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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


BENTHAM

(1748 — 1832)

 

PSYCHOLOGICAL HEDONISM/

UTILITARIANISM

Jeremy Bentham, the son of a lawyer, was born in Houndsditch, London. He was educated at Westminster School, Queen's College, Oxford, and Lincoln's Inn. Although he was called to the Bar in 1772 he did not practise law to any great extent, preferring to study science and politics and to write. From 1785 he travelled widely in Europe. He left his body to be dissected after his death; it remains on show in University College, London.

 

ETHICS/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[1] According to Bentham people are motivated primarily by desire for their own individual pleasure and aversion to pain, both of which terms he understands in their everyday senses. (He allows that they may differ in quality but denies that 'higher' pleasures may be better than 'lower' ones.) He says further that they underlie what we call respectively right and wrong [a]: they determine what we ought or ought not do. However, despite their intrinsic selfishness, men are capable of social affections such as benevolence. This leads to his formulation of the principle of utility: the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question is the only right and proper, and universally desirable end of human action [Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, ch. I, i] [b]. By 'utility' he means:

any property in an object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness, or... to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered. [I, iii.]

Bentham argues that there is no other ultimate moral standard; all theories of morals in the last analysis rest on or appeal to the principle of utility. He therefore rejected moral sense, social contract, and natural law theories, and also the concept of natural rights [c]. The question then arises how, in deciding whether or not to act in a particular way, an individual is able to know if his behaviour will lead to pleasure or pain, or indeed determine how much of each will result. Bentham accordingly proposes his 'felicific calculus' of hedonism, and suggests seven factors for estimating the degree of pleasure or pain: intensity, duration; certainty or uncertainty; propinquity (nearness) or remoteness; fecundity, purity, number of people affected [ch. IV]. By 'fecundity' he is thinking of the extent to which a pleasure-producing action tends to be followed by further pleasurable sensations; while 'purity' refers to the freedom a sensation has from being followed by one of the opposite type. The number of people affected by the pleasure or pain is clearly central, because Bentham's theory relates not just to the individual in isolation but to the common good. Bentham accepts that individuals left to themselves will not always behave rationally in a way which will both increase their happiness and add to the totality of happiness of the community. To avoid conflicts between the individuals who compose "the fictitious body" (the community) a government must legislate to encourage people's positive social affections (such as benevolence) and discourage their inherently selfish tendencies, with a view to harmonizing individual interests to the benefit of the community as a whole [I, iv]. To the extent that public utility is thereby promoted by the following of laws justice is achieved and manifested [d]. Such harmonization involves essentially the concept of negative freedom [e] — the removal of hindrances rather than the promoting of, say, self-development. In the same way Bentham sees the primary purpose of punishment as deterrence rather than reform [f], provided it is consistent with the avoidance of excessive pain. In itself punishment is a necessary evil [XIII]. As for the nature of government, since monarchist or aristocratic constitutions tend to be self-interested, Bentham argues that the best government to maximize happiness is most likely to be one in which there is the greatest participation by the people, that is, some form of democracy [g].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

While not the originator of the concept of utility, Bentham is important for his powerful synthesis and formulation of utilitarian ethics. He is noteworthy also for his radical views about participatory democracy and for his attacks on non-elected institutions. By comparison with later utilitarian thinkers Bentham's views are arguably crude or incompletely worked out. For example, he has perhaps not sufficiently considered how his 'felicific' calculus can be applied. Do pleasures and pains admit of being mathematically quantified? Is this a satisfactory basis for ethics? He seems also not to have appreciated the difficulties in predicting consequences. Nor has he taken account of a possible role for intention as an element in moral judgement. Indeed his hedonist account of individual human motivation might be supposed to be limited — reflected perhaps in his view that positive social affections need to be encouraged by government. His concept of community is somewhat abstract and mechanical. And his emphasis on negative freedom suggests he has little recognition of any place to be accorded to, for example, self-development. Nevertheless, for all the weaknesses and omissions in his philosophy, as a key figure in the utilitarian and liberal tradition he cannot be disregarded.

 

READING

Bentham: [of many writings] Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), ed. J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart. There is a selection from his writings ed. A. Ryan.

Studies

R. Harrison, Bentham.

J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (ch. 4).

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Bentham

 

Note: Bentham's analysis of human motivation owes something to the French philosophe Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) and to the associationist psychologist and moral philosopher David Hartley (1705-1757) (both of whom were influenced by Locke); see also Hume [1d]. Helvétius was also a major influence on Bentham's utilitarianism.

 

[1a]

Individual's desire for pleasure and aversion from pain basis for right and wrong; individual fundamentally selfish; pleasures may differ in quality but not in worth

 

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Hume

Mill

Rawls

[7a]

[3b]

[3a c-f]

[3b]

[1c]

 

[1b] Principle of utility (greatest happiness of greatest number) as proper end of human action

   Hobbes

   Hutcheson

   Hume

Mill

Rawls

[7c]

[1b]

[3a b e f 4b]

[3c]

[1a c]

 

[1c] Rejects social contract moral sense/ intuitionist, natural law theories, and natural rights

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Hutcheson

   Hume

   Comte

Mill

Rawls

[7c d]

[4a b d]

[1a c d]

[3g 4c]

[2f]

[3a 4c]

[1d]

 

[1d] Government essentially evil but function to encourage social affection and discourage selfish actions to benefit society; the common good; justice in public utility

   Hobbes

   Hume

Mill

Rawls

[7d]

[3b 4b]

[3e 3g]

[1b]

 

[1e] 'Harmonization' of individual interests involves 'negative' freedom

   Hobbes

   Locke

Mill

[7f]

[4d]

[4a b]

 

[1f] Punishment for deterrence rather than reform

   Kant

   Hegel

Mill

[6c]

[6b]

[4d]

 

[1g; cf. 1d] Democracy the least bad form of government — because of participation    Aristotle [22d]