MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms
Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine that the rightness of an action must judged according to whether it increases the sum of human happiness, or utility in the sense given to the word by political economy. Utilitarianism is in fact political economy translated into the language of ethics, and expresses of the ethos of bourgeois society.
Utilitarianism is a form of “consequentialism” in that it judges the rightness of an action solely according to its consequences, in contrast to “deontology” which ascribes right or wrong to an action according to moral precepts, irrespective of its consequences. Thus, Kant held that one should always tell the truth, even if the result of telling the truth is bad; utilitarianism on the contrary holds that it is right to swindle someone so long as the outcome increases the “sum of human happiness,” or “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”
The authors of Utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham, who applied the idea to prison reform, holding that the object of prisons was to rehabilitate prisoners not punish them, and John Stuart Mill, who defined “utility” as the value of a product or service for the buyer, which is always greater than the price, which is in turn greater than the utility of the commodity for the seller, thus proving that commerce is good. See Utilitarianism.
There are many forms of Utilitarianism, each seeking to overcome the contradictions within it. For example, the meaning of “the sum of human happiness,” even when defined following Mill in terms of the highest price someone would be prepared to pay for something, is problematic. If the total mass of utility is increased while its ownership is concentrated in fewer hands, can this be deemed to be right?
Amartya Sen has attempted to rescue Utilitarianism from its contradictions by redefining value in terms of “capability;” Peter Singer has attempted expand utilitarianism by expanding the domain over which happiness is measured. But the importance of the original, naïve expression of utilitarianism is that it directly expressed the actual action of the market, which by means of fair exchange, facilitates the accumulation of an ever-increasing quantity of value in fewer and fewer hands.
A quantity reflecting the subjective value someone attaches to a commodity reflected in how much they are willing to pay for it. As a component part of the theory of marginal utility, utility became the foundation concept of modern economics.
John Stuart Mill developed the concept of utility which brought under a single quantitative concept the range of things – beauty, scarcity, usefulness – which may underlie the demand for a commodity. Mill’s concept of utility differed from “use-value” because utility is quantitative and is commensurable with exchange-value. Thus according to Mill someone would buy something if its utility (for him) was greater than its price.
[ou-topos = not-place] Originally the name of Thomas More’s fictional island, the atheistic and communist republic described in his 1515 novel, Utopia. Ever since, the word has denoted any vision of an perfect society which plays the role of an ideal for a social movement advocating changes to existing social conditions. The connotation of Utopia, as in “Utopian socialism”, is that the ideal state of society represented has no real basis in actuality and may be an impossible and unattainable idealisation. The opposite of Utopia in this sense is a condition which already has a real, even if embryonic basis.
Among the Utopias that have been imagined through history are the following.
- Plato’s Republic: an idealisation of slave society with a rigid class system.
- Thomas More’s communistic Utopia.
- Antonio Doni’s humanist I mondi (1552), Francesco Patrizi’s La città felice (1553), Tommaso Campanella’s La città del sole (1602) and Francis Bacon’s scientific New Atlantis (1627).
- Samuel Gott’s Christian utopia in Novae Solymae libri sex (1648).
- Gerrard Winstanley’s egalitarian Digger utopia in The Law of Freedom (1652), and James Harrington’s Common-Wealth of Oceana (1656) based on universal land-ownership.
- Gabriel de Foigny’s libertarian Terre australe connue (1676) and François Fénelon’s Télémaque (1699) extolling the simple life. Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L'An 2440 (1770) anticipated the French Revolution.
- G.A. Ellis’ New Britain (1820) and Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1840) were concerned with social problems in the United States and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), eliminated economics altogether.
- Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), while H.G. Wells’ Time Machine (1895) demonstrated the dangers of class society and A Modern Utopia (1905) the virtues of a socialism.
Utopias have also been implemented. Uptopian projects include:
- Robert Owen’s New Harmony, founded in 1825 was a cooperative rather than communist society, sponsored the first kindergarten, the first trade school, the first free library, and the first community-supported public school in the US.
- Between 1841 and 1859, about 28 colonies were established in the United States by followers of Francois Charles Fourier. The Icarians, followers of Étienne Cabet, established ill-fated communities in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and California.
- In the 1890’s 500 Australian socialists led by William Lane created “New Australia” in the Paraguayan jungle based on socialist principles, and their descendants live in Paraguay to this day.
Utopian Socialism: The socialist movement prior to Marx and Engels was predominantly utopian in character, and it can be said that it was Marx and Engels’ principal contribution to make a critique of this utopian socialism and place socialism on a scientific basis.
“The Utopians’ mode of thought has for a long time governed the Socialist ideas of the 19th century, and still governs some of them. Until very recently, all French and English Socialists did homage to it. The earlier German Communism, including that of Weitling, was of the same school. To all these, Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as an absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered. With all this, absolute truth, reason, and justice are different with the founder of each different school. And as each one’s special kind of absolute truth, reason, and justice is again conditioned by his subjective understanding, his conditions of existence, the measure of his knowledge and his intellectual training, there is no other ending possible in this conflict of absolute truths than that they shall be mutually exclusive of one another. Hence, from this nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism, which, as a matter of fact, has up to the present time dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England. Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.
“To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis.” [Socialism, Utopian & Scientific, Chapter 1]
“The Socialism of earlier days certainly criticised the existing capitalistic mode of production and its consequences. But it could not explain them, and, therefore, could not get the mastery of them. It could only simply reject them as bad. The more strongly this earlier Socialism denounced the exploitations of the working-class, inevitable under Capitalism, the less able was it clearly to show in what this exploitation consisted and how it arose. but for this it was necessary -
to present the capitalistic mode of production in its historical connection and its inevitableness during a particular historical period, and therefore, also, to present its inevitable downfall; and to lay bare its essential character, which was still a secret. This was done by the discovery of surplus-value.” [Socialism, Utopian & Scientific, Chapter 2]
While pre-1848 socialism was utopian, many would say that the socialism of the 20th century was seriously lacking in idealistic vision. The difficulty of imagining an “outside” to postmodern capitalism is as much a problem as the difficulty of finding a road to get there.