Metta Spencer

Utilitarianism Then and Now


By Metta Spencer

Perhaps more than any other historical treatment of social philosophy, The Structure of Social Action develops with great clarity the line of reasoning by which the main sociological premises have been reached. In Professor Parsons's hand the history of social thought becomes an adventure narrative: again and again his theorists attempt to squeeze man into a small space; again and again man escapes, to the delight of his captors and of Parsons's readers. Sociologists have learned and internalized the moral of the story -- that a Utilitarian cannot win. And yet, sheltered within our very discipline are practicing adepts of that ancient cult, men who plot new encounters and use new instruments but whose motives are those of Hobbes or Bentham. The final chapter in the story is still to be written; not only welfare economists, but games theorists and even constitutional theorists speak of rational calculation and of utility, notions which were discredited as inadequate twenty-five years ago. To be sure, these men are practical fellows, intent more upon their work than upon engaging philosophical postulates in battle. Their claims are modest; nevertheless, their theories are often elegant. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to trace through Parsons's argument again and then to assess where it impinges upon the various utilitarian models, past and present.

Of course, Parsons never tried to inflict mortal wounds on Utilitarianism, but simply to limit its aspirations. Its model would work quite well for some purposes but not for explaining everything in social life. Unfortunately, it is not always obvious when one should use it, so that many scholars have simply done the best they could with the ideas at hand adn have found success anyway. The most interesting aspect of this success is the continuation of the effort to do what Parsons claimed could not be done -- to derive from the logic of individualistic rationalism alone the sufficient grounds to account for normative commitment and for social order.[1]

The retreat of sociology from utilitarianism and toward idealism was forced, Parsons notes, by the necessity to explain certain social patterns which are rationally useful for the collectivity but not for the individuals, except as they are involved in the collectivity. Theorists attempt to progress toward rational explanations; when they fall back it is toward idealistic explanations. We do not see idealistic, collectivistic theories of society controverted by evidence; idealism will explain almost everything, and hence almost nothing. Thus we are rightly committed to use the criterion of rationalism whenever possible. There are departures from rationalism in daily life, but we must not abandon individual rationality as an ideal and as an explanatory device unless forced to do so by resistant evidence. We must acknowledge, however, that the road to rationalism is slippery and drops off on one side into the marshes and quicksand of idealism, and on the other side into the pitiliess desert of radical positivism. We must be grateful for Parsons's map.

The purpose of our theoretic excursion into this treacherous terrain is to learn what we can about what individualism can do. Can self-serving individualism yield a sufficient explanation of the agreements men reach in ordering their societies? Can a cultural system be the product of a social contract, re-created daily as an ongoing transaction? We face a "chicken-or-egg" dilemma: either a playing out of the dynamics of individual men has resulted over time in social systems (in which case the individual is the responsible agent, the decision-making unit) or else we must look for a logically prior value system (in which case the individual is but a derivative and morally passive agent). Pragmatically, the problem of logical and/or historical priority is unimportant; we do not find societies without acting individuals nor individuals unfamiliar with society. Nevertheless, one must start from one pole or the other to account for the resulting social order, and it is more efficient to start from teh individualistic pole. Somehow, more determinate propositions are generated in that way. Despite this, Parsons holds that one can only go so far in building up a model of society from individual atoms; after a certain point the scheme of analysis breaks down and one ust start from collective postulates instead. He has, moreover, given us a clear discussion of the pitfalls the utilitarians encountered.

Utilitarianism, we are told, is the theory of action which is characterized by atomism, rationality, empiricism, and randomness of ends.[2] It is truly positivistic (although not necessarily an extreme form of positivism) in that it holds that scientifically verifiable information is the only significant orienting medium for the actor; man relates himself to external reality exclusively by the cognitive process.[3]

In the ranks of utilitarians Parsons includes several men who are not usually found there -- Locke, Malthus, Ricardo, Godwin, and Adam Smith.[4] But in that tradition the central role is played by Hobbes, for he not only began the discussion, but presented the problem which none of his successors really solved. However, the problem of order is not the only pitfall the utilitarians encountered; there were also the problems of irrationality and of the origin of ends.

The Problem of Irrationality

One of the perils of which Parsons gives warning is the difficulty of treating the phenomenon of irrationality within the framework of rationalistic philosophy. The utilitarian must maintain that man is rational and that when he appears to be irrational he is simply in error or in ignorance of his situation. If the utilitarian admits that some other factor is involved he is thereby acknowledging that rationality is not a constant feature of man, but a variable, and he is then obliged to account for the variation -- to explain what determines whether a man will be rational or not. Parsons strongly advises the utilitarian not to make such an admission, for it leads to radical positivism. When one attempts to account for irrationality, he looks for preceding non-subjective conditions of action -- hereditary or environmental determinants -- which undercuts the actor's position as the responsible agency. One then "explains" every action by the non-subjective conditions of the situation and may omit the action frame of reference altogether. Situation and outcome become deterministically linked.

To rescue the utilitarian position, we must make a plausible case for the assumption that all apparent irrationality is in fact but ignorance of the situation or error, so that one need not look for the positive determinants of whatever line of action is chosen. For this we turn to that remarkable "irrationalist," Sigmund Freud, whose objective was actually our own -- to rescue rationality. His success makes the position of utilitarianism more tenable than Parsons considered it to be. Freud held that when peeople are not simply ignorant or mistaken, they are in fact quite rationally pursuing ends other than those we (and they) believe to be their ends. The absurd goals which they pursue are intelligible (albeit with difficulty) as instrumental means of coping with traumatic events. Furthermore, the irrational actor is so rational that if it is demonstrated to him that his means of adaptation is no longer required (since the traumatic event is long past) he will alter his goals in a very sensible fashion. One has only to locate the hidden goals, determine what purpose they served, and the cure is effected! In this way, rationality is shown to be constant in man, not a variable, and to require no special explanation.[5] If we are willing to accept Freud's interpretation of irrationality, we can, I think, avoid the first pitfall Parsons saw in the road toward a utilitarian theory of action.[6]

If we are not willing to accept Freud's views, if we insist upon taking the idea of irrationality seriously rather than as rational with respect to alternative ends, then any attempt to explain it causally (by presenting necessary and sufficient preceding conditions) does indeed amount to radicla positivism. The same result would befall anyone at all undertaking such a mode of explanation; it is no more threatening to utilitarianism than to anyone else. Idealists do not have that problem because they refuse to attempt causal explanations for irrationality or non-rationality, substituting instead explanations in terms of meaningful coherence and demands for logical consistency.[7] Parsons himself would fall into the same trap and be dragged away by behaviorist and instinct psychologists except that he uses two additional postulates. The first is the fundamental postulate of idealism--that man internalizes ends which are functionally required for the collectivity. The second is the notion of emergence, which prohibits reduction of higher order systems to the terms of lower-order component subsystems.[8] To him, heredity and environment are relevant for explaining action, but will not themselves tell the whole story.

The Problem of Ends, the Utilitarian Dilemma

Parsons points out a second difficulty for the utilitarian position -- that regarding the status of ends or goals of action. We are told that utilitarianism depends upon the existence of random, given ends. It is correct to say that the ends must be given, but it is misleading to say that they must be random, since this implies that empirically no coalitions or factions must exist in the group at the outset, say for the purpose of economic analysis or other prediction. Actually, there is no special requirement for any condition of harmony or disharmony of interests to be given; any degree of harmony can allow analysis of outcomes--it is simply that one must not exampect to account for the harmony or disharmony. The ends are to be taken as given data and are not explainable. This is where the problem arises. Just as the utilitarian is tempted to account for irrationality, so also he is tempted to account for ends.[9] There are two ways in which he might do this, but Parsons advises him to avoid both, for they lead swiftly to radical positivism. He sees the two ways as "the utilitarian dilemma."

One horn of the dilemma is to account for ends by the route of "radical rationalist positivism," a very odd doctrine indeed.

If ends were not random, it was because it must be possible for the actor to base his choice of ends on scientific knowledge of some empirical reality. But this tenet had the inevitable logical consequence of assimilating ends to the situation of action and destroying their analytical independence, so essential to the utilitarian position. For the only possible basis of empirical knowledge of a future state of affairs is prediction of teh basis of knowledge of present and past states. Then action becomes determined entirely by its conditions, for without the independence of ends the distinction between conditions and means becomes meaningless. Action becomes a process of rational adaptation to these conditions. The active role for the actor is reduced to one of the understanding of his situation and forecasting of its future course of development.[10]

Radical rationalist positivism seems to be the observation that the information one has about the probable outcome of a decision is extremely relevant to that decision. If the best information available clearly indicates disaster to be the probable result of one option and great fortune to be the result of the other option, it is easy to predict which of the two possibilities will become the selected goal. Indeed, in principle it might be possible to predict all the choices of goals the actor would make, if we were able to discover the state of his information relevant to every decision. There is a sense in which this is true. Wherever evidence is conclusive, one is virtually "compelled by the facts" to make a certain particular decision regarding plans for future action. If all our information were so simple as to make the rational course self-evident and hence perfectly predictable, we might indeed regard action as determined by the content of our information resources. However, often enough a perfect state of intelligence would lead us to believe that either option would be equally satisfactory (by whatever criteria of satisfaction we employ); it is in such circumstances that we exercise volition in choosing. But the criteria of satisfaction are themselves higher-order ends, and information is totally beside the point in the choice of tultimate ends, if indeed ultimate ends are "chosen." Scientific knowledge is helpful in predicting consequences but consequences are of interest only in the selection of means (or "proximate goals.").

Hence we see that the effort to explain proximate ends by the state of information available is a fine idea except that (1) it does not explain how decisions are made when information indicates a toss-up, and (2) information is relevant only if we presuppose certain other higher-order ends. That is, determinate information may lead us to select one proximate end instead of the other, but only because it leads to a preferred ultimate end which has already been decided upon. Information cannot lead to the formation of ultimate ends, ends which are not means to any other end. We are forced with this theory to accept some purposes as given.

This seems to put rational positivism itself into an awkward position. It comes to rest upon the same required postulate as does utilitarianism: There must always be at least two ultimate ends which are given, not determined by information.[11] In that case, it appears to me that rationalist positivism is defeated by utilitarianism, rather than the reverse, as Parsons describes the matter. If I am correct, rational positivism holds no special terrors for us. In any case, the subjective implausibility of believing oneself to be coerced by knowledge renders the whole idea utterly unengaging.

The other "horn of the dilemma" is of greater interest because some elements of it must be taken quite seriously. That is "radical anti-intellectualist positivism," the reduction of ends to instincts or biological drives. One does not arrive at this position via deductive thinking so much as by extremely impressive empirical evidence -- the urgency with which we have experienced our physiological promptings. Obviously, natural inclinations do exist and do enter into our calculations of utility.

These drives are not particularly idealistic in character, and it is difficult to account for the emergence of normative elements from them (or even to portray how the normative articulates with the biological, if indeed they are wholly different dimensions). The theoretical endeavor to do so was once a persistent preoccupation, but for the most part, sociologists successfully (if prematurely) overcame it.

If biolotical reductionism is the sort of positivism which leaves man "pinned and wriggling on the wall," it also has its advantages. Lionel Trilling, speaking once on an anniversary of Freud's birth, remarked that most people nowadays deplore Freud's commitment to innate biological impulses. Trilling, on the contrary, found the idea rather comforting, for while it limits what man can do to transform himself, it also limits what can be done to man to deform him from his integral character. Socialize and mould though we may, the human being is a substance with a form of its own, and is not infinitely plastic. Perhaps, we may add, this fact also confines the flux of historicity: Whatever is done to man in this generation is not final and irrevocable in every sense, for the next generation will appear with its id rather like our own.

In a similar war, we have a reassuring limitation here on what idealism can accomplish. Airy geist is harnessed inside flesh and blood. Value systems do not flat free and abstract above man's realm, but strain and stretch within the grossness of his nature. Thus the things that are most subjective -- ethos, meaning, ethics, and spirit -- cannot be spun out endlessly, for their consequences run back into the life-organization of a creature that must eat and blink and groan.

Parsons insists that if we want to account for the goals men have, we face a dilemma: If we do not accept knowledge as the determinant, we must accept "radical anti-intellectual positivism," by which he means the rooting of all man's high ambitions in the imperative terms of his physical existence. In an important sense, it does seem proper for a good theory about society to keep man's earthier needs as the touchstone of its ideal considerations. And yet there is a reluctance: One prefers to keep body and spirit metaphysicall discontinuous, les naturalism explain away all things brave and extraordinary, in which the spirit surpasses routine process.

Perhaps apologicetically, let us try this horn of the dilemma anyway. We must, accordingly, derive ends from innate drives and instincts and the question now is: how is this to be done? Can complex, socially oriented goals emerge as the rational consequence of the playing out of simple impulses between individuals? We need a theoretical way of handling this problem without resorting to crude biological reductionism. It is not enough to say, for example, that symphonies are sublimated sexuality; if they are, what process leads to such a remarkable transformation? Surely we cannot talk here in the language of ordinary causality (in terms of which we would have to say that a certain instinct is the necessary and sufficient motive-force behind other complex esthetic or normative aspirations, so that one goal causes the next goal, like a row of dominoes toppling.

The only way to avoid such reductionism is by the postulate of emergence, and the only psychological theory of purposive behavior referring to a concept similar to that of emergence is Allport's "functional autonomy of motives," according to which an acitivity originally undertaken as a means (perhaps to a relatively primitive end) can become an end in itself.[12] Such an hypothesis ought be useful to a dedicated utilitarian, for it would produce determinate, empirical propositions perfectly consistent with a rational, atomistic image of man, while avoiding an infinite regression of causes. The individual here is responsible for his own goals; he is not merely "internalizing" a motive from the group. The process of arriving at goals is tied to a unique causal sequence for each individual and depends upon no mysterious emanations. However, because other people exist, their responses can form a decisive aspect of the success or failure of various means. In this way, social control leads to accommodation and fitting together of purposes so as to produce an integrated social organization. There is no nomothetic explanation for goals, but each man's ends can be explained by his private sequential chain of ends.

What, then, is the status of utilitarianism with respect to its dilemma? As an explanatory device, utilitarianism depends upon the assumption that ends are given and originate within individuals. Then to explain any ends leaves one under pressure to explain all.[13] But to explain all presses in two ways: the proximate ends can be explained by rational positivism, the ultimate ends by biological reducationism. Either of them is a closed, determinate system, a clock universe, radical positivism.

First, this is not a true dilemma, for one can accept both horns -- rationalism for proximate ends and biological drives for ultimate ends. We can avoid the clock universe element in four ways:

  1. We can make these two "horns" account for most ends but not all of them. We can allow the individual the voluntaristic power to postulate ends out of thin air.
  2. We can refer to the indeterminacy principle to show that prediction of future outcomes is, even on theoretical grounds, limited. Thus rationalism can never yeild such determinate predictions as to make one choice "determined by the facts." Hence the actor remains at least a significant agent in breaking ties between two possible ends as "determined" by the extant information, whether or not he is active in postulating ends out of whole cloth.
  3. We can adopt the doctrine of emergence.
  4. We can account for ends as internalized norms required for the functioning of the collectivity.

The matter at issue here is whether or not the first three ways are adequate to save utilitarians and also to permit explanations of collective institutions which require explanations of collective institutions which require a certain self-abnegation on the part of members. I believe that the fist three will do the job without the addition of the fourth, the idealistic postulate. After all, it is to account for cultural and social systems that theory is directed. we admit a circularity to the account when we allow the cultural and social system itself to explain our causal model. If we are to explain cultural and social systems, we must start from someplace. Parsons shows how an eternal immoral social system could function but he does not show how it could have arisen. (We are not interested in the historical facts of causation of here, but in an analytically cogent sequence.)

The Hobbesian Problem of Order

Freud and Allport have helped preserve the utilitarian viewpoint from two of the dangers Parsons discussed. However, he refers to another problem which is much more fundamental to our concern than any other: that is, the Hobbesian problem of order. Parsons quite properly describes Hobbes as the first utilitarian, and the Hobbesian difficulty remains the core of utilitarian thought.

Parsons observes that the work of Malthus and Hobbes together demonstrate the existence of a natural conflict between the interests of men, whereas the whole of utilitarian and of liberal Lockean political theory depends upon the assumption of identity of interests.[14] If Parsons is correct, then the "metaphysical prop" of utilitarianism requires careful examination. Rather than rely on metaphysical assumptions, it is more justifiable to treat the conflict or community of interests as problematic and as subject to strategic, dynamic manipulation. It is futile to argue as to whether man is "naturally" dependent on the social feelings or "naturally" in fierce struggle for survival. Clearly, in different circumstances the facts vary in all possible ways. In the language of games theory, the payoff varies according to the strategic moves of the players. Society is not a constant-sum game. If we assume, then, that neither conflict nor harmony is natural and constant, but that the human situation is one in which both of these factors are played off against one another, then metaphysics becomes irrelevant as a prop, and strategy becomes extremely relevant.

Given that individual men regard one another as possible sources of aid and also as possible sources of violence, how can they arrange their affiars so that they maximize the one and minimize the other? This is a problem formulated in the language of strategy which could be reformulated in the following language: given that men's actions can inflict pain and pleasure upon one another, how can they be organized so as to produce the greatest happines (the greatest pleasure and the least pain) for the greatest number? This is, of course, Bentham's formulation of the task of government. It does not, I think, rest upon an assumption of identity of interests, as Parsons claimed, but upon a rather different postulate. It holds merely that we can usually get people to want to help us instead of kill us. We do this by behaving so they see us as more helpful than as dangerous to them. Men not only compete for scarce resources, but also collaborate to produce resources. The nature of the situation varies and depends largely upon the decisions of the strategists in their conduct toward one another. Likewise, governments vary in effectiveness, depending on the strategic wisdom with which they distribute resources, inducements, and sanctions among the agents with whom they deal -- whether citizens, corporations, or foreign powers. Hobbes and Malthus notwithstanding, the gain of one man is not always the loss of the other; this is sometimes the case, but sometimes also all players gain and sometimes all players lose. That is, I submit, more than a metaphysical assumption; it is a substantial empirical observation.

This observation must be taken seriously (that is, as fact) when we seek an answer as to why a rational man would ever consent to a norm restraining his pursuit of his own ends. Usually theories concerning norms treat them as restraints upon one's own proximate ends for the sake of preserving the group, based upon one's grudging recognition that his own long-range ultimate ends are contingent upon membership in the group. Normative consent is hence granted only with utmost reluctance.[15] Such an account of norms is not inaccurate, but perhaps inadequate.

Parsons sees well that men are more docile than such a theory would predict; they go out of the way to accept rules for which there is no duress. They do not break these rules half as often as they have occasion to do. The only explanation for such a measure of self-restraint and ritualistic attentiveness to the group welfare must be (he concludes) other than rational and individualistic -- must be, in fact, based upon a process of internalization of group standards and objectives as identical with one's own. In such a fashion, Parsons undercuts the theory of utility completely. Acts may be performed which maximize nobody's utility and satisfy no flesh-bound urges. Our aspirations and ideals (as ultimate ends enternalized) are unleashed from our own situation and fly away unbounded. Crimes and aggressive deeds are failures in socialization. Moral legitimacy is the crucial independent variable, instead of the dependent variable it was to Hobbes. Good will becomes normal -- the beginning point in the chain of reasoning and not itself problematic in daily life.

It may be necessary to accept Parsons's formulation on these matters so as to account for order, but if normative commitment can be derived from self-interest in a convincing way, the requirements for such alternative theories is weakened. Rationally considered, whence comes law? The games theorist, Thomas Schelling, offers an interesting approach to this in his concept of the strategy of deterrence. Schelling assumes, with Hobbes and Bentham, that man is in a competitive relationship to his fellows, but it is a competition of a different kind; it is fundamentally an ongoing bargaining process in which participants have mixed motives.[16] He observes that only a war of total extermination presupposes no common interests uniting the participants; all other bargaining transactions presuppose both opposition and congruence of interests. Presumably, if there were no way that another creature could prove useful to us and if his existence threatened ours, then there could be no basis whatever for bargaining and not even a truce could be negotiated; we must destroy him or be destroyed.[17] Hobbes did not see man as utterly without common ends in Schelling's sense.[18] He knew that even in a state of nature, men were motivated to enter into a social contract to establish a better decision-making process. Rather than presupposing an identity of ends, utilitarian political theory saw such identity as the overriding task of government to Sometimes it can be done and sometimes not. The question in teh back of the utilitarian mind was over how difficult a task it was to create identity of ends.[19] Some ends are given and one had to work with them.

Schelling's contribution is to emphasize that everything in this arrangement depends upon one's capacity to bind himself to a course of action so convincingly that other people must plan their own acts accordingly. In the Hobbesian context this means that the norms restricting our pursuit of our own ends are essential -- not so much for the other person's sake as for our own. Precisely because the essentials of life are in short supply, we must have laws restraining us from using force and fraud in obtaining those goods, and we must have persuasive proof that we are compelled to obey those laws. The other men know that we have an interest in using force against them; they rightly fear us and are likely to kill us to eliminate the threat we pose to them. Before we can cooperate with them to increase the payoff (e.g. the GNP) we must eliminate the rational ground that the other men have for fearing us. We must prove to them that they need not attack us, as we are quite harmless. We cannot rely upon persuasive gestures, for they know it is in our immediate interest to kill and rob them. If we wish to convince them that it is contrary to our interests to harm them, we will have to make it true. We must arrange our affairs so that we cannot afford to harm them and we must make certain they realize that this is the case.This may be very difficult to do; we may have to exchange hostages to effect such a situation. Perhaps, however, we can accomplish the same result by giving a third person the explicit authority and capability to punish us if we aggress. This is government. Having created at least a minimal convergence of interests, we need not forever be watched. We can reaffirm by habitual gestures of courtesy and by expressing our normative commitment that our lives and fortunes are tied together.

At such a point we do, in a sense, transcend the limitations of the rational, self-serving utilitarian individual. We become a social being with responsibility to our fellows, but we have been forced by our rational, self-serving calculations to take that step. This point is decisive: There is no need to disregard to utilitarian notions in favor of the idealistic. We have here a form of political order which is always subject to continued reaffirmation or disregard, depending on how well our purposes in fact fit together. We cnanot know a priori when legitimacy will come and go. We do, however, have the theoretical base for a form of authority which is justifiable by reason rather than depending solely upon charismatic experience, tradition, moral sentiments, or what not.[20]

We become almost Parsonian at one point, however. When the utilitarian man makes is transition into normative commitment, his decision-making process takes on a new dimension. In the immediate sense, his ends call for certain mains which may be proscribed by other ends -- in this case by the demands of the group on which he is dependent and to whom he must reaffirm his non-aggressive intentions (if only for his own protection). He is in conflict over which form of behavior is truly rational, inasmuch as he has two contradictory ends. Of course, either choice would be rational, but in a sense that would contradict the other choices. Parsons has a fondness for such dilemmas, and he has a collection of four -- which he calls "pattern variables." It has been said that he toyed with the idea of adding two more: self-orientation versus collectivity-orientation and long-run versus short-run.[21] Both of these express quite well teh nature of teh dilemma faced in the conflict between immediate private interest and concern for the common good. It is preeminently the ethical crisis in which this dilemma occurs, for ethical commitment is toward the collectivity and self-orientation only becomes a temptation when it goes contrary to the public welfare and might be undetected. No positivistic account can predict the resolution of such a dilemma, as both ends may be equally rational and may equlaly maximize utility.

One would do well, perhaps, to reveal the ultierior metaphysical motive behind the present thoughts on the viability of the utilitarian postulates. On the one hand, such postulates are demoralizing, as often they pluck out of personhood every possibility of truly transcending greed or pettiness of characer. On the other hand, they create the possibility of sense in the world -- a possibility which is no more than a faith (or in secular tersm, a "working hypothesis") and yet which has a bearing upon theory. Such a faith lets us say that ignorance and error are the only reasons for irrational acts adn that all ultimate ends are given in men and are the same for all men. Then when there is conflict between men as to the value of proximate ends, their disagreement must result only from ignorance or insufficiently available information regarding the instrumental merit of these means (or proximate ends) and those ultimate ends that they all share. In principle, their disagreement is subject to resolution, as one group is able to demonstrate to the other what the consequences are of their respective means. Differences of values, informed by reason and evidence, can diminish. Following this assumption, different cultures could meaningfully compare the success of their institutions in advancing those ultimate ends which they all share. Further, those institutions which conflict between cultures are owing to the inadequate information or to differences in the conditions of action -- not to geist. If we fail to admit utilitarian postulates we have no ground for expecting understanding or resolution of conflicts between cultures. We find ourselves in a worse pitfall than that of radical positivism -- we find ourselves in cultural relativism, where rationality is no longer a legitimate endeavor, or rather is a futile endeavor, for the links of ends lead nowhere in particular.


Professor Parsons demonstrated that three problems beset utilitarianism, usually resulting in departure from its fundamental tenets of rationalism, empiricism, individualism, and randomness of ends. If the effort was made to explain irrationality, reference was made to non-subjective conditions of action, which was a radically positivistic solution and no longer utilitarianism. We have discussed the possibility here that Freud's theory strengthens utilitarianism's claim that rationality can be taken as constant in man.

If utilitarians attempted to explain ends (and they were under great pressure to do so) the result depended upon the method of explanation employed, but each resulted in one form of positivism of a radical nature. Explanation in terms of scientific knowledge made action result from the conditions of availability of information. We have shown this to be of relevance only for proximate ends. Explanation in terms of inherent biological propensities made action result from the conditions of the situation rather than from the actor's rationality, and had the added disadvantage in demanding an infinite regress of causes in the form of biological reductionism. We have turned to Allport''s "functional autonomy of motives" to preserve the linkage of higher-order motivations with individual physiological demands, while at the same time refraining from attempting simple biological reductionism.

With respect to the third problem Parsons saw for utilitarianism -- the Hobbesian problem of order, we have acknowledged that it is a central problem for that tradition of thought: Normative commitment is not easily derived from individualistic rationality. However, the concept of deterrence as formulated by Schelling does lend itself to that problem with great effectiveness.

For all these reasons, we have perhaps some justification for the belief that a general utilitarian theory of action is not impossible. Whether we hope for such a theory depends largely upon whether we are satisfied to live with cultural relativism.


[1] Bentham especially plainly stated the Utilitarian view of the relation of individuals and the collectivity: "The interest of the community is then what? -- the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the community without understanding what is the interest of the individual." Jeremy Bentham, "An Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation," in The Great Political Theories, Michael Curtis, ed. Avon, N.Y. 1963.
[2] Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1937, p. 60. We must, I think, read "random" here to mean "not caused."
[3] Structure of Social Action, p. 61.
[4] Parsons's failure to mention Bentham may be interpreted as an act of charity, inasmuch as Bentham's hedonistic calculus must represent more than any other system "radical anti-intellectual positivism." And yet, Bentham is really of particular interest; all the other utilitarians have "special theories" for rather limited explanatory purposes. Bentham comes closer than any other writer to presenting a "utilitarian general theory of action." As the arch-utilitarisn, he alone tried to remake the world in his own image, and judging from his impact on British political procedures, he very nearly succeeded. For our purposes, whenever reference to an ideal-type utilitarian is implicit, he will be the model.
[5] In his Berkeley lectures, Professor Karl Popper spoke of Freud as a super-rationalist -- even more so than he.
[6] Parsons is a bit unfair, in that his own system avoids the problem of irrationality by a device which he does not offer the utilitarians -- that there is nothing really wrong with an irrational fellow's means but that his ends (and our own) can only be understood in the light of his involvement in some larger social enterprise. This is different from Freud's device, but it accomplishes just as much.
[7] A variation to the same theme is offered by Thomas Schelling, a non-Freudian rationalist who notes that to seem irrational is often very rational. In bargaining one must commit himself to a policy which may be obviously contrary to his own interests: one offers less for an article than it is worth to him and he must convince his opponent that he will stand his ground. Apparent irrationality helps. Even to threaten suicide to get one's way is "rational." Thomas Schelling, A Strategy of Conflict, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1963, pp. 5-16.
[8] "By emergence, he simply means that systems have properties which are not reducible or explainable in terms of the parts which make them up, and that at various levels of organizational complexity ever new orders of systems tend to emerge." Edward C. Devereaux, Jr., "Parsons' Sociological Theory," in Social Theories of Talcott Parsons, Max Black, ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961, p. 14.
[9] Structure of Social Action, p. 63.
[10] Structure of Social Action, p. 64. Incidentally, and quite irrelevantly, we may note the signal difference between Parsons's own theory of action and that of G.H. Mead. Parsons does account for ends (although not as the positivists do) chiefly by reference to the individual's socialization, in which he internalizes values created in the group. Mead never locates ends as originating in the group. The "I" initiates the end as an individual.The "me" later redirects the impulse in accordance with group concerns.
[11] Two, not one, because we need to assess whether a means will lead to a more preferred or a less preferred ultimate end. If there were but one ultimate end, we would be determined.
[12] G.W. Allport, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality . Yale University Press, New Haven, 1955.
[13] Failure to do so is (as Bentham said of natural law theorists) to claim some ends re self-evident, as escape. Andrew Hacker, Political Theory. New York: MacMillan, 1961, p. 398.
[14] Structure of Social Action, p. 105.
[15] John Plamenatz argues such a position with respect to Bentham's hedonistic derivation of law. He slows that the greatest happiness principle is the closest i can get to inducing others to agree to the rule that everyone should so act as to increase my happiness. It is better than no rule, so it is in my interest to agree to it to control the behavior of others. Man and Society, Vol. II. New York: McGraw HIll, 1963, pp. 9-10.
[16] "The deterrence concept requires that there be both conflict and common interest between the parties involved; it is as inapplicable to a situation of pure and complete antagonism of interest as it is to the case of pure and complete common interest." Deterrence here is as relevant to relations among friends as among enemies; we must deter our own children. Deterrence involves confronting him with evidence that our behavior will be determined by his. Thomas Schelling,The Strategy of Conflict, pp. 5-16.
[17] Such a relationship is not descriptive of the conditions of man against man, but of man against germs! Even men against lions have some common interest. If the lion could surrender, it would be to his and his adversaries' mutual advantage to send him to the zoo rather than fight.
[18] Perhaps Malthus did: If other men's cooperation with us in producing food can never be as useful to us as their potential discontinuance of eating, then no basis for negotiation exists. But that idea is a metaphysical prop of extremely dubious validity, in view of the evidence amassed over the past million years.
[19] Adam Smith appeared not to see it as a problem at all--not because norms were readily assented to, but because they were not very necessary. Competitiveness was beneficent even without restraint. Bentham and James Mill did acknowledge that it was necessary for government to manipulate rewards and punishments rather actively so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
[20] I have in mind here Carl Friedrich's article, "Authority, Reason, and Discretion," in Authority, Nomos I, Harvard University Press, Carl Friedrich, ed., Cambridge, 1958.
[21] Devereaux, pp. 42-43.