Doubts about Track Record Arguments for Utilitarianism

2022-02-12 • 12 min read • comment via EAF


Utilitarians occasionally submit as evidence in favour of their philosophy the fact that early utilitarians were advocates for social and political positions that have now become norms. One example among many, from the authors of

While not constituting an argument per se, it is worth noting that utilitarian moral reasoning has a strong track record of contributing to humanity’s collective moral progress. […] As a progressive social reformer, Jeremy Bentham defended issues such as the separation of church and state; the abolition of slavery and of capital punishment; legal regulations to protect criminals and non-human animals from cruel treatment; and the decriminalization of homosexuality. […] John Stuart Mill defended the provision of social welfare for the poor and of freedom of speech. He was the second MP in the UK Parliament to call for women’s suffrage and advocated for gender equality more generally. […] Henry Sidgwick advocated for women’s education and the freedom of education from religious doctrines.

They conclude that, though early utilitarians “were still far from getting everything right, their utilitarian reasoning led them to escape many of the moral prejudices of their time and reach more enlightened moral and political positions”. (They do write that this is not an “argument per se”. I’m not sure what they mean by that. The OED says that an argument is “a reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory”. The track record as presented does seem like a reason given in support of utilitarianism, so I will call it an argument in this post, with the reservation that I may be missing some subtlety.)

Or here in Peter Singer’s words, from this interview:

I think utilitarianism […] is actually a reforming impulse. […] Bentham and [later] utilitarians have been against slavery, they’ve been for women’s rights. They’ve been for the rights of gay people long before anybody else dared to even talk about that. They’ve been against cruelty to animals. They’ve been for prison reform. There’s a long list of things that utilitarians have been trying to reduce the amount of suffering in relation to and I’m very happy to be part of that tradition and to think of utilitarianism not merely as something for philosophers to talk about, but something that motivates people to act.

(And he is too modest to mention it, but of course we can add to that illustrious list Singer’s own work on animal welfare and global poverty.)

This is a somewhat different version, where the track record doesn’t show that utilitarianism is correct, exactly, but that it’s useful – that it produces good outcomes. But it has in common with the first that the track record is given as a reason in support of utilitarianism.

Summary #

I think it’s true that early utilitarians were better on social and political issues than e.g. Kant and his followers. However,

  1. I think this (implied) difference is exaggerated (70% confidence); and
  2. I think this tells us very little about the soundness of the utilitarian philosophy (75% confidence).

I base (2) mainly on three points:

Why the Difference between Utilitarians and Kantians May Be Exaggerated #

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) are sometimes contrasted with a dour, inflexible Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). (I’m using Kantian ethics here because that is what I know better, but you can probably do similar exercises with other moral theories.) Kant wrote some outrageously racist things. He made worrying remarks about women. He argued that animals were not ends in themselves and that we therefore had no duties towards them (but also that abusing them violates a duty we have to our humanity). In short, he harboured prejudices.

It is also true that he tempered his view on other peoples late in life, and in Perpetual Peace (1795) argued forcefully against slavery and European colonialism (Kleingeld 2007, 2014; Kant and Smith 1903). In that same work, he advocated world peace, representative government, the hospitable treatment of foreigners and the instituting of an international federation not unlike the United Nations (Kant and Smith 1903). About colonialism, he wrote:

The injustice which [civilised nations] exhibit on visiting foreign lands and races – this being equivalent in their eyes to conquest – is such as to fill us with horror. America, the negro countries, the Spice Islands, the Cape etc. were, on being discovered, looked upon as countries which belonged to nobody; for the native inhabitants were reckoned as nothing. In Hindustan, under the pretext of intending to establish merely commercial depots, the Europeans introduced foreign troops; and, as a result, the different states of Hindustan were stirred up to far-spreading wars. Oppression of the natives followed, famine, insurrection, perfidy and all the rest of the litany of evils which can afflict mankind. (Kant and Smith 1903)

Like Mill, Kant supported free speech (although he didn’t champion it like Mill did; Niesen 2018). Like Bentham, Kant supported the separation of church and state (although he didn’t champion it like Bentham did; Guyer 2018).

Followers of Kant have also taken admirable stances. For example:

On the flip side, John Stuart Mill (an employee of the British East India Company for 35 years) actively supported the Empire’s colonial endeavours, advocating – with considerable influence – a kind of technocratic, benevolent “vigorous despotism” (his words; Habibi 2018; Mill 1859). Jeremy Bentham invented and devoted a great deal of energy to the Panopticon; he seems not to have been bothered by what we now call intrusive surveillance and invasion of privacy (Semple 1993). Henry Sidgwick seems to have been wishy-washy at best on British imperialism and the question of race (Schultz 2004).

Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick were all great men who did far more than their contemporaries to make the world a better place. My point is just that mentioning only the great things that only these men did produces a skewed picture, and that the difference between utilitarians and Kantians in this regard may be smaller than many people think.

Why Track Record Arguments Probably Aren’t that Useful #

Arguments about Truth via Usefulness #

Let’s suppose that a moral philosophy is something that can be true (or something like true) – that its truth, as Bernard Williams put it, is written in the stars. What I’m concerned with here is whether utilitarianism is true (or plausible), not whether it is useful in an achieving-your-goals kind of way to believe it. The track record argument might say that utilitarianism is good because it produces good outcomes (in the form of views); and maybe producing good outcomes implies that a moral theory is true or plausible. Maybe the object-level views function as a sanity check for the general principles.

Actually, however, this interpretation seems to presuppose consequentialism, as if to say, one reason that it is useful to believe that only good outcomes matter morally is because doing so produces good outcomes. It’s a kind of willing into existence, which reminds me of Codadad in One Thousand and One Nights:

And his mother said to him, “O my son, since it seems good to thee, go; but how wilt thou declare thyself to thy father, or cause him to believe thy word, seeing that he is ignorant of thy birth?” Codadad answered, “I will so declare myself by my deeds that before my father knows the truth he shall wish that it were true.” (The Arabian Nights 1924)

Ok, but maybe you can argue that the track record of utilitarians is better than that of Kantians even by the standards of Kantian ethics. I think you can make a convincing argument that a Kantian ethics demands – among other things – the abolition of slavery, freedom of speech and the treatment of animals as ends in themselves, even if Kant himself sometimes fell short. Now we no longer need to assert consequentialism, as we rest our case on Kantian grounds. But this, if anything, seems to bolster the case for Kantianism, suggesting as it does that it prescribes the sort of views that we now find admirable.

Maybe utilitarianism’s advantage is not in prescribing the right sorts of actions, but in motivating people – regardless of its truth or plausibility – to act and do good. This seems to be what Singer is arguing in the quote I reproduced. I think that might be true? “The idea of doing a lot of good has a lot of appeal.” And of course I consider myself an effective altruist, think effective altruism is great and am aware of utilitarianism’s influence on it. But as far as I can tell there is no a priori reason to think that a true/plausible moral system is more motivating or vice versa than a false/implausible one. Whereas, a posteriori I can think of a great deal of examples of people who have been very motivated morally and at once also very wrong morally, e.g. fanatic members of every totalitarian party or religious death cult ever.

Arguments about Truth Alone #

Here are some interpretations of the argument that don’t take a detour through usefulness.

First, we can get around those problems by arguing that, while both utilitarianism and Kantian ethics mostly lead to the admirable views that early utilitarians held, utilitarianism seems to do so faster or more reliably than Kantianism. We can argue that, in the long run, moral progress tends (asymptotically perhaps) towards truth (or something like truth), and early utilitarians were mostly “on the right side of history”, as people say. So the history of morality is a kind of race, and utilitarianism is nitrous oxide.

I have two things to say about that. The first is that, quite possibly, moral progress has little to do with the development of moral ideas. Maybe something like the thriving/surviving theory of politics explains both why society became more tolerant and why ethics started getting more impartial and universal. I think this is really nebulous and it would be very difficult for us to know either way.

The second thing is that there’s another potential confounder here. Early utilitarians were Anglo-Saxons, whereas Kant and his followers were German. Maybe utilitarianism was just lucky to be born into a more advanced and tolerant culture?

Take for example animal rights. The parliament of Ireland passed one of the first known animal welfare laws in 1635. Massachusetts passed one in 1641. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) “articulate[d] the idea of animal rights”; she wrote: “As for man, who hunts all animals to death […] is he not more cruel and wild than any bird of prey?” (Donovan 1990) Anne Finch (1631-1679) argued against the mechanistic view of animal nature, writing that animals had “knowledge, sense, and love, and divers other faculties and properties of a spirit” (Donovan 1990). In 1751, the artist William Hogarth made four engravings that showed a boy torturing animals and gradually becoming a thief and a murderer of humans. In 1776 – and we are still five years away from Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation – Humphrey Primatt published A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals. I’m not aware of a similar consciousness of animal rights issues in Germany before or during Kant’s time; the earliest sign I was able to find was Wilhelm Dietler’s Justice Towards Animals which was published in 1787, when Kant would have been 63.

Or take women’s rights. Mill completed The Subjection of Women in 1861 and published it in 1869. But Anne Knight was campaigning for women’s rights in the 1840s. Elizabeth Fry worked to aid imprisoned women and girls in the 1810s. And, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Now, Bentham’s Principles was published in 1781. But before even that we had Margaret Fell (1614-1702), an important figure in early Quakerism who argued that women should be allowed as ministers, and Bathsua Makin (ca 1600-ca 1675) who advocated for women’s education and the equality of the sexes. Does there not seem to have been something in the English water? Whereas, in Germany, my impression is that these ideas didn’t get real currency until relatively late; that, in fact, the women’s rights movement in Germany, when it did get underway, did so partly under the influence of Angle-Saxon thought (including that of Bentham and Mill) (Weedon 2006).

Again, I don’t mean to take anything away from Bentham or Mill, who were on the whole very virtuous and forward-thinking. My point is that there are larger forces at work, plausibly affecting both object-level views and more abstract moral theories, such that it’s hard to draw any conclusions about causality between those two.

Here is a final interpretation. You could argue from a reliabilist perspective and say that Bentham’s, Mill’s and Sidgwick’s accuracy on social and political issues shows that they are rigorous moral thinkers, and that this should increase our confidence that they were also right about utilitarianism.[2] Objection 1: Mill almost literally inherited utilitarianism from his father and his father’s friend, Jeremy Bentham (Capaldi 2004).[3] Objection 2: There is and has been a great deal of disagreement in the field of moral philosophy, with many smart and rigorous thinkers arguing for any of utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, Christian ethics, etc. – how do we choose which seemingly reliable thinkers to trust when there is so much disagreement? Objection 3: This does not address potentially confounding variables; the utilitarians might have been better on object-level issues due to their environment, or because they had more compassionate dispositions, say, and not because they were in some broad sense more reliable.

More generally, it seems really difficult to know much about whether a person’s view is the result of another of that person’s views. It’s true that we can look at what that person has said or written about their reasons for believing a thing. But people often give post-hoc rationalisations when providing reasons for things they believe, sometimes without even noticing (Baron 2000). It also happens that people have moral impulses at a fairly young age, before they would have done much thinking about moral philosophy, and then formulate those impulses in the language of moral philosophy once they are older. For example, Bentham reports first becoming aware of and attuned to women’s issues at age 11 (Williford 1975). Then, years later, he presented much more sophisticated (and utilitarian) arguments in this direction. But what effect did utilitarianism have? It seems hard to tell.

There is one other problem that I have neglected to mention. It is that we are dealing with a sample size of a handful of people. That means random variation might have produced any number of counterfactual scenarios that would point towards the opposite conclusion, or show no pattern at all. Some ideas are probably just lucky/unlucky to have been invented by a person whose disposition or environment makes them more/less likely to have good object-level views. In the absence of more data, it seems hard to rule out the possibility that this is just noise.

Conclusion #

I am no philosopher, let alone a moral one. When it comes to meta-ethics (and everything else), I still have a lot of reading and learning to do. So it’s certainly possible that I have missed some or other interpretation of the track record argument. Neither am I a historian, and it seems equally possible that I have missed or misread some or other relevant historical fact. But I am still somewhat confident in thinking that track record arguments tell us very little about the soundness of utilitarianism, mainly because I think the confounding variable of culture, the small sample size and the objections to the various interpretations I’ve covered in the previous section take most of the force out of it.

Am I proving too much? Am I proving, for example, that the track record of Nazism has nothing to say about the soundness of the Nazi worldview? I think it depends. I think, for example, that one of its parts, antisemitism, does clearly have a terrible track record, as it pre-existed modern German culture and as it seems to have led to pogroms in many different places and at many different times – there is a lot of evidence there, including of causality – and for that reason, its track record casts a black shadow over it. In that sense (and many others) it’s different from utilitarianism. But with the ideas of someone like Carl Schmitt, who walked hand-in-hand with anti-liberal forces, I think it’s harder to say what caused what. The Nazi worldview is noxious and mistaken, but I don’t think we needed the NSDAP experiment to know that. You can (and people did) see it from within.

References #

Baron, Jonathan. 2000. Thinking and Deciding. Cambridge University Press.
Capaldi, Nicholas. 2004. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Cambridge University Press.
Donovan, Josephine. 1990. “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15 (2): 350–75.
Edgar, Scott. 2010. “Hermann Cohen.”
Forster, Michael. 2001. “Johann Gottfried von Herder.”
Guyer, Paul. 2018. “Mendelssohn, Kant, and Religious Liberty.” Kant-Studien 109 (2): 309–28.
Habibi, Don A. 2018. “Mill on Colonialism.” In A Companion to Mill, 518–32. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hussain, Nadeem J. Z., and Lydia Patton. 2021. “Friedrich Albert Lange.”
Kant, Immanuel, and Mary Campbell Smith. 1903. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay. Wildside Press.
Kleingeld, Pauline. 2007. “Kant’s Second Thoughts on Race.” The Philosophical Quarterly 57 (229): 573–92.
———. 2014. “Kant’s Second Thoughts on Colonialism.” In Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives, edited by Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi, 43–67. Oxford University Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1859. Considerations on Representative Government. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.
Niesen, Peter. 2018. “Kant and Rawls on Free Speech in Autocracies.” Kantian Review 23 (4): 615–40.
Schultz, Bart. 2004. Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography. Cambridge University Press.
Semple, Janet. 1993. Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. Clarendon Press.
Teo, Thomas. 2002. “Friedrich Albert Lange on Neo-Kantianism, Socialist Darwinism, and a Psychology without a Soul.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 38 (3): 285–301.
The Arabian Nights. 1924. Hodder and Stoughton.
Weedon, Chris. 2006. Gender, Feminism, & Fiction in Germany, 1840-1914. Vol. 5. Peter Lang.
Williford, Miriam. 1975. “Bentham on the Rights of Women.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1): 167.

Footnotes #

  1. Admittedly, his ethics is apparently derived from Kant’s early ideas (Forster 2001), which are, I think, different from what we usually talk about when we talk about “Kantian ethics” these days. ↩︎

  2. I don’t think this is what people actually intend when they mention utilitarianism’s track record. I think they are saying that these views are good, and that they are the products of utilitarianism – that utilitarianism is good because it helped lead Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick to good views or impactful advocacy on object-level issues, not that utilitarianism seems true because Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick are rigorous thinkers. ↩︎

  3. He himself said that he was converted to utilitarianism at age 15 or 16 when he first read Bentham’s writings, but it seems safe to say that, when it came to utilitarianism, he was following the path that was set out for him. ↩︎