Utilitarianism for me has attractions similar to those that egoism has for many others — not as a program for resolving ethical disagreement, or as a reforming doctrine, but, instead, as providing a foundation for ethics.

But I have not always been convinced of this. I first approached utilitarianism as many newcomers do, as Herbert Spencer (I believe mistakenly) did in Social Statics, conceiving of it as expediency leavened by experience. Not surprisingly, I rejected that notion. Indeed, in my early twenties I rejected utilitarianism with some vehemence, in no small part because of my reading of a variety of libertarian writers (Nozick, Rothbard). But it is worth noting that I rejected utilitarianism without having read the classical ethical theorists, Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick. It was a rejection borne almost entirely out of ignorance.

I find most discussions amongst libertarians, today, about the unworkability, incoherence, or even idiocy of utilitarianism precisely what mine were: evidence of unfamiliarity with proponents’ actual arguments and over-reliance upon criticism by the doctrine’s most severe opponents.

Something happened between then (my early years thinking about ethics) and now. Actually, several things happened:

1. I actually read the classics of the field, particularly the leading works by Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick.

2. I read no small part of the secondary literature, including incisive defenses of utilitarianism by careful thinkers such as J.J.C. Smart.

3. I read directly around the doctrine, particularly David Hume and Adam Smith, beforehand, and Herbert Spencer’s attempt to forge what he called a “rational utilitarianism,” during the doctrine’s heyday.

4. More important, I read further into economics, and finally grasped subjective value theory, which clarified what purchase utility has on everyday life.

This last was especially helpful, for some mistakes crept into utilitarianism early, a sort of scientism. And yet the chief clarifier, to my understanding, was Ludwig von Mises, and he remained a utilitarian. His students, particularly Rothbard, abandoned Mises’ position in favor of “Natural law,” which I had little sympathy with, because (as near as I could make out) it usually amounted to the philosophic equivalent of hand-waving. I was never convinced of Rothbard’s preferred views of ethics. He seemed to desire a kind of certainty — indeed, to demand a kind of certainty, to demand a kind of flavor — that belied what ethics must be in a world of subjective evaluation and value diversity.

But perhaps more important than all this was that I came to realize that I had always exhibited a utilitarian streak. My anti-utilitarianism was an acquisition that did not fit with my main method of thought. I noticed that when I was a theist, I expected the morals that God ordained to exhibit utility. They would help the people who adopted them. One should be able to find a great deal of usefulness in the major precepts of the Bible (so my prejudice ran), and I figured that the trick of moral thought was to broaden narrow calculations of advantage: One should not expect morals to be useful to just a few people, but to all; one should expect morals to extend contemplation of the effects of our actions beyond the immediate and towards long-term outcomes. The great temptations of everyday life were to focus mainly on near-term utility and self-centered utility. But both of these temptations present us with grave dangers, for happiness and well-being seemed to depend a great deal on extended time horizons (as I would later say, with the appropriate nomenclature) and upon enlightened self-interest.

This is precisely the kind of thing that Herbert Spencer assumed in the first edition of Social Statics. But before I read that book, I had abandoned the idea of a deity. Such a Being did not exist. And then I had to account for the origin of ethical ideas. And that origin, surely, was in their usefulness.

But the crucial question, when dealing with utility, is useful to whom. And I noticed, in reading the classics of the literature, a certain amount of waffling. No small part of the attraction of the doctrine is that it explained current ethical ideas. Utilitarianism appeared to be not just, or even mainly, a way to decide what right and wrong are, but an explanation of how right and wrong arose.

Mainly, ethics developed, evolved — and this thought I developed in my criticism of the mature ethical treatises of Sidgwick and Spencer — as a body of social practice. Ethical norms, ideals, rules, and reasonings could be best seen as tools that people used to influence human behavior. Their own behavior as well as others.

Tools are higher-order goods exploited to produce more “intrinsically” desired outcomes. But, because of the nature of man as moralizer and moral actor, the use of the tools transformed the user as well as the targets of persuasion. Indeed, tools reshape thought, just as ideas do. Once one sets upon changing one’s own actions, or others, by means of the ethical toolkit, one begins to transform oneself. And the tools one started with change.

Thus utility is integral to understanding what ethics is all about. If ethics is itself a toolkit, then tools must be understood as serving ends. If the ends change as we learn the consequences of using the tools, and if the tools themselves change as we perfect them, and they (perhaps) perfect (or at least mold) us, then utility must be foundational. One need not quite agree with Bentham’s emphasis on pleasure and pain to see that utility must provide the foundation for all moral notions:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.

We cannot abjure the empire of utility because, as long as we moralize we use tools, and tools are all about usefulness. They themselves have utility. And can only be properly understood as such.

Oddly, though, it’s worth noting that this view of utilitarianism as a foundation of ethics, as a metaethics itself, flies in the face of one of the more famous passages of Mill’s Utilitarianism, his great philosophical boner:

From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum, or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought, has occupied the most gifted intellects, and divided them into sects and schools, carrying on a vigorous warfare against one another.

The idea of the “greatest good” or the “good in itself” is not the same thing as the foundation of ethics. Indeed, as I see it — and as I see the main thrust of utilitarianism as a metaethical position — the foundation of ethics is not in “the greatest good” as such, but in the far more lowly, less exalted and everyday use of norms as tools.

We don’t need a theory of a summum bonum to see why morals arise in human society, and why they evolve. Instead of a Great or Unitary Good, we can see that morals arises out of conflicts of putative interests and conflicts of values. We see that particular goods cannot be had without costs, and that all attempts merely even to ameliorate our conditions necessitate choosing some goods over others. This maximizes or at least increases the amount of goodness, but without any prejudice in favor of a unitary summum bonum. People can proceed to ameliorate their conditions, and struggle with a variety of dangerous pleasures, without knowing anything of a Greatest Good. One can be completely agnostic about that, and still proceed to improve one’s lot.

This process of melioration is enough for ethics, that is, enough to understand where it came from and to get an inkling where it is pushing us — and where we try to push ethical thought itself.

Indeed, one of the great problems of practical ethics is the pretense of knowledge. We can make marginal improvements all over the place, but few of them come without cost, and some programs for betterment prove disastrous because too grandiose. Pretending to have more knowledge about ends and means than one actually has is the classic pride of the moral utopian. And it is one of the reasons that one whole strain of moral thinking focuses on avoiding harm, primarily — and seeing that as having the strongest sense of obligation — while attempts to actively promote “the good” carry less moral weight.

But all these issues — issues that separate substantive ethical positions — are best understood as within the broader utility tradition. Even formalistic elements to ethics can be seen as accommodations/adaptations to some very basic truths. Hence “rule utilitarianism.” Or Spencer’s “rational utilitarianism.” Or J.L. Mackie’s “act-disposition-rule egoism/utilitarianism.”

The biggest challenge to this perspective is not, I think, the Kantian one. It is, instead, that of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s often-subtle analyses and genealogical speculations regarding morals constitutes a grand attempt to provide an end-run around the utilitarian tradition, to abjure the empire. But he gets caught up in elaborate psychological stories of origination, and these strike me as too clever by half. They also rest on notions of value as not embodied in specific utility and its contexts (marginal utility), but value as proceeding from origins. He was, it is worth noting, an anti-Darwinian.

Spencer was closer to the truth.

Yet the truth about ethics is not a simple utilitarianism, surely — not the substantive utilitarianism of many of the classic advocates. Ethics rarely promotes the merely pleasant, simple pleasure over pain, etc. The world is a bit more complex than that. Pleasure is, often, a carrot that evolutionary processes put in front of us, to propagate the species. But not every pleasure is worth it. Beauty provides pleasure, for instance, but there can be dangerous beauties — just contemplate the rodent and the cobra’s “eyed” hood. Sexual pleasure, fixed on to disregard all else, can lead to STDs and unwanted pregnancies; gustatory pleasure, narrowly focused upon, can lead to obesity and worse; and so on. Indeed, there is much evidence that monomaniacal fixations of any sort disrupt the balance of the human animal. We must exercise all or most faculties in due proportion, learn to glean pleasure from their stable use, and cultivate a well-rounded existence.

And utilitarians, recognizing the wisdom of accumulated ethical evolution — and expecting to find wisdom from all traditions which, of necessity, evolve in the context of myriads upon myriads of attempts to ameliorate the human condition — need not lurch into constructivist overreach or relativist flaccidity. Further, by recognizing the core motivation for all human betterment — increasing satisfactions of manifold choices made in the context of costs and opportunities — as one of utility, utilitarians see the key to understanding all human action, and can apply reasonable debunking procedures to traditional ethics as well as traditional ethical conundrums.

As I see it, utilitarianism construed primarily as a metaethical position, rather than a substantive ethical doctrine, is identical to a praxeology of ethics. It is no wonder that Mises felt affinity with the utilitarian tradition, despite its obvious lapses in some hasty pronouncements of its leading practitioners, for Mises was the main developer of “praxeology.”

Add to this foundation of ethics the time component, chiefly in the theory of social evolution, and you are nearing to the completion of the groundwork for morals. It’s only in constraining factor of possible ideal conditions that you gain the final component (and here is where much of natural law theory begins to make sense).

One of my older aphorisms begins to make sense, I hope: Ethics is subjective in its origin, intersubjective in its elaboration, and objective in its limitations. 

The origin is the desire (even necessity) of influencing human behavior. Human beings do not naturally and with precision always do what is best for them. The best ways often lie hidden behind hard choices and the requirements of reciprocity. But each person dons the moralist’s cap to persuade, and the impetus for this whole emprise are the moralist’s existing values, which are subjective, and initial concerns, which are mostly personal . . .

The elaboration of ethical ideals, norms, rules, and the like occurs in a social space. We have little evidence for exact ethical thinking outside a social context. Even purely personal ethics isn’t purely personal, if you see what I mean. Self-regarding virtues, for instance, get promoted in society not merely to increase each individual’s felicity, but to generally promote the betterment of all . . . and, perhaps most importantly, to encourage the disposition to sacrifice immediate gains for longer-term gains, which parallel the sacrificing of gains through plunder for the gains of voluntary co-operation, which is a general social good. The first ethical notion ever developed may have been for purely “egoistic” purposes, but by advancing it in a social context, and expecting multilateral acceptance, the egoistic character bleeds out and is transformed into a principle of sociality. This transformation becomes especially striking when one considers . . .

. . . the limits of the whole ethical emprise. Or, rather, its limitations. These should become evident after several iterations of its usual game scenarios involving moralist, targeted moral agent, and (disinterested) observers. Why would any targeted moral agent accept the putative “morality” of a given moralist? There are a variety of reasons, but there has to be an expected gain, if not in every instance, at least usually or generally. And because of this bare fact of initial skepticism, there is a tendency for all developed moral ideas to attempt to appeal to some conceivable “greater (not necessarily ‘greatest’) good.” Or at least common, shared good. Without appealing to a variety of “interests,” any proposed “moral” idea will fall by the wayside. And because some rules (or ideals, or norms) will serve folks better than others, we must expect some salience to received ethics.

It is more complicated than this, and I cannot here go into all the complications. But the basic story seems sound to me. The last aspect just indicated by me, those limiting factors (and there are far more than I noted here) that winnows out inutile or disutile ethical ideas, is often what most moralists latch onto as the summum bonum, or Greatest Good, or Good-in-Itself, or Categorical Imperative, or Natural End, or what have you. But it seems to me that these ideas must be introduced late into our analysis and establishment of founding principles. To start with them is to put the cart before the proverbial graminivorous quadruped, to begin with the end rather than begin with the simplest and least “ethicy” aspect of the subject. It also misconstrues the nature of the whole emprise.

For ethics is not an exact science. It is not a body of ineluctable truths. Its precepts, often paraded out as a series of propositions, or truth statements, are “true” not like a purported factual statement can be true (or false) but “true” as a blade is true. A true blade is a blade that is sharply honed and does its job well. As a tool. And the truths of ethical precepts rest less upon some matters of fact (though one can often rewrite them to appear so — while losing something in the translation) but on matters of usefulness. That is, utility . . . as promoting some human satisfaction or advantage.

The truth of a tool lies in its aptness for use. This is one of the core principles of utilitarianism understood as a metaethical doctrine.