Positivism and Utilitarianism

“Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouse, strewn with many a philosophic wreck,” said Kant, and the Positivists decided to do away with this dark ocean, which had swallowed up the philosophers of the past and their philosophies. Positivism began as a reaction to metaphysics. It is a philosophy based on the experience and empirical knowledge of natural phenomena. It restricts philosophical inquiry to the scientific problems, and treating philosophy as not something very different from science. Positivists believe that the aim of philosophy is the coordination and synthesis of the results of all the different fields of science. Like Bacon, they profess all scientific knowledge as their province. They simply attempt to describe the phenomena observed without going into the epistemological inquiry of whether they exist or not.

The founder of Positivism was a French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who is also the founder of sociology. Comte’s major work is the Course of Positive Philosophy. He classified sciences according to decreasing simplicity and generality: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. He maintained that human thought in all subjects of knowledge followed the Law of Three Stages. At first, there is the theological stage, in which every phenomenon is explained in terms of will of one or more deities, which are mythological supernatural beings. Next comes the metaphysical stage in which metaphysics replaces religion and the phenomena are explained in abstract philosophical concepts. But this too is an inadequate and imperfect stage of knowledge. Last of all comes the positive stage, in which science gains superiority over metaphysical philosophy and all phenomena are explained in terms of cause and effect. All sciences pass through these stages. Mathematics was the first to arrive at positive stage, while sociology is the last to reach it. It is now the task of philosophy to establish sociology as a science.

Positivism moved from France to England, where John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) contributed to its development. Spencer’s most important work is A System of Synthetic Philosophy, which is spread over ten volumes, and can be treated as an encyclopedia of Positivism. Spencer systematized the positivist philosophy around the central concept of evolution. It was Spencer, and not Darwin, who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Spencer defines evolution as “a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, accompanying the dissipation of motion and integration of matter.” The formation of planets from the primal nebula, the evolution of multicellular plants and animals from unicellular life, the creation of society from individuals, this is the ‘integration of matter’, and as it becomes more and more integrated, the individual parts show less and less motion. The nebula was incoherent and homogeneous, but from it evolved human beings whose individual tissues and organs show a magnificent coherence and heterogeneity. Spencer discusses the evolution of life, of mind and last of all, the evolution of human society.

“The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modelled, by the most profound wisdom of patriots and legislators,”[1] announced David Hume as an early proponent of Utilitarianism. The end of 18th century and the outset of 19th century saw the rise of the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, which is perhaps one of the most popular ethical theories. Utilitarianism attempts to define the ethical worth of an action on the basis of its utility value or its usefulness. Most followers of utilitarianism described happiness as the ultimate goal of an action. Hedonistic utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill analyzed happiness as a pleasure over pain. However, in 20th century, the famous British philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958) believed in ideal utilitarianism that apart from pleasure many kinds of consciousness such as love, knowledge, and the experience of beauty are to be included in the utility value of an action.

Bentham believed that an action is not intrinsically good or bad, but that it is to be determined by its consequences i.e. how much pleasure it produces. Bentham believed that a hedonistic calculus was theoretically possible by which hedonistic value of any human action can be calculated by taking into account factors like intensity and duration of the pleasure produced. But Bentham believes in the happiness of the whole community, not just an individual, and hence the goal of an action is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Bentham maintained that the justification of the criminal law in a community was to coincide the interests of an individual and the interests of the community. For example, stealing is in the interest of the individual but not in the interest of community. By setting up a punishment for theft, stealing is no longer of benefit to the thief, and hence both the interests of the individual and community lie in the same direction.

The utilitarianism based on greatest happiness of greatest number works something like this: To determine the ethical worth of an action, analyze how much happiness it leads to in every person, and add this happiness. The act that leads to the maximum total happiness is the one that we ought to do.

A number of assumptions can be found beneath this doctrine, such as: actions are not intrinsically good or bad, that all people are equal and their happiness is to be judged on equal level, and that it is possible to measure happiness on some sort of a linear scale, and then it is possible to ‘add up’ the happiness of different people into a total happiness. These assumptions are themselves not beyond dispute and are open to debate. For example, if you, just for the fun of it, tell lies about an acquaintance to a friend, and you both have a good laugh, and forget it. This action has no other consequence apart from the pleasure you derive from it. Does it mean that there is no harm in doing so? Don’t we feel as if there is something intrinsically bad about lying? Then consider the question of equality; is the happiness of a rapist to be judged equal and desirable to the happiness of a noble doctor? And can happiness really be measured and compared? How can we ever compare the joy derived from love, the pleasure of aesthetic contemplation, the satisfaction of having a bank account filled with money, a monarch’s pleasure in having power over subjects, a mathematician’s joy of solving a difficult problem, a father’s happiness at the achievement of his son? Is there any linear scale by which we can judge and compare this diversity of modes of pleasure? As is apparent, these assumptions are not as obvious as they might appear at first glance.

Consider a hypothetical situation in which you can subject your neighbor to extreme brutal torture and by doing so you will relieve a billion people from a minute’s toothache. To judge whether this action is desirable or not, a utilitarian will just ‘add up’ the satisfaction of billion people from cessation of toothache, and compare it with the pain of your neighbor, and if the pleasure is in excess, it means that the action is justified. Is this result morally acceptable?

As is the case with all ethical theories, no basic axiom of any ethical theory can be rationally proved. Ethics basically has an appeal to our emotions and feelings, and there are no objective moral facts, or if there are, reason can’t reach them. The preferment of an ethical theory is based on one’s temperament, not pure reason. What reason can judge about any ethical theory is whether it is logically self-consistent or not. An ethical opinion can only be justified on the basis of an ethical axiom, but if that axiom is not accepted, there is no means of arriving at a rational conclusion.


[1] Essays Moral, Political, and Literary