Utilitarianism, a philosophy first espoused by Jeremy Bentham, embodies an important set of concepts in that it coincided with the re-thinking of what we know as liberalism. The liberalism of the early 19th century was a product of classical economics; it was the ideology of laissez-faire and the free market. However, utilitarianism was to offer an alternate set of opinions regarding the role of government in society; utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill questioned some of the more libertarian principles espoused by British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This set of principles implored government to take a pro-active role in providing a quality standard of living to the majority of the people living within the society. Unlike socialism and other contemporaneous ideas, however, utilitarianism had implicit constraints; it was to inspire the 'progressive' liberalism of the 20th century and result in the modern concept of liberalism as an ideology that sometimes sacrificed individual liberty for a perceived common good.
Born in 1748 to a wealthy British conservative family, Bentham was discovered to be a child prodigy. While studying law at Oxford, he became critical of the system of laws in place in Britain and instead advocated a system that would provide the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers. At the time, the legal process in Britain was characterized by a struggle between the Tory or Conservative party, and the Whig party, or Liberals. Tories championed the interests of the country's landed aristocracy, whereas Whigs represented the interests of merchants and industrialists. Before the influence of the Chartists in the 1830's, the poor, un-enfranchised residents of England's growing urban industrial centers had little or no political representation. The promise of immigration (or threat of expulsion) to the Americas acted as a safety valve that prevented political unrest in Britain.
Bentham published his first major work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, in 1789. In this work, Bentham explores the principle of utility and its implications for legislatures. Here Bentham contends that moral guidelines should dictate the principles employed in the formation of laws by a legislature. Bentham believed that laws that provided the best life for the most people were morally defensible, whereas laws that protected partisan interests or reflected outdated, parochial principles were illogical or immoral.
Among the first institutions of public life to be affected in Britain by Bentham's work was the legal system, which had relied extensively on historical precedent. Bentham's writings on the nature of law put many enlightenment ideas in context, and were applicable in the courts. Because courts were dominated in Britain as they are in English speaking countries by the application of common law, the methodologies Bentham used to explore the moral valence of political action were well received.
John Stuart Mill, born in 1806, was another child prodigy, and is considered Bentham's intellectual heir. His father brought up Mill with Bentham's help, shielded from the influence of other children and immersed in an environment rich with political thought. By the time that Mill was a young man, he was skilled in the classics and in the nuances of political economics. England at the time was a hotbed of political thought. The Anti-Corn Law League, comprised of advocates of the theory of free trade developed by Smith and Ricardo, was considered by many intellectuals to be a lone moral voice at a time when aristocratic English agricultural interests dominated the legislature. Their power was buttressed by an antiquated system of power distribution in the legislature that failed to appoint Members of Parliament on the basis of population. These interests had severely restricted the import of grain to famine-stricken Ireland, at the expense of millions of lives.
It is in this context that John Stuart Mill wrote his seminal work, On Liberty. Mill begins On Liberty with a discussion of the political system that relates the concepts of enumerated political rights and constitutional limits through an analogy that uses vultures preying on the politically weak. Here Mill not only talks of the necessity of liberties, but of the rational limits that should be placed on their application. This he refers to as deciding "how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control;" (Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1) in many respects it is the perennial dilemma addressed by all legislatures in all democratic societies.
Here Mill argues that reason, objectivity and circumspection should dictate the extent to which the liberties of individuals are limited by their government. These, he argues, should represent an appeal to the common good and to mutually held principles of justice. Mill defends freedom only to the extent that they do not cause people to cause harm to each other:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." (Mill, Chapter 2)
It is interesting that Mill has no qualms about people who hurt themselves; several years ago the Economist used this quote to argue in favor of the legalization of Marijuana J.S. Mill was most notable in that he provided a synthesis of Bentham's ideas and classical liberal thought, although his liberalism was a modified one that sought to specify when and where there was a moral justification for placing limitations on liberty. It fell to others to take this proposition further; Compte and Rawls and others were to extend Mill's compromise of liberalism, deriving redistributionist principles.
Born in 1756, William Godwin was a chronological contemporary of Bentham, and considered more of an influence on later anarchists than a proponent of utilitarianism. Godwin was influenced by the republican thought of the French revolution and opposed monarchies. Godwin started his life as a Calvinist minister but found the tenants of this denomination to be too quick to damn people for their actions. Godwin argued the opposite; that mankind was a perfectible being. This idea had been denounced as heretical by the early church but had gained some recognition in the fourth century: its main proponent was Pelagius, a Christian scholar from pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain. However, Godwin's dissatisfaction with Calvinism was to make him one of Britain's most prominent atheists. While still a minister, Godwin's friend Joseph Fawcet introduced him to the republican ideas that were taking hold in France. Inspired by the principles of the Encyclopaedists, Godwin went to London in 1782 with the objective of overthrowing all existing political, social and religious institutions.
Godwin joined a group called the Revolutionists and the idealistic principle that there are no principles. Godwin believed that mankind could obtain perfection through rationality and would thenceforth no longer need government. In this respect he was a utopian although his radical anti-authoritarianism set him apart from Thomas More and others. Godwin was principally opposed to violence. He idealistically stated that "our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world." (Wikipedia: Godwin) An Enquiry concerning Political Justice and its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, published in 1793, was Godwin's seminal exposition of anarchist thought. The title sufficiently summarizes the content. Here he traced all vice to the influence of political institutions: whereas the utilitarians advocated rational political institutions, Godwin believed that men behaved irrationally because such institutions led them to stray from reason.
This idealistic, perfectionist rationality was very different from the pragmatic re-assessment of society prescribed by the likes of Bentham and Mill. Whereas utilitarian principles were to be woven into the framework of the English legislature as they addressed relevant problems, Godwin's anarcho-perfectionist dreams were to be tested and proven wrong by Robert Owen, an anarcho-socialist that founded several communities in England and America that reflected his radical beliefs. These communities failed because anarcho-socialist communities were left without a recourse for the resolution of disputes that did not implicitly condone the use of force.
One of the principle disciples of Godwin was his lovely wife, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Like many feminists, Wollstonecraft had an abusive father and an unhappy childhood. She was enraged by the English response to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, one of the most prominent Tories and a man many consider to be the father of classical conservativism, had derided the French and their Revolution. This inspired Wollstonecraft to write a response to Burke's response to the revolution. She then responded to Burke's chief ideological opponent and prominent Republican Thomas Paine, which she entitled
Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Here she argued ideas that have since become common sense: that women essentially exist under the heel of mankind, and that they have a right to thwart male oppression just as men have a right to thwart arbitrary royal oppression. She then became suicidally depressed after her American boyfriend dissed her and remained so until her spirits were rescued…