NOTE: I can’t and won’t go into each utilitarian theory of justice. Books like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s Republic lay out some principles that we attribute to later philosophers (including Smith’s specialization, Hume’s Fork, Marx’s classes, and the Social Contract). This page tries to acknowledge 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 the main theme of their works. In fact, taking everyone from Plato to Mill, to Rawls at their word, we can say the greatest happiness theory is the main theme of moral philosophy. It holds the answers to mammoth questions like “what is justice,” “what is the point of life,” “how should the state be structured,” and other questions. 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, which don’t accept the realist idea that “the ends always justify the means” with no other moral considerations, and Virtue ethics, which treats virtue as a human property and has a more idealistic approach. TIP: Not all justifications needed to understand the nuances of ethics theory are given in this paragraph, but that is “the gist.”
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.
Why is it that the history of the Utilitarian / Consequentialist / Greatest Happiness theory stretches from the start of philosophy to today? We can state the obvious, because when one applies reason and empathy and thought long enough to the questions that surround moral philosophy, we tend to find some sort of greatest happiness theory that says, “happiness is the point of life.” See the essay for a detailed explanation, 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 same happiness theories, but it is no less than staggering that moral theory/virtue theory has remained so consistent since 300’s B.C.
Aristotle’s thoughts on “the ends” of the state were that happiness for the state, “the arete of the state,” was the greatest end of happiness for the most people. It was known as the Greatest Happiness Theory and 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.
If the above excerpt from Aristotle’s Ethics isn’t a greatest happiness theory, I don’t know what is. Pair this with the idea that Aristippus and Epicurus both focused on hedonistic happiness (like pleasure and healing pain) and we can most certainly say “the Greeks provided the basis for the modern Utilitarian / Consequentialist / Greatest Happiness theories”.
We can still say Bentham and Mill are the founders of modern Utilitarian theory, properly defining this gem of philosophy for a modern audience, but not to credit the Greek roots is a little short sighted. We know Bentham and Mill read the greeks, I’d assume most philosophers have.
Author: Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...