Other Philosophers – Variations on a Theme (Part 3)

In my last post I discussed the philosophy of Kant.  Kant wrote that the best moral structure is not to seek after our own happiness (as taught by the ancient philosophers mentioned in my book) or to consider justice in addition to happiness (Duns Scotus), but to discard happiness altogether and focus on one’s duty according to a moral code based on good will.  This moral approach focuses on one’s duty without regard to the consequences of the action taken in performing one’s duty – “the means justify the ends.”  I mentioned that the synthesis of the road to happiness in my book addresses the concerns of both Duns Scotus as well Kant.

After the philosophy of Kant began to take hold within certain parts of society, a new moral approach was introduced and one that returned to the importance of the pursuit of happiness.  This new philosophical approach began with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and was refined by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

Both Bentham and Mill are considered utilitarians.  Utilitarians believe that we all seek after our own happiness (agreeing with Aristotle/Aquinas) but that happiness is not reached through the virtues but on maximizing pleasure or minimizing pain.

Bentham taught that the outcome of any action should be to contribute to pleasure. He defined the value of this pleasure to be equal to its intensity multiplied by its duration. So you must consider not only the number of pleasures, but the intensity of each and the duration of each.

Mill took a slightly different approach arguing that there are different levels of pleasure and that the higher levels (such as art, literature, philosophy) should be pursued more than than the lower or simpler pleasures.

Both of these philosophers proposed a Utilitarian belief that the moral value of any action is based on its outcome (i.e., pleasure). This is a form of consequentialism – “the ends justify the means.”

The philosophy of Epicurus, discussed in my book, is essentially the same as that of the two Utilitarians discussed above.  All three schools equate the idea of “good” not with virtue but with those things that bring pleasure (or reduce pain).  Epicurus does differ from the other two Utilitarians in that his maximizing of pleasure occurs on an individual level rather than at a societal level.

I believe that Bentham and Mill are “variations on a theme” of the very original teachings of Epicurus. In addition, the narrative in my book does address enhancing the prosperity of society through the actions of individuals looking to achieve happiness.

More in the next post!

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