Bentham: Utilitarianism

A) Introduction

This teleological theory looks to the consequences of actions. It is opposed to Kant’s theories. What is right is to promote the general good (good for everyone) from our actions and rules. If we must have rules, they are decided upon by working out which of them produces, or maybe expected to produce the greatest balance of good over evil. The principle of utility is the sole alternate of right, wrong and obligation. Moral ends are to be sort in all we do to establish the greatest possible balance of good over evil. In most cases the end justifies the means.

Jeremy Bentham said that there must be some measurement of good and bad. Early in the 19th century he drew up his Hedonic Calculus (the balance between pain and pleasure) to measure pleasure and pain. It has seven dimensions:

  • Intensity – how deep it the pleasure or pain
  • Duration – how long will the pleasure or pain last?
  • Certainly – is the pleasure or pain certain or uncertain?
  • Propinquity – is the pleasure/pain near or far away?
  • Fecundity – is it going to be followed up by sensations of the same kind?
  • Purity – is it pure/pleasure or is it going to be tinted by the opposites? (Think about Sadism!)
  • Extent – the number of persons it extends to?

Bentham said it was wrong to have power over people. Either you work with people or for people when giving money to them. If you work with people, then people have a choice to do want they want with the money they are given. They are “autonomous” (self-ruling). If people work for you, they give gifts or money but they do it to get a sense of power as they have more material wealth than you do.
(Mother Teresa worked with people and she aimed for social justice.)
N.B. It appears from the calculus that Bentham’s concerns was about the quantity of pleasure as opposed to the quality of pleasure.

B) The Quality of Pleasure

John Stuart Mill claimed there was a fault in the Hedonic Calculus because it was concerned with the quantity rather than the quality of pleasure. For example if guards are happily torturing a prisoner, the quantity of their pleasure may be massive compared with the prisoner’s pain but is there any quality in their pleasure?

Slavery – The majority benefit in a household from having a few slaves and the happiness of the slave owners out weighs the suffering of the slaves but is there any quality in the slave owner’s happiness? To counterbalance these situations, Mill set about replacing quantity with quality. He still claimed, like Bentham, that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good, but in addition he claims that there are higher pleasures of the mind and lower pleasures of the body. He claimed by introducing quality, the problems caused by slavery and the torturers are eliminated because the pain of the prisoners and the slaves outweighs the pleasures.

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

C) Act Utilitarianism (AU)

Act Utilitarianism holds that you sort out what is right or obligatory. It is done by trying to see which of their actions open to you will or is likely to produce the greatest balance of good over evil in the universe. (Examining their actions). What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over evil? The question they do not ask is what affect will everyone doing this act in this kind of situation have on the general balance of good over evil. AU may accept that generally telling the truth is useful but every time they have a choice, they have to ask themselves, in this case is it for the general good? (See Situation Ethics). AU must decided wherever the affects of their action will influence others because the influence you have on others is an affect of your action, orbit an indirect affect – viewed adultery, violence in the home, etc.

D) Criticisms of AU

A particular act may be made – right or wrong – by facts about it rather than the amount of good or evil it produces. (Kant – intrinsic good – right in itself) It maybe wrong to do this act because it involves breaking a promise or telling a lie.

  • Should a poor man steal from a rich man to feed his family? If every poor man stole the rich man’s things, then it would be unfair.
  • Should society punish the innocent person, either to be held up as an example or to prevent riot or panic?
  • Should a woman not keep her promise to pay a boy who has done work for her because she has a better use of the money?
  • A businessman owes money to a person who is wealthy. He has the money but decides to send it to the third world, as he will cause more pleasure to help the third world than to make the payment.

E) General Utilitarianism (GU)

They ask, “What would happen to the general balance of good over evil if everyone were to do this action?”
Taking the instance of the poor man stealing from the rich man to feed his family, the GU would have to ask what would happen if all the poor and needy stole from the rich and the answer they would give would be that it is wrong. That would be unfair on the rich. This brings into play the principle of universability. However, the poor man might argue that if no one knew he is doing it and they do not copy his actions, then he is still producing the greatest happiness for his family by stealing. That is why the GU has had to add universability to the AU theories.


The poor man might argue that if all poor men stole to feed their families then they would all be better off. The majority would be happier than the minority (the rich). At this point the GU has no answer. It can not show his actions to be wrong. One has to coincide that his action is right or reject utilitarianism completely.

F) Rule Utilitarianism (RU)

A reflection of Mill on Bentham’s original idea.
It has found in recent years. It highlights the centrality of rules in morality. In general, we are to appeal to a rule like truth telling, rather than by asking what particular action will have the best consequences in situation. (AU) But we must always consider wherever our rules promote the greatest good. Not what action has the greatest utility but which rule. The principle of utility is to determine the rule, not the action. The rules must be selected, maintained, revised and replaced on the basis of utility and nothing else. (How useful they are at the time in question). If they are not useful they must be changed.
It is for the greatest good if we do not lie. This means, for the RU; it may be right to obey a rule like telling the truth simply because it is so useful to have that rule. When, in that particular case, telling the truth does not lead to the best consequences.
Bishop Berkeley is a critic of AU and GU. He says we do not have the time or we are ignorant of the facts, or we are bias or prejudice to sort out each action as it arises as if an AU would so we must have some rules. RU theories can be put in practice in society today.
AU – I want to abort my baby because that is the kindest action for all. It is my decision alone. Authority is the Hedonic Calculus. More pleasure/less pain for the majority.
GU – We all want to abort our babies and all have the right to. This will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
RU – Warnock Report – There must be some rules. In some circumstances abortion is forbidden. There must be medical advise.

G) Practical Objections to Utilitarianism

  1. Can you measure pleasure? Is it possible to measure the intensity of pleasure against the time it lasts? Or a long lasting pleasure against a shorter pleasure?
  2. Should we pursue economic growth and luxury at the expense of all generations to come and leave a worn out world? We can eat, drink and be merry pursuing happiness and have the world in a worse state than we found it. Is this a moral position? Some critics think that the welfare state of the 20th century was born out of utilitarian principles and has encouraged dependence and has stopped initiative.
    One person’s happiness is another person’s misery. Practicality to make laws for majority happiness when human interest and passions are so varied is difficult.
  3. Does the general happiness for all count as greater happiness of the few? Here we are back to the example of the innocent man being sacrificed to prevent a riot. The majority are generally happier because there is no riot. What about the happiness of the innocent man’s family? The individual in this case. Justice has not been done.
  4. As pleasure and pain are the only considerations of the Hedonic Calculus, and not who has or what has pleasure or pain, you could extend the argument to the animal kingdom. Pleasure is pleasure and pain is pain. Animal pain is still pain. It could be argued that the utilitarian should cause no animal pain. Some critics claim this is mere sentimentality.
  5. Utilitarianism is a reductive, minimalistic ethic. It reduces ethics to the single dimension of happiness. The question the utilitarian asks will any great harm result from this action and not the question of what can be done to further the happiness and pleasure of others. Certainly a Christian criticism would be that life is not merely about seeking pleasure.
  6. Bentham would have wished to see his theories universalised, and was himself quite selfless in some of his actions. There are many who would use the pursuit of happiness as an excuse for their selfish behaviour. Generally humans are not selfless in their approach to life. Most people will look after their family but not attempt to maximise the happiness of the whole of mankind. Christian teaching could be accept this selfish approach (agape).

H) Christian Theological Objections to Utilitarianism

  • Love in Christianity is central and agapic. It is self-sacrificial. It may not bring pleasure in the same way as Bentham means. It is serving God and being dutiful. Some question wherever pleasure and happiness are intrinsically good (Kant disagrees). Mill never claimed happiness could be proved to be good. He merely observed it was what most people desire and consequently ought to be the outcome of our moral actions.
  • Can the end ever be made the soul justification of the moral action? History is full of accounts of dreadful crimes committed claiming that the end justifies the mean, e.g. Hitler killing the Jews, the Crusades – Christianity going wrong – making people Christians. There is little consideration of any real sense of justice, if you follow the end justifying the means. Justice for every man is important. The innocent must be respected even if the well-being of the majority suffers, e.g. Slavery – the masters’ benefit but the minority are sacrificed: Jesus’ crucifixion. This issues brings into conflict two opposing views:
    • “You do not use your judgement, it is more to your interest that one man should die for the people than the whole nation should be destroyed.” High Priest after Jesus’ death.
    • William Watson is possibly quoted as writing (C16th), “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”
  • Utilitarianism almost rejects the motive behind the action as unimportant. Most other philosophies including Christian thinking requires you to look at your motives. (Sermon on the Mount). The Christian motive would be love; the Kantian is good will. Christians are warned that the intention is important. They must not be hypocrites seeking to praise or persona; reward. As long as the consequences are good, anything goes for the utilitarian.
  • Is there a place in morality for duty for duty’s sake; not because of a consequence that is produced. Sometimes we see it as our duty or obligation to do something and not to think about the consequences for us, or anyone else.
    • There is little place for God’s will in utilitarianism. The Christian does not expect happiness all the time. Obeying God’s will may not bring about immediate earthly happiness on all occasions. A Christian striving for earthly happiness would seem unnecessary if you are going to have eternal happiness with God.
    • Happiness and pain are not paramountly necessary to a Christian. Pain is often to be gone through for some unknown reason.
    • Goodness comes from the nature and purpose of God, not necessarily from happiness. Jesus invites his followers to suffer with him on occasions when he says his followers must also “take up their cross”. Kolbe, Father Damian (Leper).