The Origin of Normative Ethics and its Theories (like the Greatest Happiness Theories of Utilitarianism and Consequentialism)
Although we can consider Jeremy Bentham the founder of modern Utilitarianism, and his successor John Stuart Mill the one who popularized it, early Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Aristippus and Epicurus presented the original Utilitarian / Consequentialist / Greatest Happiness theories. Or more specifically, Greeks like Plato and Aristotle laid the foundation of normative ethics.
NOTE: I can’t and won’t go into each utilitarian theory of justice, but the general note here is that books like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s Republic lay out a ton of principles we attribute to later philosophers (including Smith’s specialization, Hume’s Fork, Marx’s classes, and the Social Contract), and this page is just to trying to bring awareness to that. Beyond this, it is up to the reader to explore these works and understand that this “greatest happiness” theory wasn’t just coined by the Greeks, it was generally a main theme of their works. In fact, taking everyone from Plato, to Mill, to Rawls at their word, we can say this greatest happiness theory is generally a main theme of moral philosophy, holding the answers to mammoth questions like “what is justice”, “what is the point of life”, “how should the state be structured”, and more. For more reading, see: Utilitarian Theory: How to Understand Fairness.
What is Utilitarian / Consequentialist / Greatest Happiness Theory? Each is a slightly different name for the general theory that “that which does the most good (the most happiness) for the most people is the best”. This theory generally ranks spiritual and intellectual happiness (higher orders) over lower order animal happiness (why the world shouldn’t be run by pleasure seeking and vices). There are many sub-types to this theory, including vitally, “rule-“, “act-“, and “two-level-” versions which allow room to create “mixed” theories that embrace Deontological ethics (theories that don’t just accept the realist idea that “the ends always justify the means” with no other moral considerations) and Virtue ethics (theories that treat virtue as a human property; a more idealist approach). TIP: Not all justifications needed to understand the nuances of ethics theory are given in this paragraph, but that is “the gist”.
An Introduction to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – A Macat Philosophy Analysis.
Two Kinds of Hedonism (Aristippus and Epicurus). The Hedonist theories of happiness aren’t exactly the same as the more intellectual theory of Mill who puts atheistic pleasures on the lower rung of the ladder. But any reasonable creature can see clearly, both types of happiness must play into a proper moral theory. It isn’t “Either/Or”.
An Introduction to John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism – A Macat Politics Analysis.
TIP: Anyone else think it is strange that two of the most important works in political philosophy are Nico-mach-ean ethics and the works of Niccolò Machiavelli?
Proving the Greeks are the Fathers of the Greatest Happiness Theory
This isn’t hard to prove, I mean the very first thing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics does is present a greatest happiness theory for the state (what we can call “the arete of the polis”, “the ideal city state” in botched Greek).
From the Greeks on we can also find “greatest happiness” theories in other philosophical founders from Augustine, who wrote that “all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness”, to Aquinas who presented many Summa-rys related to happiness in his works.
Later, we can see these same theories reflected in the works of thinkers like Machiavelli, Kant, and Locke, and then reflected in the governments of some of history’s favorite Republics and their more benevolent policies.
Kant & Categorical Imperatives: Crash Course Philosophy #35. The happiness theory is so deeply rooted in the philosophies that there are near endless examples, I dig Kant and Mill’s takes… and CrashCourse agreed enough to make a few videos on it. So lets start with these.
Utilitarianism: Crash Course Philosophy #36.
Why is it that the history of the Utilitarian / Consequentialist / Greatest Happiness theory stretches from the start of philosophy to today? Well, now we can state the obvious… because when one applies reason and empathy and thought long enough to the questions that surround moral philosophy… it tends to result in some sort of greatest happiness theory that generally says, “happiness is the point of life” (see essay for detailed explainer, or see an essay on utilitarianism and fairness).
The general gist is simple, the centuries of nuance and thought and debate that have gone on aren’t. No, Aristotle and Mill don’t have exact same happiness theories, but it is no less than staggering that moral theory / virtue theory has remained so consistent since 300’s B.C.
“Plato’s Vision of the Ideal State” – Ancient Philosophy, Video 18. Plato also talked about “the ideal state”.
Aristotle on “the ends” of the state (happiness for the state, “the arete of the state”, being the greatest ends of happiness for the most people… AKA, Greatest Happiness Theory as presented in 350 BC in the first two chapters of one of the most famous books of philosophy of all time Nicomachean Ethics.
Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.