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Review of Geoffrey Scarre's Utilitarianism (1997)

Finngeir Hiorth


Geoffrey Scarre: Utilitarianism Routledge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE and 29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001, 1996, 225 pp., bibliography, index, paperb., ISBN 0-415-12197-3.

This is an excellent introduction to and survey of utilitarianism, an important current in contemporary ethical theory. The author is lecturer in philosophy at the University of Durham, and among his earlier publications is a book on the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism claims that one ought to do those actions which produce good or avoid evil for everyone. It can be treated as a theory of individual morality or as a theory of collective choice. Scarre in this book focuses his attention on utilitarianism as a theory of individual morality.

Scarre's own sympathies run in favour of utilitarianism, though he is "not convinced that a wholly satisfactory form of the theory is yet available. Perhaps the best that can currently be said about utilitarianism is that it is a very bad form of moral philosophy, but that all the others are so much worse" (pp. 1-2). At any rate, utilitarianism still is a highly vital theory. In 1949 John Plamenatz wrote that "utilitarianism is destroyed and no part of it left standing". Whereas Bernard Williams, a well-known ethical theorist, in 1973 wrote that the "day cannot be too far off in which we hear no more of it" (p. 2). But the interest in utilitarianism is nowadays greater than ever, and an impression which this book leaves is that there is no serious alternative to it. In any case, Scarre pays little attention to the alternatives to utilitarianism.

After an introduction in which Scarre describes the main features of utilitarianism, he proceeds to a long historical part in which he first summarizes the views of four ancient moralists: Mo Tzu, Jesus, Aristotle, and Epicurus. According to Scarre, of these four, perhaps only the first can be described as a fully-fledged utilitarian. The others anticipated utilitarian doctrine "only at certain points" (p. 26). Some may find it strange to find the name of Jesus in this list of precursors of utilitarianism, but John Stuart Mill wrote: "In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility" (p. 33).

Scarre next moves to the Enlightenment: "The eighteenth century was the green youth of utilitarianism, as the nineteenth was its prime. Almost all of the characteristic theses of utilitarianism had made their appearance by 1800" (p. 49). Important names of this period are the Frenchmen Chastellux and Helvétius, but it was the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) who was the first to speak of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He is "the earliest writer to enunciate a philosophy that can without qualification be termed 'utilitarian'" (p. 53). Scarre also considers writers like David Hume, Joseph Priestley, William Paley, and William Godwin to be utilitarians.

Often, however, utilitarianism is primarily traced back to its "classical" proponents: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73). Bentham has been called "an atheist" or even a "militant atheist", but David Berman in his History of Atheism in Britain (1988, p. 192) writes that "it seems to be accepted that Bentham nowhere explicitly denies the existence of God, or describes himself as an atheist". In any case, since Bentham utilitarianism has been a secular (that is, an atheistic or agnostic) theory.

Scarre devotes a separate chapter to John Stuart Mill, then turns to Henry Sidgwick whose The Methods of Ethics is described "as the most important work on moral philosophy to be published in English in the nineteenth century. Sidgwick is an "intuitional utilitarian", whereas G. E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall are called ideal utilitarians". The remainder of this chapter deals with the development of "rule-" and "act-utilitarianism". The last three chapters deal with topics like happiness, preference, maximization, fairness, respect for persons, and utilitarianism and personality.

As I have indicated, Scarre does not enter into details of possible alternatives of utilitarianism. He tends to put everything which is nice or convincing in his concept of utilitarianism. This tends to render utilitarianism into an invincible theory. But other ethical theorists look in a different way at utilitarianism. They either argue that there is no need for a general and normative ethical theory, or they propose their own alternatives. But I shall not go into this topic here.



Finngeir Hiorth 23 May 1997
Kirkehaugsveien 3
N-0283 Oslo


Finngeir Hiorth, who was senior lecturer of philosophy at the University of Oslo until his retirement in 1993, has published widely in the fields of philosophy, theory of language and Indonesian studies. He is the author of Introduction to Atheism, Indian Secular Society, 850/8A Shivajinagar, Pune 411 004, India, 1995, 178 pp., bibliography, index, US$ 18.- post free, and of Introduction to Humanism, Indian Secular Society, 1996, 248 pp., US$ 15.- post free. The Indian Secular Society will also publish his Atheism in India. Another recent publication by Hiorth is Secularism in Sweden, Human-Etisk Forbund, St. Olavsgt. 27, N-0166 Oslo, Norway, 1995, 64 pp.

"Review of Geoffrey Scare's UTILITARIANISM" is copyright © 1997 by Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Finngeir Hiorth. All rights reserved.

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