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Durham University

Department of Philosophy

Staff

Publication details for Professor Geoffrey Scarre

Scarre, Geoffrey (2018). Utilitarianism and Evil. In The History of Evil in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries 1700-1900 CE. Hedley, Douglas, Meister, Chad & Taliaferro, Charles Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 4: 118-135.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

“Utilitarianism” is the name of a family of ethical theories that take as the yardstick of moral appraisal the propensity of acts to increase or decrease human well-being (or, more generally, the well-being of all sentient creatures). Emerging to prominence in the European Enlightenment, utilitarianism was, and continues to this day to be, a secular, pragmatic and humane philosophy which favours reason and experience rather than religion or tradition as the paramount guides to the ethical life. For utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), the proper end of action, for individuals and institutions alike, was the promotion of happiness and the reduction of pain. For Bentham, acts possessed “utility” when they served to “produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this … comes to the same thing), or what also comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered” (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 126). And since, according to utilitarianism, no one’s happiness or misery counts for more or less than anyone else’s, whose interest is in question is irrelevant. The important thing is to advance “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” – an uncompromising egalitarian stance that predictably raised enemies for utilitarianism from the start.