has only superficial interpersonal relationships, he is not able to find a remedy for the typical ontological loneliness of his constitutively altruistic nature. Therefore, he must open his inner world to the others achieving interpersonal communion. This latter can be gained only by true love which ecstatically projects a person towards other persons transcending her incidental qualities and penetrating her ontological recesses. In this way, one identifies himself with the other person and lives the other person’s life. Vice versa, egoism does not find any remedy for the human ontological indigence, doesn’t grant any interpersonal communion, because it produces an ecstasy which is incipient and incomplete so that the person’s action is centripetal, with the character of consumption and not of communion, thus isolating the person in herself.


The disutility  of the Utilitarianism


If the above statements are true, not only egoistic Utilitarianism, but Utilitarianism in general is an ethic that cannot reach its aim, happiness.

Indeed, egoistic Utilitarianism prescribes to look for individual happiness exploiting people and it’s true that egoistic Utilitarianism asks to behave in such a way in order to promote everybody’s happiness, but it asks this only because believes that in promoting everybody’s happiness one promotes his own happiness. It doesn’t prescribe to be truly altruistic: thinking man is egoistic, egoistic Utilitarianism suggest the lawgiver to establish sanctions to promote happiness. These sanctions force people not to seek their own happiness but other people’s, so that one’s own happiness becomes everybody’s happiness. Thus, egoistic Utilitarianism produces an artificial harmony of interests when this harmony cannot be created naturally. In short, egoistic Utilitarianism tries to obtain a behaviour which is only apparently altruistic. In reality, this behaviour is always driven by a personal reward or interest whether or not this interest coincides with everybody’s interest.

Instead, non-egoistic Utilitarianism prescribes to exploit people in order to look not for one’s own happiness but for overall happiness. Therefore, it is not able to include the altruistic love, because the interpersonal relation must not seek other people’s good for their sake, but only because it contributes to the maximization of utility.

In both cases, Utilitarianism commands to treat other people as mere means in order to achieve one’s own or everybody’s happiness. Thus, in spite of what Bentham, Mills and Sidgwick had intuited, Utilitarianism prescribe you to behave in such a way that makes impossible for you to achieve a deep happiness: instead of prescribing a true promptness to other people love, Utilitarianism prescribes you to exploit people in order to produce utility. In exploiting people and reifying them, the agent not only precludes people’s recognition[76], but he also denies himself the exercise of love, which is connected with deep happiness. Indeed, if it is true that joy is a subjective echo of love which produces the interpersonal communion, who treats people in an utilitarian way precludes himself the joy, because only true love is vis extatica and vis unitiva, and therefore, it is the connatural behaviour of the opened human nature. On the contrary, the utilitarian action is an interpersonal action of consume and not of communion, therefore, it is characterized by selfishness and not by altruism. This praxis can cause a sudden sensible pleasure, because it implies the satisfaction of the sensible nature of man. But it doesn’t cause spiritual joy, which can be achieved only behaving in accordance with human nature, taken in its totality, that is an opened nature.

This can maybe explain the progressive diminishing of the sensible satisfaction. It is possible that a praxis characterized by selfishness establishes a form of behaviour which progressively constitutes a new inclination, a second nature. This one comes into a harsh conflict with human nature, which is totally opened and connected with the sensible human dimension itself. Man is a substantial union of body and soul which are co-principles of the anthropological subject, therefore the sensible level of the person interact with the spiritual one and they influence each other. Thus, their conflict affects the sensible satisfaction.

Anyway let’s consider again the paradox of happiness. We stated that only true love can achieve the happiness accessible to man, while a direct search of one’s own happiness, that constitutes egoism, is always impossible. According to Aristotle, happiness is then a divine gift just because it can be only achieved with altruistic love, which never seeks its own happiness but other people’s happiness (otherwise it is not altruistic but selfish). Therefore, happiness is the joy caused by other people’s happiness[77], as Leibniz explained, when he said that it is delectatio in felicitate alterius[78]; or, if the other is unhappy, happiness is the joy caused by the quest for other people’s happiness [79]. This explains the paradox that only those who don’t seek their own happiness can achieve it. The paradox of happiness is the display of the paradox of love: ‘being unselfish doesn’t damage the person, besides, being unselfish is a way to reach the greatest personal perfection. In being altruistic, you experiment «to give without losing» […] or «to acquire giving», so that your self «improves and is improved»’[80].

We must notice that Bentham and Mill didn’t deduce the correlated consequences, ruinous to their Utilitarianism, depending on the connection between love and happiness. Instead, Sidgwick noticed them and tried to solve the problem. He honestly recognises the problem: ‘I have to admit that who accepts the rational egoism principle, denies himself the absolute pleasure caused  by an absolute self-sacrifice and self-denial’[81]. Conscious of the fact that happiness is an unreachable aim when directly sought, Sidgwick suggest a method[82]: one has to try to forget such an aim and perform the activities necessary to its achievement only for the sake of them, one has to forget the aim and concentrate on the means which he must consider as aims in themselves.

But this method is not convincing. Because either you give up achieving the aim of the total utility and aim to other ends for the sake of them, and, in this case, the method is out of the Utilitarianism context[83], because it prescribes no more to perform whatever activities in favour of the total utility, but just for the sake of the activities, it doesn’t prescribe to achieve other aims considering them at an intermediate level in the scale to the last aim. Or if you intentionally give up an aim in order to achieve it, you carry on achieving the aim itself.

In conclusion, Utilitarianism cannot prescribe that, in order to avoid the disutility produced by an non-altruistic action, the utilitarian agent has-to-behave-altruistically-for-utilitarian-reasons. A person either behave motivated by true altruism, and he is not utilitarian, or a true promptness and an altruistic love exercised for utilitarian reasons are a contradiction, because Utilitarianism and true love are in contradiction with each other.


· For further studies I allow myself to point you to G. Samek Lodovici, L’utilità del bene. Jeremy Bentham, l’utilitarismo e il consequenzialismo,Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2004.

[1] About the three strategies, see D. Brock, Recent works in utilitarianism, “American Philosophical Quarterly”, 10, 4 (1973),  p. 265. Regarding the third strategy, we don’t agree with him.

[2] See F. Rosen, Individual Sacrifice and the Greatest Happiness, “Utilitas”, 10 (1998), pp. 129-143.

[3] See R. Harrison, Rosen’s Sacrifice of Utility, “Utilitas”, 10 (1998), pp. 159-167.

[4] See also Harsanyi, L’utilitarismo, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1988, p. 105: “an economical and social equality […] for a coherent utilitarian […] is not an instrinsic moral value.”.

[5] J. Bentham, Second letter to lord Pehlam, p. 191. See also A. Goldworth, The Meaning of Bentham’s Greatest Happiness Principle, “Journal of the History of Philosophy”, VII (1969), p. 321: “his [of Bentham] principle of the greatest happiness doesn’t imply the realization of the greatest happiness of the majority of people, but simply the realization of the greatest happiness”.

[6] Mss. University College, CLXX, 114.

[7] W. Frankena, Ethics, Prentice Hall, New Jersey 1973, tr. it. Etica. Una introduzione alla filosofia morale, Edizioni di Comunità, Milano 1981, p. 107.

[8] J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, tr. it. L’utilitarismo, Sugarco, Milano 1991, pp. 114-115.

[9] Utilitarismo p. 116.

[10] F.Y. Edgeworth, Matematical Psychics. And other Essays, James & Gordon, San Diego 1995, p. 103.

[11] Utilitarismo, p. 115, in note.

[12] R.M. Hare, Moral Thinking. Its Levels, Methods and Point, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1981, It. tr. Il pensiero morale. Livelli, metodi, scopi, Il Mulino, Bologna 1989, p. 188.

[13] G. Chalmeta, Le radici teoretiche del Welfare State: l’ideale utilitarista della giustizia “aritmetica” e “tecnologica”, in publishing. See also B. Pastore, Forme di utilitarismo, “Per la filosofia”, 23 (1991), pp. 6-7.

[14] H.L.A. Hart, Between Utility and Rights, in A. Ryan, The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, Oxford University Press, New York-Oxford 1979, p. 78. See also M. Stocker – E. Hegeman, Valuing Emotions, Cambridge University Press, Cambrige 1996, p. XIV.

[15] H.L.A. Hart, Between Utility and Rights, cit., p. 79.

[16] J. Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (IPML), It. tr. Introduzione ai principi della morale e della legislazione,  UTET, Torino, 1998, p. 172.

[17] See Univ. College, LXXII, 214.

[18] J. Bentham, Theory of Legislation, ed. C.K Ogden, London 1931, p. 487.

[19] P. Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979, It. tr. Etica pratica, Liguori, Napoli 1989, pp. 127-129.

[20] IPML, XIV. 26.

[21] See G. Frongia, La nascita dell’utilitarismo contemporaneo, FrancoAngeli, Milano 2000, p. 133.

[22] Works, p. 345.

[23] Principles of the Civil Code, p. 344.

[24] J. Bentham, Panopticon. Ovvero la casa d’ispezione, Marsilio Editori, Padova 1983.

[25] Panopticon, p. 37 and following pages.

[26] Ibidem,  p. 46.

[27] Ibidem,  p. 46.

[28] Panopticon, pp. 48-51.

[29] Panopticon. p. 51.

[30] M. Perrot L’occhio del potere. Conversazione con Michel Foucault, prefazione a J. Bentham, Panopticon. Ovvero la casa d’ispezione, Marsilio Editori, 1983, p. 19.

[31] Panopticon, p. 35.

 [32] E. Griffin-Collart, Bentham: de l’Utilité au Totalitarisme?, “Revue Internationale de Philosophie”, 3 (1982), p. 310.

[33] Panopticon, p. 102.

[34] Ibidem,  p. 36.

[35] Ibidem,  p. 96.

[36] Ibidem, p. 33.

 [37] It is true that Bentham (see IPML, p. 430), excludes the intervention of the lawgiver and of a legal coercion in the case of fornication and alcoholism (when they are harmful) but not because he wants to tutelage freedom: he believes  that in these cases a legal coercion would be ineffective and would cause more damages than advantages; besides, it “would be very difficult to prove” the existence of these behaviours. Instead, in the Panopticon system, coercion would be effective because since everyone is supervised there is no need to find out proves of the existence of certain behaviours.

[38] A. Sen, La libertà come impegno sociale, Laterza, Bari 1997, pp. 17-18.

[39] See Gv 11,50.

[40] R. M. Hare, Il pensiero morale, p. 181.

[41] Given for the first time in B. Williams, A Critique of Utilitarianism, in J.J.C. Smart – B. Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1973.

 [42] Reported in M. Rhonheimer, “Intrinsecally evil Acts” and the moral Viewpoint: Clarifying a central Teaching of  “Veritatis splendor”, “The Thomist”, 58 (1994), p. 291.

 [43] J. Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics, Georgetown University Press, Washington 1983, p. 96.

[44] B. Schuller, The Double Effect in Catholic Thougth: a Revaluation, in R. McCormick - P. Ramsey (eds.), Doing Evil to Achieve Good, Moral Choice in Conflicts Situations, Loyola University Press, Hardcover 1978, p. 117; R. McCormick, How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics, Hardcover, London 1981, p. 428.

[45] See also J. Harsanyi, L’utilitarismo, p.  72: “a single broken promise, or a single theft, or even a single murder will have no significant consequences […] if such acts are performed secretly, there will not be […] a single negative consequence”.

[46] E. Musacchio, Gli indirizzi dell’utilitarismo contemporaneo, Cappelli Editore, Bologna 1981, p. 126. See Also A. Donagan, Is There a credible Form of Utilitarianism? in The Philosophical Papers of Alan Donagan, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1994, vol. II, p. 140.

[47] See M. Rhonheimer, La filosofia politica di Thomas Hobbes. Coerenza e contraddizione di un paradigma, Armando, Roma 1997, p. 134.

[48] Mss University College, XIV.

[49] See for example, T. Nagel, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1979, tr. it, Questioni mortali, Il Saggiatore, Milano 20012, pp. 57-77.

[50] L.A. Mulholland, Rights, Utilitarianism, and the Conflation of Persons, “The Journal of Philosophy” (1986), p. 328.

[51] R.M. Hare, Pensiero morale, pp. 212-213.

[52]J.J.C. Smart, Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism, in M.D. Bayles, (ed.), Contemporary Utilitarianism, Anchor Books, New York 1968, p. 103.

[53] Already in B. Williams, Una critica dell’utilitarismo, pp. 131-139.

[54] B. Williams, Moral Luck, Press Syndacate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge 1981, It. Tr. Sorte morale, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1987, p. 70.

[55] B. Williams, Una critica dell’utilitarismo, p. 139.

[56] Some of these considerations are present in S. Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism. A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions, revised edition, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1994, pp. 41 and following.

[57] This is the reply to Williams by J.J.C. Smart, in Benvolence as an Overriding Attitude, “Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 55 (1977), n. 2, pp. 131-135.

[58] About this theme and the connection between love and happiness I allow myself to refer you to G. Samek Lodovici, La felicità del bene. Una rilettura di Tommaso d’Aquino, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 2002, pp. 101-105, 179-183.

[59] Mss. 174.

[60] J.S. Mill, Utilitarismo, p. 33.

[61] H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, It tr. I metodi dell’etica, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1995, p. 84.

[62] Ibidem, p. 85.

[63]H. Sidgwick, I metodi dell’etica , p. 527.

[64] EN, I, 1099b, 10-15.

[65] S. Weil, Attente de Dieu, Arthème Fayard, Paris 1966, It. tr. Attesa di Dio, Rusconi, Milano 1972, p. 76.

[66]L. Bruni, L’economia  e i paradossi della felicità, in P.L. Sacco - S. Zamagni (eds.), Complessità relazionale comportamento economico, Il Mulino, Bologna 2002, p. 176.

[67] L. Bruni quotes the study of R. Putnam, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster, New York 2000; R. Wrigt, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Panteon Books, New York 2000; R. Lane, The Loss of Happiness in the Market Democracies, Yale University Press, New Haven 2000.

[68] V. Frankl, Theorie und Therapie der Neurosen, UTB, München-Basel 19754.

[69]J. Cardona Pescador, La depressión, psicopatología de la alegría, Ed. Cíentifico-Médica, Barcellona 1983, pp. 106-107. 

[70] V. Frankl, Der Mensch auf der Suche nach Sinn, Verlag, Stuttgart 1952, It. tr. Alla ricerca di un significato della vita. Per una psicoterapia riumanizzata, Mursia, Milano 1990, p. 55.

[71] Ibid., p. 115, note 3.

[72] S. Th., I, q. 29, a. 3: persona significat id quod est perfectissimum in tota natura.

[73] S. Th., I-II, q. 32, a. 3, ad 3.

[74] De Ver. q. 24, a. 10.

[75] Aristotle, without analysing it further, express a deep thought: ‘we believe that a friend is one of our greatest good, and that being alone and with no friends is a terrible thing’, EE, VII, 1234b 32-1235a 2.

[76]Think to the Hegelian dialectic slave-master.

[77]S. Th., II-II, q. 28, a. 1: Gaudium enim ex amore causatur […] propter hoc quod ipsi bono amato proprium bonum inest et conservatur.

[78]G.W. Leibniz Codice diplomatico di diritto delle genti, in Scritti politici e di diritto naturale, UTET, Torino 19652, p. 159: “to love means to rejoice at other people’s happiness”. See also Elementi di diritto naturale, in Ibid, p. 109: “to love means to want other people’s happiness for the sake of it, in other words, to rejoice at other people’s happiness”. Francesco of Sales already stated that love is the act through which one’s will is connected with the joy and the good of someone else. See Traité de l’amour de Dieu, I, Nierat, Annecy 1894, p. 71.

[79]The expression of Kierkegaard is summarizing: “the happiness’ door is open towards the outside”, Aut-Aut, in Opere, Sansoni , Firenze 1972, p. 10. Or see Bernard of Chiaravalle, De diligendo Deo, Cambridge 1926, p. 32: “each true love is without reward, however, it has its reward; indeed it can have its reward only if it doesn’t ask for it”. This doctrine is particularly highlighted in the contemporary philosophy from von Hildebrand. This according to Augustin, Serm., 368, 1, it is one of the meaning expressed, e.g. in Lc., 9, 24: “who thinks of saving only his life, will loose it; instead, who is ready to sacrifice his life for me will save it”.

[80] L. Polo, Tener y dar. Reflexiones en torno a la segunda parte de la Encíclica «Laborem Exercens», in AA.VV., Estudios sobra la Encíclica Laborem Exercens, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Madrid 1987, p. 227.

[81]H. Sidgwick, I metodi dell’etica, p. 170.

[82] Ibid., p. 170.

[83] See L. Blum, Friendship, Altruism and Morality, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London-Boston 1980, pp. 59-60.