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LIBERTY AND EQUALITY IN HEDONISTIC UTILITARIANISM 1. What is Utilitarianism? How should societies be organized? Should we have a democracy with competing political parties, or rule of a single party? Private property or common resources? Religious liberty or an established church; strong privacy rights? How much freedom of expression on political, scientific, cultural, and artistic issues? And what about the policy of a country toward other countries: how much support does one country owe to others? Answering these questions depends in part on empirical knowledge: it is hard to decide what the best tax system is without having some ideas about how people respond to tax rates, and hard to know which form of democracy is best without some ideas about how different forms work. But our answers also depend on our political principles and values: on a political morality. So what political morality should we use to guide our answers? According to the utilitarian tradition of moral and political thought— whose great exponents included Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill—the correct standard is the principle of utility, or "greatest happiness principle." This principle provides the sole ultimate standard of right and wrong conduct . Here is a relatively crisp statement of the principle: Principle of Utility: In any circumstances, that action ought to be done (is right) and that institution ought to obtain (is right) which, of all the alternatives available, produces the greatest net balance of happiness
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, Spring 2006—2 over unhappiness, when we sum happiness and unhappiness over all sentient beings, from now into the future. The crucial feature of utilitarian political morality is that it calls for the maximization of aggregate happiness : it is concerned only about happiness and unhappiness, and with respect to happiness, only about its sum—and not any particular distribution of happiness. It follows from this emphasis on aggregation that utilitarianism requires that we make simple trade-offs of the burdens on some people (say, slaves) and benefits to other people (say, masters). A large pleasure to a master outweighs a large—but not quite as large—burden of pain on a slave, no matter how severe the pain for the slave. The importance of an individual’s life for political morality, then, is exhausted by the amount of happiness in that life, and thus the contribution to the aggregate. 2. Two Reasons for Endorsing Utilitarianism Why might we endorse the principle of utility as the basis of our political philosophy? Two considerations are especially important to the utilitarian’s case for the principle. Consequentialism : Most fundamentally, the principle of utility represents a refinement of the intuitive idea that conduct and policy are right just in case they have the best overall results: Bentham said that “thinking men look to consequences.” Utilitarianism develops this consequentialist idea by identifying the goodness of an act’s consequences with the amount of happiness produced by the act.
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