When most people think of Utilitarianism today, they are likely to think of the idea, central to much modern economic thought, that people are by nature maximizers of the satisfaction of their own interests. In its economic form, with the accent on natural selfishness, Utilitarianism looks like a cynical creed that denies the possibility of genuine altruism. If social good for all or most people is to be achieved, it will be because somehow or other the selfish decisions of many people combine to produce it. Such Utilitarian ideas, however, are but an amputated limb of the radical philosophy that once went by that name. For the three great British Utilitarians–Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)–the proper social goal was the greatest happiness of the greatest number, a calculus in which, in Bentham’s famous slogan, “Each [is] to count for one, and none for more than one.” Far from being a complacent egoistic philosophy, Utilitarianism was radical in both its methods (counting all people equally) and its results, which often urged sweeping change in existing social structures.
Nor were Utilitarians political conservatives, as their modern descendants in economics tend to be. On the contrary, in line with their philosophical convictions, they supported an end to religious establishments, the equality of women, a demanding globalism and, in the case of Mill and Bentham, a dedication to animal rights (since “each” included all sentient beings). Arrested at the age of 18 for distributing contraceptive literature among the poor of London, Mill went on to introduce a motion for women’s suffrage as a member of Parliament. Bentham issued the first Western philosophical defense of animal rights since Greco-Roman antiquity, and Mill left much of his estate to the SPCA. Both, as atheists, were unable to hold an academic appointment, which at that time required swearing belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Even more radically, Bentham condemned laws against same-sex relations, commenting, “It is wonderful that nobody has ever yet fancied it to be sinful to scratch where it itches, and that it has never been determined that the only natural way of scratching is with such or such a finger and that it is unnatural to scratch with any other.”
Henry Sidgwick is usually regarded as the tame Victorian among these radicals, the person who domesticated Utilitarianism and made it both academically and socially respectable, in the process smoothing its rough edges. This facile story runs up against some inconvenient facts, such as Sidgwick’s resignation of his Cambridge fellowship when he decided that he could not support the Thirty-Nine Articles (he resumed it again only when the rules were changed), and his key role, with his wife, Eleanor, in founding Newnham College, the first women’s college to be located right in the heart of Cambridge, not (like Girton) at a safe distance from the centers of power. Despite these signs of radical commitment, however, Sidgwick’s reputation for tameness has persisted, an impression reinforced by the dry, dense and academic style of his great work, The Methods of Ethics. Both of these factors combine to make Sidgwick of little interest to the general public, at a time when Mill, especially, is enjoying a renewed popularity, helped in no small measure by the eloquence and insight of his famous Autobiography.
Professional philosophers, by contrast, admire Sidgwick, even when they differ sharply with him. Both John Rawls and Bernard Williams, for example, have focused very respectfully on Sidgwick in their critiques of Utilitarian thought, and Rawls praised Sidgwick as one of the most impressive of historical figures for his rigor and complexity. But most philosophers, too, would have thought that Sidgwick, unlike Mill, could not possibly have written anything that showed deep emotion or human insight, much less anything that issued a radical challenge to Victorian sensibilities.