Politics In The Enlightenment: The Utilitarian Narrative

Enlightenment Tradition – Background 

The Enlightenment movement that can be traced back to the 17th century encapsulates the concept of a shift from the natural law of theories to knowledge, separation of church and the state, and artistic development and freedom. Those were all part and parcel of the Enlightenment, a massive socio-political faction that affected every walk of thinking, arts, sciences, and music. Political Enlightenment, in particular, carried its legacy throughout centuries after the 17th and till date, political ideologies that were born and shaped then are believed and practiced. The Enlightenment, therefore, gave birth to the foundations of modern contemporary politics. This theory revolved around two central ideas. 

1) A deep commitment to the idea of science. No tradition, no superstition, no religion but simply science as the basis for recognizing every aspect of human life. Thinkers of the era wanted to form a political system, reordering the world based on scientific principles.

2) Individual rights as the greatest good. Rights and freedom, which everyone was entitled to, were expressed in a doctrine that would protect them. The doctrine is the Constitution. 

What Enlightenment thinkers aimed to propagate was to understand the sources, the reasons that make the ‘state’ or ‘governments’ legitimate. The first tradition that led and whose ideas and facets found their way into many disciplines, including Economics and Politics, is Utilitarianism. 

Theory of Classical Utilitarianism 

The critical concept that informs the Utilitarian tradition is ‘maximizing the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ This philosophy was formulated primarily in the 18th century and enormously influential in Anglo-American political thinking ever since. Enlightenment thinkers differ a great deal on what they mean by happiness, whether they can measure it in one way rather than another or whether it acts to compare the happiness quotient across people. However, they are all committed to some variant of the view that legitimate governments promote happiness or utility of the people they govern, i.e., a government dictated by the principle of utility that “augments happiness among society rather than diminishing it.” 

Elements of Utilitarianism 

Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social reformer, first established the compact principle of utility, the fundamental axiom for determining how to maximize the greatest happiness of the most significant number. He believed that in everything that individuals do, think, ought to do, and ought to think, he would be governed by two sovereign masters of ‘pain and pleasure.’ He

asserted that the basic foundation of the principle of utility recognizes that all individuals and society at large are subject to this governance of pain avoidance and pleasure (satisfaction) seeking. Bentham’s theory, driven by his staunch devotion to what he describes as the ‘sovereign masters,’ seems like a pretty deterministic system that fails to recognize a secondary viewpoint. His utilitarian logic is self-centered because it operates only through individual self-interest, accepting ways that would compel society to seek those goods and services that increase satisfaction. His principle is also a radically consequentialist because he is concerned by only the ends and not the means. Bentham’s sole purpose might only be about minimizing suffering and maximizing the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Still, his successors later strongly highlighted that Utilitarianism has to look beyond the ends. This rebuttal paved the way for one of the primary elements of classical Utilitarianism: inter-comparisons of utility (ICUs), i.e., comparing the suffering or happiness of one with the other to see which one ‘outweighs.’

The utility monster and the principle of diminishing marginal utility 

Bentham described ‘the utility monster’ as a creation in the human race with a vast capacity for maximizing wealth and happiness. Giving more of it would benefit and increase the utility of society. Taking this further, he questioned the need to help individuals less privileged or handicapped than assisting the utility monster. He explained that it costs a considerable amount of a nation’s resources to support the disabled. Even though it could make them happier than earlier in the short run, had the monetary and non-monetary resources not been spent on them, many others would have benefited. So in the limited case, the inter-comparison of utility seems to imply that the poorer sections of the society need not be identified. Therefore, classical utilitarianism doesn’t take the differences among people seriously.

Further, Bentham also established a relationship between satisfaction with the means to attain the same. The wealthier the person is, the greater the happiness he can get. However, what the study of economics defines as the principle of diminishing marginal utility, his utilitarian thinking provides a different perspective. As it is known, increased consumption of one good initially increases utility, after which the additional satisfaction gained from every additional unit will decrease. Bentham implied that the marginal utility would subside after a point only if it assumed that the goods could be sold for a heavy income with which man can consume another good that provides him with utility. 

Need for a government 

Jeremy Bentham was a firm advocate of the utility theory based only on pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance without a definite choice in the matter. So the question remains: if such individualistic behavior were to be practiced and develop into a tradition over time, what is the need for government at all? Other Enlightenment philosophers proposed that in a society driven only by self-interest mindlessly, the people would need to be protected from people else the common good would be jeopardized. What economists refer to as market failure would spread in such a community without a government,

eventually leading to a kind of marker-failure theory of government. Between each person pursuing to maximize consumption of what gives him the greatest satisfaction, there would be a disconnect between individual utility and social utility. Hence, 18th-century thinking was one of the first to pay attention to what modern describes as the ‘free-rider problem’ of an economy. The notion was that in a nation with a massive capacity for wealth and resources, there are certain public goods from which it is impossible to exclude citizens, such as provision for national defense or clean air. Regardless of whether everyone contributes to these sectorial growths or not, all people are entitled to get the benefits borne by these goods. So, a selfish utility maximizer will try not to contribute to them, which is why, for example, paying taxes cannot be voluntary. The state would have to coerce people to pay taxes because otherwise, they would prefer to ‘free-ride.’ So, while it was believed that an individual is the best judge of their happiness, it would be a mistake to debunk government completely as self-driven actions of one do have the potential to harm another’s scope for utility under non-coordination and non-cooperation. Thus, the fundamental reason a legitimate government must be formed is to compel people to deal with the gulf between what is good for the collective and by the standards of individual calculation will be suitable for each person. What the market-failure theory of government highlighted was that leaving things to the private actions of individuals could lead to free-riding and under-provision of public goods, so a government is required to bridge that gap of differences in utility while still trying to “augment the greatest happiness of the greatest number” in an egalitarian society. 


As mentioned earlier, the Utilitarian tradition was the first of many in the Enlightenment era that based the history of contemporary politics on scientific principles and individual rights only. Science is all about determinism, using laws and theorems to specify the case for different happenings in the universe. So a general criticism of such thinking is that if everything is known in a concrete and deterministic way, where is the room for freedom for varied thoughts and opinions? Utilitarianism tends to create a “black-and-white” sense of morality where there are no shades of grey. Either something is right, or it is wrong. It does not consider the consequences of only self-driven actions since it does not identify the means but only the goals. Even with its apparent limitations, this early Enlightenment thinking has relevance in today’s world, especially in democracies that support free markets. With individual rights and freedom kept in mind and protected by the Constitution governments form and intervene in the private lives of citizens to assure equality and security of the economy’s wealth. The appropriate laws and reforms that foster this distribution will always remain a subject of debate. Still, political and economic policies constructed by the state cater towards promoting an equal society where one cannot be deprived at the cost of maximizing the happiness of the other. 


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