Front Page Titles (by Subject) A Sociological History of Utilitarianism - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2
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A Sociological History of Utilitarianism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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A Sociological History of Utilitarianism
“Utilitarians Revisited,” American Journal of Sociology 85(November 1979):516–550.
Camic challenges the predominant sociological view of utilitarian social theory, as well as the “presentist” orientation of the profession that enables it to avoid looking at the utilitarians directly. We need to study works of Hume, Smith, Bentham, and J.S. Mill, for their sociological ideas, because if sociologists are to account for how social theories arise, change, and grow, they must engage in a sociological history of sociology. Such an account will clarify the process by which different accounts of social reality evolve, partly as a result of different individuals occupying different social posts in intellectual communities. When a new discipline comes along it must respond to the given intellectual community and justify its existence; as we shall later see, this helps to explain the distortion of utilitarian theory by sociologists.
The sociological myth about utilitarianism stems from Parsons's The Structure of Social Action. He argued that: (1) the utilitarians' model of action was composed of atomistic, egoistically motivated actors who employ only means of expedience to achieve material ends; (2) utilitarianism declined because it was unstable and was unable to provide correct interpretations of the fact; (3) utilitarianism contained an inner dilemma; and (4) it could not explain how social order was possible, given (1). The inner dilemma refers to the alleged fact that the utilitarians say nothing about the content of ends in the action process, thus rendering them random. The only escape from this alleged utilitarian dilemma is to modify the concept of ends (accommodating them into the “situation”) or to drop the idea that actors imply rational means. But both of these alternatives deny the notion of voluntary action; hence the dilemma.
The utilitarians were not Hobbesian egoists; sympathy and other passions played a large role in utilitarian explanation. Passions were seen as social in their genesis and in their function. Further-more, one of the main concerns was to show how social norms helped to produce order by counteracting and meshing with egoistic motivation. The utilitarians rejected the idea that man could live in a state of nature, using force and fraud at will. Indeed, they believed that man was a social being. These statements apply to all of the utilitarians, though in somewhat diminished form for Bentham, since his main focus was social reform rather than social science. The concern of the utilitarians with social science, that is, their attempt to find general and universally valid law and principles governing action in society should put to rest any notion that the utilitarians saw action as random.
If Parsons's view of the utilitarians is totally wrong, his explanation for their demise must be rejected. Such a demise was caused, says Osterman, by the rise of historicism and its view of inexorable law of social and cultural development, which the utilitarians rejected with their emphasis on permanent features of human nature. Utilitarianism's appeal was also diminished since it came to be identified with the Philosophical Radicals' pamphlets, phlets, which pushed for social reforms deriving from a few simplified axioms about human nature. The liassez-faire climate of the 1840s also helped to blunt the utilitarians more progovernment appeal.
Ironically, Spencer's evolutionism and his laissez-faire principles came to be known in America as Social Darwinism (which was a simplified Spencer plus a little Darwin) and Social Darwinians dominated the universities. Sociologists who were emerging at this time, identified Social Darwinians with utilitarians and vigorously attacked the entrenched ideology. Their attacks on utilitarianism can be seen both as a way of giving the new discipline an identity as well as their particular attempt to solve the Hobbesian problem.
Sociologists can learn a great deal from the utilitarians. They can see that the path pioneered by Parsons, and almost all later sociologists is not inevitable. Parsons's path wrongly sought order by the fusing of sociological or normative factors together with the self-interested means/ends reasoning. The utilitarians, by contrast, emphasized the interplay between motivation, norms, markets, and political and social arrangements; means/ends reasoning is only part of a large utilitarian whole.