In the minds of some (perhaps most) people, “utilitarianism” has a special meaning. It often refers to an extremely “materialistic” view, which aims at maximization of wealth. This is not surprising, since utilitarianism has been (but less so nowadays) associated with economics. In the early 19th century, those who wrote on economics (or “political economy”, as it was usually called) were not seldom adherents to hedonistic utilitarianism of the Benthamite kind. Later in the same century, however, the goal of maximizing pleasure was by many economists regarded as too imprecise to be used in scientific discussions. So pleasure was generally replaced by “utility”, and the by the maximization of utility, it was usually meant the highest possible satisfaction of subjective preferences. Moreover, the easiest way to “measure” such satisfaction of preferences is by measuring income, wealth, and the like. It is hard to be scientific if one wants to measure levels of mental “satisfaction”.
It is, of course, a shame that many associate utilitarianism with this “economistic” way of thinking, since it is rather barren if it is regarded as a moral view (and if it is not intended as a moral view, then why should one make policy recommendations on the basis of it?). Nevertheless, it is, in fact, a very old view, and if we look back in the history of ideas, we find one extreme adherent to it in the Chinese philosopher Mozi (or Mo Tzu), who lived around 400 B.C. Mozi put forward a principle of “universal love” (not really emotional love, but rather “concern”) which is not all that different from the utilitarian/hedonist idea of impartiality when it comes to maximization of happiness, and he criticized the Confucian view that parents and relatives should always be one’s first concern.
However, It seems that Mozi’s prime concern was economic production, and he criticized Chinese rulers who squandered resources by, for instance, waging war. He also criticized traditions that seemed very unproductive, like expensive funerals and long periods of mourning, during which one was expected to do no work.
Now, it is, of course, rather uncontroversial to criticize war and the destructive forces and costs that it brings along. Somewhat less uncontroversial is perhaps the critique of superstitious practices that drain resources, but even people who subscribe to such beliefs would probably agree that such things cannot swallow too much of one’s material resources.
But there are other things in Mozi’s doctrine which appear more controversial. To quote a scholar: “To attain the end of a rich, numerous, orderly, peaceful, and literally ‘blessed’ population, Mo Tzu was willing to sacrifice very nearly everything else. Clothing should keep out the cold in winter and the heat in summer but should not be attractive. Food should be nourishing but not well-seasoned. Houses should keep out the cold and heat, the rain and thieves, but should have no useless decoration.” Mozi went so far as to condemn music, “which used men’s time and wealth in the making and playing of instruments, yet created nothing tangible”.
Mozi’s utilitarianism is, thus, extreme in its maximization of “utility”, in the form of production of material, “useful” things, and the production of new people, and in its rejection of what is of interest to the hedonistic utilitarian, namely, pleasure. Now, it is probably the case that no utilitarian economist adhere to such an anti-hedonistic view. Nevertheless, their political recommendations have not always been all that different. Politics is often regarded as a wealth-making machine, whereas pleasure is something that should be left to individuals, and not concern politicians. Just enable people to make money, and the rest will take care of itself.
The problem with this is that the way we make money affects the possibilities of leading a more pleasurable life. And it is not easy for an individual to plan these things by her- or himself, when the system itself is geared towards a specific way of making money. It is, for instance, hard to find a career that will give you a reasonable balance between leisure and money. The logic of the system demands that you either work hard for a lot of money, or work very little for little money (although many also work hard for little money, of course, just as a few lucky people work little for a lot of money). It is hard to find a career which requires a medium amount of work for a medium amount of money, even though that would probably produce more pleasure than the present way of making a living.
In conclusion, utilitarian politics must from the beginning regard people as interested in pleasure and promote it through politics, rather than decide that one thing (for instance, income) should serve as a proxy for happiness.