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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


October 3rd, 1999.

"Right and Wrong."

The question of what is right or wrong is at the basis of a theory known as Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a theory in that branch of philosophy known as ethics, the theory that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the goodness or badness of its consequences. Or, in John Stewart Mill's words: "The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness."1 The founder of this theory, Jeremy Bentham, held that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the fundamental and self-evident principle of morality.

So, what's wrong with that?

I quote the eminent jurist, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen: "Speaking generally, the acts which are called right do promote or are supposed to promote general happiness, and the acts which are called wrong do diminish or are supposed to diminish it."2 Supposing there is such a universal thing as right or wrong, then the question becomes for the moralist, how are we to distinguish the one from the other? In the larger universe, what indeed? Stephen continues: "The utilitarian answer is, that the knowledge or right and wrong does not differ from other branches of knowledge, and must be acquired in the same way. An instructive moralist would say that there is a special function of the mind - namely, conscience - which recognizes at once the specific difference which is alleged to exist between them ..." The utilitarians, however, deny an individual's conscious is the ultimate test. We must reach, they say, out into the universe beyond the collection of individuals, individuals with differing views; and, somehow, come to this universal "standard" -- as elusive, undulating, and impalpable in nature as it may be. The difficulty, is, of course, any standard struck must come from a particular human mind, versus, a divine mind. What is asked by the utilitarians is that one should eschew their own personal standard in favour of a standard set by another, or others.

_______________________________
FOOTNOTES:

[1] Utilitarianism (1863), ch. 2.

[2] Extracted from Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873).

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Peter Landry

October, 1999 (2011)