Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Summum Bonum or Highest Good

Our first History and Context of Journalism lecture of the term reminded me of a philosophy class I had a couple of years ago. To be honest, I actually never heard of Utilitarianism before reading Russell's chapter about Bentham, and after reading it, my conclusion was that Bentham's philosophy was not totally new.

Since Antiquity, philosophers are seeking a way to happiness or what they use to call in Latin " Summum Bonum" which means the Highest Good. In Greece, there were two philosophical schools who both claimed they knew how to achieve happiness and the Highest Good; Stoicism and Epicureanism (300 B-D). Both schools were looking for ataraxia, which is a state of the mind where men have achieved wisdom and inner peace. According to Epicureanism, this is the definition of happiness. Contrary to many beliefs, Epicureans were not people who used to eat all day and have sex all night. They were looking for "simple" pleasures and reachable desires. They condemned all kinds of impossible desires which could only bring pain. They also praised morality and virtue, which they believed were essential to achieve ataraxia.

The Stoic school was the opponent of Epicureanism, although it seek the same result: ataraxia. Stoicists only believed in virtue to achieve the Highest Good. They preferred a life without passion, without desires, which only bring pain and unhappiness according to them. Pleasure is ephemeral, therefore it cannot contribute to happiness and the Highest Good since they're supposed to last forever. Virtue is the only path to ataraxia.

Much later, in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant came up with another theory on how to attain the Summum Bonum: men can only act morally if they are driven by the idea that God exists and that there's a life after death. Therefore, the thought of being judged after death by God "forces" them to behave properly. Thus, they will achieve the Highest Good in Heaven.

At the end of the 18th century, Bentham created the theory of Utilitarianism: to achieve the Highest Good, men have to behave morally, but they also have to think of their actions' consequences. The action has to benefit as many people as possible. If the action does more harm than good, therefore it's not moral. The "innovation" in Bentham's theory is that it's no longer focused on one single human being: he wants the society to attain the Highest Good. Providing that most people act in a way that won't harm other people, society will probably reach a higher level of happiness. However, some might dispute that this theory could be valid. It could be argued that it's in human nature to be selfish and to seek its own benefit before others'.


JargonJoker said...

Your statements on the Epicurean and Stoic movements are most helpful to a broader understanding of the utilitarian perspective; it shows how happiness can be focused on the relative needs of an individual and not the common population.
I think Bentham had a good idea going, but there were others like Hobbes who considered all humans to be selfish, as you said. Kant seems to have adopted the right approach as far as morality is concerned, and I think a lot of people forget how beneficial a worshipping of God can be for some people.

Chris Horrie said...

Fascinating that Bentham is not studied in France. He is massive here, and we do a little less on him because we have decided to steer the HCJ course slightly away from economics and more towards history and the arts, given the limits we have on time. Utilitarianism is important because it is the foundation of technical economics - he goes further thanthe pre-socratics to postulate actual measurable units of utility; this then becomes the foundation of the objective analysis of consumer demand in the the supply and demand equations which are the foundation of technical microeconomics, price theory and free-market economics. We would highlight Bentham and the 'Manchester School' liberals as well if we were doing more economics, but thre is on ly so much we can do. I like talking about economics best of all - Adam Smith. We do a little bit about JM Keynes in year two; but that's the most of it - the core of the course is around perception, truth, ethics, etc - not the lovely Anglo-Saxon world of economics. It is like Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic - "a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing" = Bentham.

On the pre-socratics - we look at them mainly in connection with Nietzsche next year. For the rest of HCJ-1 we will stay within the mental universe of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates - though after the consideration of Aristotle's views on women last week I can see why people might be anxious to get rid of Aristotle!

Chris Horrie said...

Here's a quick thing about the Manchester School if you want to go into it more. These were the sdame people who set up The Guadian newspaper; which was the 'national newspaper' of manchester and the north. Too bad in the 19th century Manchester did not separate from the UK to form its own republic - we could have joined Abe Lincoln's Republican Army and fought the slave oweners and led by a latter-day Napoleon driven slavery off the face of the earth, and not just the southern USA. The main civic monument in Manchester is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, erected by the penny subscriptions of workers in the cotton cloth factories during the American Civil War. Sorry - I don't know how I got on to this - but I was just provoked into a burst of Mancuniuan Patriotism for some reason.

Chris Horrie said...

And now the actual link...

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