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Shaftesbury held that in judging someone virtuous or good in a moralsense we need to perceive that person's impact on the systems ofwhich he or she is a part. Here it sometimes becomes difficult todisentangle egoistic versus utilitarian lines of thought inShaftesbury. He clearly states that whatever guiding force there is hasmade nature such that it is “…the privateinterest and good of every one, to work towards thegeneral good, which if a creature ceases to promote, he isactually so far wanting to himself, and ceases to promote his ownhappiness and welfare…” (R, 188). It is hard, sometimes,to discern the direction of the ‘because’ — if oneshould act to help others because it supports a system in whichone's own happiness is more likely, then it looks really like aform of egoism. If one should help others because that's theright thing to do — and, fortunately, it also ends up promotingone's own interests, then that's more like utilitarianism,since the promotion of self-interest is a welcome effect but not what,all by itself, justifies one's character or actions.
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Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was influenced both by Hobbes'account of human nature and Hume's account of socialutility. He famously held that humans were ruled by two sovereignmasters — pleasure and pain. We seek pleasure and the avoidanceof pain, they “…govern us in all we do, in all we say, inall we think…” (Bentham PML, 1). Yet he also promulgated theprinciple of utility as the standard of right action on the part ofgovernments and individuals. Actions are approved when theyare such as to promote happiness, or pleasure, and disapproved of whenthey have a tendency to cause unhappiness, or pain (PML). Combinethis criterion of rightness with a view that we should be activelytrying to promote overall happiness, and one has a seriousincompatibility with psychological egoism. Thus, his apparentendorsement of Hobbesian psychological egoism created problems inunderstanding his moral theory since psychological egoism rules outacting to promote the overall well-being when that it is incompatiblewith one's own. For the psychological egoist, that is noteven a possibility. So, given ‘ought implies can’ itwould follow that we are not obligated to act to promote overallwell-being when that is incompatible with our own. This generatesa serious tension in Bentham's thought, one that was drawn to hisattention. He sometimes seemed to think that he could reconcilethe two commitments empirically, that is, by noting that when peopleact to promote the good they are helping themselves, too. Butthis claim only serves to muddy the waters, since the standardunderstanding of psychological egoism — and Bentham's ownstatement of his view — identifies motives of action which areself-interested. Yet this seems, again, in conflict with his ownspecification of the method for making moral decisions which is not tofocus on self-interest — indeed, the addition of extent as aparameter along which to measure pleasure produced distinguishes thisapproach from ethical egoism. Aware of the difficulty, in lateryears he seemed to pull back from a full-fledged commitment topsychological egoism, admitting that people do sometimes actbenevolently — with the overall good of humanity in mind.
Gay's influence on later writers, such as Hume, deservesnote. It is in Gay's essay that some of thequestions that concerned Hume on the nature of virtue areaddressed. For example, Gay was curious about how to explain ourpractice of approbation and disapprobation of action andcharacter. When we see an act that is vicious we disapprove ofit. Further, we associate certain things with their effects, sothat we form positive associations and negative associations that alsounderwrite our moral judgments. Of course, that we view happiness,including the happiness of others as a good, is due to God'sdesign. This is a feature crucial to the theological approach,which would clearly be rejected by Hume in favor of a naturalistic viewof human nature and a reliance on our sympathetic engagement withothers, an approach anticipated by Shaftesbury (below). Thetheological approach to utilitarianism would be developed later byWilliam Paley, for example, but the lack of any theoretical necessityin appealing to God would result in its diminishing appeal.