b-school, Economics, Henley, MBA, Personal, Politics, Thoughts

Four ways of thinking I: utilitarianism or thinking about the consequences (Stuart Mill and Bentham)

We make decisions all the time. And when we don’t, usually, problems become graver problems.As you know, it’s better to make the wrong decision than to make no decision at all.

But, on what basis do we construct our decisions? Some people are more practical than others, some people think more on the human side, some people abide to their principles no matter what, and some worry a lot about the consequences.

In fact the most considerable bulk of humans, and that includes me, just mix different ways of thinking and making decisions. We are not pure in our decision making. And the proportions change from one person to another. They depend on the mindsets, the circumstances, temperaments or even circumstantial moods.

We always think of our decisions as the most rational ones. We tend to perceive ourselves as non-biased. But we can’t help seeing the world through our filters. We reflect what we are on the decisions we make.

In this series of four posts, that altogether configure a meme, or a basic cultural unit, I want to identify four basical thinkers that defend very specific ways to make decisions.

These four basic ways of thinking are present in each one of us. They configure an important part of our decision making process, impersonating four different perspectives to every decision.

Think about them. They will help you understand the mental process that makes you consider different options and thus four different ways to weight outcomes. And they will help you in knowing yourself better and, why not, into making better decisions or at least understanding your decisions better.

The first way of thinking is consequentialism or utilitarianism.

One of the thinkers that most effectively impersonates utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Many things can be said about him. In fact he is worth much more than one post, being his thought configured by his father James Mill and his father’s friend Jeremy Bentham.

Stuart Mill was a deep boned liberal, fending for a slimmer and democratic government limited by individual freedom.

How would he reason? He’d think of the consequences of the actions. Thus, when we impersonate Mill we think how what we are about to do will affect on others. The concepts of utility and happiness come into front view. They become important under utilitarianism.

In fact he followed the ideas of Bentham, close friend to his father and mentor to the young John.

Jeremy Bentham was also British, and lived from 1748 to 1832. He can be considered the father of utilitarianism He was a liberal, defending the most basic rights, from the right to freedom in a world that still practised slavery, to the suppression of physical punishment, widely practised not only in prisons but also in schools, and specially the right of the individual not to be limited by the state in any way short of affecting negatively his fellow citizens.

In fact he’d be happy today to see that some of the subjects that he was worried about are being considered today. He supported the equality of women in every way, animal rights, the right to divorce and even homosexual rights. And that was 200 years ago! Education was essential for Bentham too.

In the economic sphere he abhorred of monopolies and usury, free trade, inheritance taxes, pensions and insurances. Both Stuart Mill and Bentham are usually regarded as proclaimers of a minimal state, but that’s not true. The individual freedom is paramount, but the states must guarantee basic rights and a basic equality to protect those who suffer. At the same time, the states must foster economic growth so as to facilitate a minimal subsistence level and encourage wealth.

Most of all, he incised decisively in a society, the British society, so fond of its traditional approach, initiating a wave of change, a progressive change towards a new idea: the well being of the majority. Well being that could even be translated to happiness. So the decisions in Britain had to be taken thinking of the population, and those who were affected by them.

The following quote from Bentham defines good and bad, moving closer to hedonism.

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand, the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.”

Consequentialism was thus being born, shaking the foundations of the British society and starting a movement to change the laws -another sphere of decisions- to have them aligned with the majority, not with the privileged ones. That was a huge leap towards progress and a fairer society. This wish for reform would help Britain to evolve further, no longer being constrained by mediaeval concepts. And with Britain, more nations followed in the will-be-developed world. No wonder Bentham supported both the American Independence and the French Revolution.There are differences between Bentham and Mill. The first thinks of the majority fostering the critique about the majority dictatorship. The second is able to modulate all that into a more sensible and respectful approach for the minorities. Stuart Mill had more time to elaborate and adapt his thoughts, and had an increased social component in his thought.

But, back to decision making, what counts is that we make the decision thinking of the consequences, not out of principles or rules inherited over the centuries, not faith or revelation. There’s not statu quo to preserve, good intentions or psychological reasons, there’s only utility, general utility. The more useful the better.


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