Utilitarianism and Bentham


Teleo = end = consequence

In this philosophy, there are two schools of thought

  1. Utilitarians
  2. Contractarianism


As per this philosophy, action is considered right or wrong based on the outcome/utility of human action. If the outcome of the action is good, then your action is right/ethical. If the outcome is wrong, then your action is also wrong/unethical.

There are two major philosophers in this school.

  • Jeremy Bentham (egoistic hedonist)
  • J.S. mill (altruistic hedonist)

 Jeremy Bentham (Quantitative Utilitarian)

The foundation of Bentham’s moral philosophy is comprised of three major characteristics:

  1. The greatest pleasure principle,
  2. Universal egoism, and
  3. The artificial association of one’s interests with those of others.

The greatest pleasure principle

Influenced by the empiricism of Bacon and Locke, Bentham held that all knowledge is derived from sensation. The sensation could be in the form of pleasure or pain. Thus, human behaviour, according to Jeremy Bentham, is hedonistic (engaged in the pursuit of pleasure; sensually self-indulgent; hedone means pleasure) hence for him the main aim of human life is maximising pleasure and minimising pain. As per him pleasure and pain are intrinsically worthwhile and ultimately motivate humans.

All rational beings prefer to pursue what makes them happy and avoid what makes them unhappy. As a result, the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by the amount of pleasure and pain it causes, as well as the number of people who are affected by the pain or pleasure. According to Bentham, happiness is the experience of enjoyment and the absence of pain.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. They govern us in all we say, think and do.

Pleasure is a relative concept that can be understood by the principle of diminishing marginal utility.

Diminishing marginal utility:

The same thing has different values for different people, like

1lakh rupee matters

  • For your little/something
  • For baggers a lot
  • For Adani nothing

Pleasure can be achieved by making efforts from your side or it can also be achieved by the disappointment-prevention principle.

Disappointment-prevention Principle

Bentham gave a higher priority to the protection of property by law and hence he held that the alleviation of suffering demands more immediate attention than plans to produce wealth.

There are two forms of hedonism:

Psychological hedonism: It states that all motives of action are grounded in the apprehension of pain or the desire for pleasure; and

Ethical hedonism: It holds that pleasure is the only good and actions are right in so far as they tend to produce pleasure or avoid pain.

As Bentham went on to explain, allowing for “immunity from pain”, pleasure is “the only good”, and pain “without exception, the only evil”.

Bentham’s theory the utility of an act is independent of its originating motive(s). In effect, there is no such thing as a good or bad motive. The utility of an act—its goodness or badness—is determined solely by its consequences: the benefits and/or costs that result hence he concluded that all pleasures are the same. There are no qualitative differences in pleasures. Pleasures only differ in terms of quantity.

When deciding whether to act or which activities to undertake, a person must calculate as best as he can the pains and pleasures that may reasonably be expected to accrue to the persons (including himself) affected by the acts under consideration. A similar calculation should guide the legislator in formulating laws.

However, Bentham recognised that it was not normally feasible for an individual to engage in such a calculation as a preliminary to undertaking every act. For this reason, he spoke of the general tendencies of actions to enhance happiness (suggested by experience) as a sufficient guide in most situations.

Hedonic Calculus:

To calculate pleasure and pain, Bentham devised the Hedonic Calculus based on empiricism as influenced by John Locke and David Hume. 

This calculus is comprised of seven elements, one can calculate the pleasure and pain of flowing from an action in a given situation using this calculus. 

1.    Intensity: How powerful is it? 

2.    Durability: How long has it been going on? 

3.    Its probability (certainty or uncertainty): How likely is it? 

4.    Its proximity/ remoteness: When is it likely to arrive? 

5.    Its fecundity: What if it could bring you even more pleasure? 

6.    Its purity: How pain-free is it?

7.    The scope/ extent of the problem: How many people are affected?

By considering all of this, we can determine the best course of action to take in any given situation. The goal is to provide the greatest amount of pleasure to as many people as possible.

Hedonism Vs altruism

Hedonism Vs altruism

Universal egoism 

It means everyone should do, what is in his interests. This idea promoted the value of liberty/freedom. According to Bentham, liberty is the absence of restraint. It means, one has liberty and is “free” to the extent that one is not impeded by others.

The artificial association of one’s interests with those of others

A person’s consideration of her interest involves expectations or mental projections of the future, not existing material interests. The specific expectations that attend the consideration of action be shaped by a myriad of external considerations, as well as the agent’s predilections and preferences.

 For Bentham, the most important elements of the external environment in which a person imagines outcomes are the penalties and rewards laid down by law and those deriving from other educative and moral institutional arrangements and practices, including the sanction exercised by public opinion.

In this sense, law and other agencies may be used to construct interests by providing individuals with the motives to pursue courses of action beneficial to the community.

Bentham and law

Bentham’s theory of punishment

The implicit consequentialism of utilitarian theory is central to Bentham’s theory of punishment, in which the objective was to ensure that a punishment is in proportion to the mischief produced by a crime and sufficient to deter others from committing the same offence.

Legal positivism

Bentham may have produced an early form of what is now commonly referred to as “legal positivism” by criticising the natural laws which advocate restricted/regulated rights of the citizens because he believed that natural laws are limitless, undefined and ambiguous. Hence rights of the people should be defined and protected by the sovereign power (government).

To this end, he developed rules to guide the lawmaker in the construction of a penal code, including the elements involved in the calculation of the mischief caused by offences and the appropriate punishments.

Self-preference principle

Self-interest is the motivation of all human action. Although, Bentham recognised the possibility of altruistic actions; he held that sympathy was a “primaeval and constant source” of pleasure and action. While it is not true that everyone always acts in his or her self-interest, it is best that the legislator design institutions and laws as if this were true. Self-interested acts are the norm; altruism is the exception.

Legislator as Doctor

What the physician/doctor is to the natural life/body of the individual, the legislator is to the political life/body of the people. This is how legislation is the art of medicine exercised upon a grand scale in society.

He rejected all forms of idealism in philosophy and insisted that in principle all matter is quantifiable in mathematical terms, and this extends to the pains and pleasures that we experience—the ultimate phenomena to which all human activity (and social concepts, such as rights and duty) could be reduced and explained.

Law based on an aggregate of individual interests

Although individuals may in general be the best judges of their interests, they may not always judge wisely. This creates a disjunction between the perception of their interest and their “real” interest. Since the “public interest” is a fictitious entity that represents nothing more than the aggregate of individual interests.

The legislator is a fully rational and informed person.

An effective legislator must have a fairly accurate understanding of the interests of those individuals that constitute the community, and of what will motivate them to act in the desired ways (especially in criminal law).

The knowledge needed by the legislator (to be effective in constructing adequate motives to direct individual actions) is of people’s apparent interests, while the legislator’s objective is to further their “real” interests, that is, what they would choose if they were fully rational and informed.

This means that assessing the value of the constituent elements of interest (pains and pleasures) is a tricky business for the legislator; he must accurately observe the ways people behave, deduce the motives behind their actions, and encompass this knowledge in the sanctions of the law. Yet these same observations of human behaviour may not also be reliable guides to the “real” interests of individuals, which must be determined on other grounds.

Subordinate Ends, Principles and Maxims

From the early of his utilitarian theorizing, Bentham understood that the achievement of utilitarian objectives in practice required the translation of the utility principle into elements amenable to implementation.

The maximization of utility required that the jurist cast a “censorial” eye on existing practices to test their capacity to enhance the greatest happiness. Where the jurist detects deficiencies, new rules and precepts must be developed that demonstrably accord with the utility principle.

In Bentham’s hands, this took the form of a multitude of subordinate or secondary ends, principles and maxims designed to give practical direction to the utility principle in every aspect of the law. The greatest happiness principle sets the over-arching objective and is the critical standard against which existing practices are to be judged.

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