The Precursors of Utilitarianism
Both of the essential constituents of utilitarianism, as I have defined it, hedonism and consequentialism, are present in Greek ethics. But there is still something crucial missing. This is the element of universality, the insistence of standard utilitarianism that it is the general happiness that is the criterion of right conduct. The reason for this omission is the way in which the philosophers of ancient Greece conceived the central ethical problem. For them the question ‘how should I live?’ took what to us seems a fundamentally prudential or self-regarding form. It amounted for them to an inquiry as to how a man could secure his own happiness, fulfilment or perfection. Benevolence, altruism, philanthropy, a concern for the happiness of others occupied a secondary, and even marginal, position in their ethical recommendations. It was not conceived as an end in itself but rather as a means to, or a condition of, the self-realisation of the individual. Greek philosophers in general, and Plato and Aristotle in particular, found a place for restricted benevolence by emphasising the role of friendship in a fully satisfying life and Aristotle made a somewhat disdainful ‘liberality’ part of his conception of the ethically ideal or ‘magnanimous’ man.
KeywordsMoral Judgement Moral Knowledge Ethical Rationalism Divine Command General Happiness
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