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Similarity, Community, Values and Human Nature - Part III


Self Interest and Utilitarianism

Can we map the soul? by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

This article sets the tone for a discussion of what exactly is our Human Nature?

A 1977 statement by the International Academy of Humanism is revelatory:

"Some world religions teach that human beings are fundamentally different from other mammals that human beings have been imbued by a deity with immortal souls, giving them a value that cannot be compared to that of other living things. As far as the scientific enterprise can determine, [however], human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind."

It isn't surprising that the siren's call of science, for a future where all things are possible, is so appealing. The promises are boundless, the 'good' unlimited, and the imagination is unrestrained. But will that really be the destiny of man? Up until this last century, technological developments had never created a circumstance where the threat for global annihilation was a reality that needed to be confronted. Technology is neutral, or amoral; in its pure sense of knowledge. But for mankind to understand the secrets of the physical universe, it acquires a moral component by its very understanding with the human mind. So when one would say that the intrinsic nature of biological weapons of mass destruction are immoral, they really mean that the human scientific knowledge and development of such devices, have the 'inherent risk of doing harm', by the very act of its creation. You may note that this example is not based upon the postulation that God exists. Its strictly a common sense statement of fact, that is self evident because of the real risk to humans, as well as, all other types of life on the planet.

So for this discussion on the nature of man, I will provide the answer, at the outset; and work backwards without bringing in the deity aspect. I submit that 'self interest' is the basis upon which most men decide their moral course. Morality, is simply that aspect of a decision that judges the 'right or wrong' of an action that affects oneself, others or both. For one to be able to distinguish between any action as 'doing right' or 'doing wrong', presupposes that the person making the decision has a code that allows for their recognition, acceptance and understanding of this distinction. Therefore, I offer the notion of Utility as the standard that underlies human moral actions. John Stuart Mill offers this argument in his work, Utilitarianism:


Moral theories are divided between two distinct approaches: the intuitive and inductive schools. Although both schools agree that there is a single and highest normative principle, they disagree about whether we have knowledge of that principle intuitively (without appeal to experience), or inductively (though experience and observation). Kant represents the best of the intuitive school, and Mill himself defends the inductive school. Mill criticizes Kant's categorical imperative noting that it is essentially the same as utilitarianism since it involves calculating the good or bad consequences of an action to determine the morality of that action. Mill argues that his task is to demonstrate this highest principle inductively.

The highest normative principle is that, - Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

We should not be mislead that Utilitarianism is strictly a subjective standard. It is, a 'rational' upon which people act out of self interest and accept the value to themselves, for self restraints in conduct that provides a benefit that only this self limitation will provide. Therefore, we decide not to steal, because we do not want others to steal from us. Its in our own best interest to abide by this conduct. The general 'good' or happiness is attained when the general culture adopts this self interest view of restraint by each individual.

Mill presents his inductive proof of the principle of utility. He begins noting that his proof must be indirect since no foundational principle is capable of a direct proof. Instead, the only way to prove that general happiness is desirable is to show that people actually desire it. His indirect proof is as follows:

If X is the only thing desired, then X is the only thing that ought to be desired General happiness is the only tthing desired. Therefore, general happiness is the only thing that ought to be desired.

A critic might argue that there are other things we desire besides happiness, such as virtue. Mill responds that everything we desire becomes part of happiness. Happiness, then, is a complex phenomenon composed of many parts, including virtue, love of money, power, and fame.

His use of the word happiness, misleads in our current culture. It is being used to encompass all that is worth attaining of value. So we jump back into the need to achieve a complete understanding of what 'Civilization' really entails.

Jeremy Bentham, provides clarification, on this concept of Utility, and how the individual relates to society. Bentham would view:

Utility would basically mean pleasure, which would be the ultimate goal of action on any individual's or group's part. Achieving utility was an inherent characteristic of man, so it would have to be the guiding force to any action. Pleasure was therefore axiomatic to any reason for action, being the top priority of any action. In addition, any thought about the nature of action would be reducible and evaluable before the act. For example, if a certain action is not being performed for an end other than pleasure, that other end is being pursued for pleasure. The entire "pleasure-pain" analysis of an action can become fairly complicated and seem contradictory, but in whatever form it may be in, "pleasure" is always the ultimate goal. Any action is evaluated for how much pleasure it does or does not bring before being pursued.

Let's keep in mind that this word pleasure is 'self interest', a benefit that the individual accepts as a good, for his own sake.

Bentham's thought about government is described to be "a combination of hedonism and altruist collectivism [sacrifice of individual pleasure to group pleasure]" by a leading objectivist writer, which comes very close to defining his theory of utility.

Now please don't allow for this nineteen century style to confuse the concept of Utility. I will attempt to summarize. A man will fundamentally act in a way that he perceives as in his own interest. They act in way that furthers the common good, because they judge that in doing so; they benefit. The altruist-collectivism is a method of behavior that individuals act in their own self interest, to advance and protect the rights, goals and desires that they personally deem, brings happiness to them. The significance is that the commonly accepted definition of 'altruism', is really based upon self interest. And 'collectivism' is really a benefit of the many, out of the self interest of each member.

I would submit that this self interest relationship for making moral decisions and the extension of these individual decisions affect the whole; is the most pure system, to appeal, to the most, to attain the fruits of 'Civilization'.

Now relate this idea of moral conduct to the promises of the Human Genome Project. Will the 'Similarity' of our common nature be destroyed through the manipulation of our genetic code? Will the species separate? This requires a moral answer. A Utilitarian decision in our own self interest. That notion of an 'inherent risk of doing harm', seems opposed with self interest or the 'altruist-collectivism'. Now all this before, God enters the picture.

As for a different side of human nature, we will continue.


Society is joint action and cooperation in which each participant sees the other partner's success as a means for the attainment of his own.

Ludwig von Mises

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