J. Schumpeter, Self-interest, the Common Good, and Utilitarianism

We know that both self-interest and the Common Good were old stagers. But around the middle of the eighteenth century, they asserted themselves with a new energy, not only in ethics, but over the whole field of social thought. In particular, they were, or were supposed to be, the basic and unifying principles of all the social sciences, practically the only ones ‘reason’ had espoused. Helvétius (1715–71) compared the role of the principle of self-interest in the social world to the role of the law of gravitation in the physical world.

Even the great Beccaria went to the length of asserting that man is wholly egotistic and egocentric and does not trouble at all about any other man’s (or the common) good. It should be observed once more that this individual self-interest was oriented on rational expectation of individual pleasure and pain, which must, in turn, be defined in a narrowly hedonist sense.

It is true that the eighteenth century authors added qualifications and recognized pleasures that are not usually classed as hedonist, such as pleasures from malevolence, from the acquisition of power, and even from religious belief and practice. In consequence, defenders of that doctrine have been to some extent successful in their attempt to redeem it from the allegation that has made human behavior turn on beefsteaks. But this success—apart from the fact that it does not touch all the other objections that may be raised against any theory that overstresses rationality in behavior—was more apparent than real. For if we go very far beyond the grossest gratifications of the simplest appetites, we come dangerously near to identifying expectation of ‘pleasure’ with all possible motives whatsoever, even with intentional suffering of pain, and then, of course, the doctrine becomes an empty tautology. Worse still, if we allow too much scope to such ‘pleasures’ as may be afforded by exertion, victory, cruelty, and the like, we may get a picture of human behavior and of society that differs totally from the one those men actually envisaged.

Thus, if we are to derive the conclusion they derived from their ideas about pleasure and pain, we have after all no choice but to adopt a definition of the latter that may indeed allow some freedom for going beyond beefsteaks, but only a limited one; that is to say, we have no choice but to adopt a theory of behavior that is at variance with the most obvious facts. Why, then, was it so readily adopted by many good brains? The answer seems to be that these good brains belonged to practical reformers who fought a historically given state of things that seemed to them ‘irrational.’ In such a struggle, simplicity and even triteness are the chief virtues of an argument, and beefsteak philosophies the best answer to a system of super-mundanely sanctified rights and duties. Not that these authors were insincere: we all of us quickly convince ourselves of nonsense that we habitually preach.

We have seen above how the common good or social expediency of the scholastic doctors was harnessed into a particular shape by the eighteenth century votaries of reason. Let us repeat and reformulate. The pleasures and pains of each individual are assumed to be measurable quantities capable of being (algebraically) added into a quantity called the individual’s happiness (felicità); a frequently used German term was Glückseligkeit. These individual ‘happinesses’ are again summed up into a social total, all of them being weighted equally: ‘everyone to count for one, nobody to count for more than one.’ Finally, that social total is substituted for, or identified with, the common good or welfare of society, which is thus resolved into individual sensations of pleasure or pain, the only ultimate realities. This yields the normative principle of Utilitarianism, namely, the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number, which is chiefly associated, in recognition of ardent advocacy, careful elaboration, and extensive application, with the name of Bentham. If the idea was of ancient origin and grew so slowly as to defy dating, the slogan itself may be dated more precisely: so far as I know, it occurs first in Hutcheson (op. cit. 1725), then in Beccaria (op. cit. 1764, la massima felicità divisa nel maggior numero); after that in Priestley (op. cit. 1768), to whom Bentham gives the credit for what to him was a ‘sacred truth.’ Hume does not have the slogan, but should be included in this series all the same.


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