Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: THE USES OF CALCULATION - The Liberal Mind
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III.: THE USES OF CALCULATION - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE USES OF CALCULATION
If man be taken as fundamentally a desiring animal, morality is likely to be a criterion which distinguishes those desires which may be pursued from those which may not. The moralist may direct his attention either to human actions or to the desires which are their presumed causes; but in each case, the problem of choice will be his primary concern. His main difficulty will be to reach any point which is recognizably moral at all. His first problem will be to free himself from the notion that all men are consistently selfish, for in one sense at least this is built into his assumptions. Every act which any human being performs must, on the assumption of rational individualism, be an act which he desires to perform. A number of thinkers have been tempted to conclude from this definition that every act is a selfish act. The martyr going to the stake, the warrior plunging into the thick of the fray, the patriarch defending his clan—all alike are deflated by this theoretical pinprick; the good and the shabby are both following their own desires. The only difference is that the desires of the one happen to be admired whilst those of the other are not.
Our rational moralist has little trouble here, or so it seems. This kind of cynical argument can be refuted by attending to the various meanings of the term “selfish”; by pointing out that “a selfish act” is not any human act, but one of the special and more or less definable kind; and by insisting that when someone says “I didn’t want to do it” he is not just talking nonsense. The view that all men are selfish can be exhibited as a facile tautology. But it points to a risk that the individualist moral thinker has to face: the difficulty of using the distinction between “self” and “others.”
The main problem involved in creating a morality out of the conception of man as a desiring animal is that of showing that anything distinctively moral can emerge from desires. If I want various of my desires satisfied, then no doubt I must live in society; and social life collapses unless most people follow the rules. But the restraints which a desiring individual accepts in society can only be shown as the means whereby he attains the satisfaction of his desires. Restraints are part of a technology of desire-satisfaction; there is nothing that can be called moral about them.
The usual solution to this problem is to present morality as the conquest of solipsism. Morality is the recognition of the autonomous existence of other selves. The individual is not a cunning desirer locked up inside a body from which there is no escape; he is (and must see himself as) part of a field of desires. He must be concerned in the outcome of all of the desires within the field that he inhabits. Such a concern will not come to him merely as the result of rational calculation; he must be equipped with special desires which make it natural to him. In the early stages of liberal morality, these desires were seen as arising from a feeling called sympathy. Sympathy is a composite conception. It is one of the concessions that individualism makes to ordinary experience, for we all experience sympathetic involvement in the affairs of others. But sympathy, as it functions in individualist moral philosophers, is generally used to do the same work as reason does; the main difference is that sympathy moralizes the acts it inspires, whereas reason remains no more than a technological calculation.8 Reason, however, must still remain part of this kind of psychology, for otherwise sympathetic impulsive acts may lead to disastrous consequences. It is sympathy’s crutch in the real world. Further, reason is still necessary if we are in pursuit of a science of morals. Charmed as people were by the idea of sympathy, few were prepared to rely upon it as the sole foundation of civil harmony. They preferred to show that social life was to the advantage of each individual. Reason appealed to each man’s self-interest, demonstrating the long-term advantages of political obedience; and sympathy was on call, as a parallel agency, to moralize and soften these calculations.
If, then, legitimate desiring is taken as the beginning of ethics, then duties (which are, after all, the practical core of this kind of moral philosophy) admit of a more precise determination. I legitimately desire to live healthily and without undue restraint, and sympathetically admit this as a legitimate desire of my neighbors. Very well, I must treat their legitimate desires as I would have them treat mine. I have a duty not to threaten the lives of others, not to impair their health, not to obstruct their use of their own property. Duties may be logically deduced from the policies constituting any given situation, and the dream of a determinate solution to moral problems becomes, as Locke thought, a possibility. If the entities with which we calculate are precise enough, then we indeed have a kind of mathematics, something which might attain the two objectives of a moral science: objectivity and precision.
A duty is in these terms a compulsory desire, rationally generated from the desires we naturally have. It has to be a desire, or the implication of a desire, because in terms of this kind of psychology, only a desire can provide a spring of action. Further, in so far as we are rational, we will want to do everything we ought to do, for our duties have been shown to be in our interest. And again, here, we have the familiar process of internalization: a duty no longer arises from participation in a social relationship: it is internal and psychological.
The seventeenth-century individualists laid the groundwork of later liberal ethical, political and social thinking. Hobbes had demonstrated, in the times of greatest doubt, that society was viable even on the most extreme hypothesis of individual selfishness, so long as the selfishness were rational. Yet consistent egocentricity seemed to later thinkers a less and less necessary assumption. One might not be able to rely upon human gregariousness and co-operativeness, but experience suggested that it existed. To the extent that it existed, political authority might diminish in importance. Indeed—dizziest dream of all—political authority might even, with the help of reason, be made to disappear.
This may be explained in terms of a road transport system. Everyone driving a car knows he must obey certain rules and drivers mostly do. Over long stretches of road, no policemen are needed to maintain the system; but at peak traffic times they are needed to direct drivers and enforce rules. If individuals behave selfishly and irrationally, policemen are needed every few yards if there is to be any system at all. “Traffic education” consists in inculcating into the minds of the driver exactly the principles which the policeman enforces. The driver must become his own policeman. A truly virtuous man will be one who follows the rule: If in doubt, give way to others. Also, he will always understand the long-term objectives of the system—keeping himself and his car undamaged and moving—and will resist those moments when he might be carried away by impulse into showing off, getting there a little quicker or flaunting the speed of his engine.
A community of perfectly rational drivers would have no need of policemen. There might be times when the drivers would have to have a rally and decide to agree on new rules to meet a new situation. But being rational men, and understanding that the good working of the system is far more important than any individual advantage, they would have no difficulty about this. A natural harmony would reign, for the best communal policy would also be the best one for each individual driver. But, one might say, men are not rational all the time. That, however, need not matter, for in this system, a driver might well get off the road, and in the freedom of privacy amuse himself just as he liked. So long as he never mixed up his private indulgences with his public conduct, all would work smoothly. What is more, it would work smoothly (and democratically) without any need of political authority.
We must abandon this metaphor, which although cherished by those who believe in a common good, obviously cannot be pressed too far. All that it might show is the possibility that political authority also might be internalized; and further, that the more “morally” people behave, the less need there is for strong authority. The dream of a post-political condition, a “withering away of the state,” has a strong appeal for liberals, though few have dallied long with it. Government, said Paine, is a badge of our lost innocence, and at the moment before the French Revolution and Romanticism came to complicate matters, the idea of self-regulation was in many minds.
Most liberal thinkers cultivated some part of this idea. It is clearly an individualist picture of social life. Each individual is essentially complete, and social relations cannot change his nature; they can merely determine the satisfactions he may experience. But this picture of the human individual offers a number of divergent possibilities. These possibilities can be seen clearly in Locke. In the Second Treatise, individuals are found complete in nature; they can establish the laws of society by their reason, and the satisfaction of their desires by labor and enterprise. Society and the State are created by them in the full knowledge of what each institution will involve. No fundamental change can occur in such individuals, though they can be taught to reason better and to be less impulsive. In the Essay, however, we find a different picture of the individual. Beginning with a blank mind, he is determined by the impressions he receives. If the evils of society arise from the receipt of bad impressions, the road to a good society is opened up by way of education.
Liberalism arises from combining these two accounts of the individual. The contradiction is resolved by dividing society into two groups of people, the enlightened and the unenlightened. The enlightened are the rational who have understood the truth. Their goodness, their command of truth, comes from within; it is not dependent upon any social agency. These are the liberals themselves. And the liberals are the reformers. They seek to reform the unenlightened, both the very rich and the very poor—that non-liberal majority whose development has been stunted by the impact of false impressions, and the weight of superstition and prejudice.
The liberal concern with liberty is the fight for the conditions of a certain way of life. Certainly all manner of moral virtues are associated with liberty— happiness, strength, independence—but the place of liberty is often instrumental to something else. It is usually the means to an end arising out of the liberal conception of man as a desiring, a satisfaction-seeking animal. In Hobbes, there are three terms of this relationship. The desire in man moves towards the object (or away from the aversion) and on attaining it, experiences pleasure or satisfaction. In a reductionist atmosphere, it will not be long before the object is relegated to an inferior level of reality, and human behavior seen simply as the pursuit of satisfactions. This is a very significant step. It is also attractively obvious. Thus Pascal, who is some distance from the liberal tradition to say the least of it, writes: “All men, without exception, seek happiness. Whatever different means they employ, they all aim at this goal. What causes some men to go to the wars and others not, is this same desire, which is common to both though the point of view varies. The will never makes the least move that is not towards this goal. It is the motive of every man’s every action, even of the man who contemplates suicide.”9 I have italicized here the terms which have replaced the “object of desire.” “Means” is a significant substitution, for while an object of desire is a value determined by that desire, a means is simply a technical thing which can, in principle, be calculated on the basis of a science of satisfactions. Problems of choice may then be solved by a process of satisfaction-measurement. “Point of view” is significant because it demotes the object of desire to something which can be affected by persuasion or “education.” We can be “educated” to desire socially approved objects; the only possible dispute will concern the amounts of satisfaction. Further, although this utilitarian statement is in fact totally uninformative about behavior (as are many such general statements in the rationalist tradition), it is not just nonsense. It performs two functions. One is to build up a formal system, of great plausibility, which accustoms us to explaining human social behavior in psychological terms—desire, pleasure, pain, satisfaction, interest, and tautological uses of good and evil. The other is to convince us that in spite of the variety of men and pursuits they engage in, nonetheless in reality everyone is doing the same thing—pursuing satisfaction. The fact that some men are sybarites, some mystics, some philanderers, some warriors, some grasping and mean, no longer stands in the way of achieving one society which fits them all. For the only ethical problem remaining is the efficiency with which men pursue their single objective. Modes of behavior which do not fit in with the society which the liberal is building may in principle be discarded or modified as being inefficient and anti-social.
The most ambitious attempt to work out this system in detail was Benthamism. Here the sovereign mastery of pleasure and pain is explicitly asserted, and what appealed greatly to many people was the irrelevance of the object of desire, a point epitomized by Bentham’s assertion that “pushpin is as good as poetry.” Whatever the mood in which Bentham made this assertion, it was clearly the crux of the matter. Here we are at the furthest remove from a notion of “the good life” as being constituted by a hierarchy of objects of desire. Ignoring human variety, Bentham went on to develop his calculus of pleasures and pains—the whole apparatus of proximity, fecundity, extent, etc. The association of goodness with pleasure results in the virtuous man being presented as a clever calculator of the consequences.
Bentham’s science of happiness began as a doctrine of politics to be placed at the service of an intelligent Legislator—a figure who hovers around many eighteenth-century prescriptions for a reformed society. Governing then became first a process of creating equilibrium. If the Gadarene populace began rushing towards the cliff, the Legislator placed pains in their way to divert them. If people would not do the required things, pleasures were annexed thereto to encourage them. The required things? The only criterion of what was required lay in the greatest happiness principle. The Legislator was a man without interests of his own, an agent of total rationality. This attachment to benevolent despotism comes partly from the eighteenth-century atmosphere, and partly from Bentham’s debt to Hobbes. It is well known that Bentham, disillusioned with sinister interests standing in the way of reform, was influenced by James Mill in a democratic direction. But this simply changed the location of the harmonizing agency. A democracy would carry out the task of ruling: men in their rational mood would protect themselves against their own inefficient impulses.
The step from rule by a rational Legislator to rule by a rational people was a move in the direction of self-government. But there, for the utilitarians, the matter rested. The dream of each individual completely ruling himself, without the need of coercive political authority, was left either to dreamers and enthusiasts, like Paine and Godwin, or to the arrival of new techniques. Yet the germ of the idea is to be found in the Benthamite notion that government, properly interpreted, is a branch of education. The matter may crudely be seen as quantitative. The more individuals can be educated to rule themselves, the less need there will be of political authority. The utilitarian state might not ever wither away; but it would move a long way towards vanishing point.
Benthamism is a typical liberal doctrine, in many ways it is typical of modern thinking.10 For it has more than its share of that iconoclastic, reductionist spirit which has delighted modern moral philosophers. Like Hobbes, Bentham delighted in showing up the absurd pretensions of moral obligation— natural rights, or loyalty to divinely appointed kings. The sentiments and ideas which propped up throne and bishop, father and magistrate, were shown to have no grounding in reason, to be, in other words, mere imposture—“contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept the author’s sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself.”11 Bentham sweeps them all away, and substitutes his principle of utility on the ground that it is realistic and objective. Alas! The iconoclast has his own icons. Utility is no more than a masked puppet dancing on the string of such conventional notions as order, property and rectitude.
It is peculiarly empty. Happiness by definition is simply what everybody wants. But by distinguishing between what people want on impulse (in the short term) and what they might be likely to want in the future (long term), one can import a normative element into the idea. Happiness is what everyone wants in so far as he is rational: i.e. what he ought to want. Depending on how much force we allow to the assumption that each man is best judge of his own wants, we can justify any kind of system from the repressive to the liberal, or any combination of policies a government may choose.
The moral emptiness of Benthamism arises from its dependence on prevailing standards on the one hand, and the bogus “object of everyone’s desire,” happiness, on the other. The individual, faced with some sort of moral choice, must simply decide what he and others want; but the utility of competing courses of action does not determine our choice, for the simple reason that it depends on our choice. Yet all manner of fascinating possibilities arise. Why not establish sado-masochistic co-operatives, in which those whose greatest happiness lies in inflicting pain meet up with those whose greatest happiness consists in enduring it? Why not co-operation between those afflicted with blood lust and those about to commit suicide? Why should not the poor steal a loaf of bread from rich shopkeepers? Such disruptive possibilities could be plausibly defended in utilitarian terms. But it is clear that Bentham would not accept them. The reason is that his moral standards are those arising from the way of life found among the English middle classes. He would object that their moral ideas are unreflective and inefficient. But his attempt to put morals upon a rational basis clearly evades the issue, subsiding into prudential advice upon the irrationality of preferring the immediate impulse to the long term. Since the certainty of the future pleasure or pain is one of the dimensions of his calculus, it is possible that even this defense of the conventional is not open to him.
Again, while Benthamism purports to explain everyone’s way of life, it obviously reflects some activities more plausibly than others. A cool and calculating merchant can easily be presented as a natural utilitarian. But it is unlikely that a general watching his cavalry charging the enemy lines will be muttering to himself: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. . . .”12 Nor is religion explicable in these terms. The most doctrinaire of utilitarians is, of course, quite likely to argue that religious martyrs, as they go to the stake, are nonetheless maximizing their pleasure in a highly peculiar manner. But it is precisely the peculiar manner people have of behaving which is the point; variety is not a regrettable detail, it is exactly what has to be explained.
It is a simple matter to establish that the utilitarian principle that all men seek happiness is tautological, that it reveals to us none of the mysteries of human behavior. But while utilitarianism fails in the grandiose project of unravelling the nature of man, it yet covertly influences us to believe that human behavior must be explained in terms of individual desires. The doctrine may not win any intellectual battles; but its greatest achievement (and the great achievement of all tautologies) is to determine the battlefield and accustom us to the weapons and tactics which it recommends.
As a formulation of the principles of a liberal utopia, utilitarianism clearly failed to live up to all that it claimed. Bentham did not place ethics on a scientific basis; all his vagueness and generality were constantly underwritten by the society he and his followers lived in. Yet the importance of philosophies does not reside exclusively in their truth. Bentham tried to make the commonplace idea of happiness the core of a liberal politics and ethics. In that he failed. But he laid down the program. Subsequent generations have seen a proliferation of notions which have been intended to play the same logical role as happiness does in Bentham’s system—welfare, maturity, harmony, mental health, “society,” to mention a few which we shall have to consider. Benthamism reinforced our individualist habits of looking at human behavior; it impressed us with the idea that a virtuous man is a rational, sober, calculating man distrustful of his impulses; and it enhanced our appreciation of the view that the role of government is not simply to keep the peace, but also to guide or “educate” the wants of individuals in such directions as will tend to facilitate social peace and co-operation.
[8. ]Some defenders of reason would not entirely agree. Thus Professor Ginsberg: “It seems to me that the essential point in the theory of progress remains true, namely, that in the course of historical development man is slowly rationalized and that man is moralized as he becomes more rational.” A Humanist View of Progress, in Huxley (Ed.), The Human-ist Frame, London, 1961, p. 113.
[9. ]Pensées, 370.
[10. ]As an example of a neo-Benthamite exercise in political reasoning one might take In Defence of Public Order by Richard Arens and Harold D. Lasswell, New York, 1961. Thus: “Any community can be viewed as a social process in which everyone is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to maximize his value position.”
[11. ]Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. II, 14.
[12. ]Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. I, 1.