Essay on Bentham’s Utilitarian Theory

Not only do individuals behave in this manner, but they use the evaluative terms of good and bad to name those activities which bring them pleasure or pain. Now this is a position as old as Hobbes. What is new with Bentham and his claim of utilitarianism being a moral theory is the advocacy of such action.

What brings about pleasure is morally good, that which leads to pain is evil and should be avoided, (emphasis added). Human welfare can only be furthered if individuals maximise pleasure and minimise pain.

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As early as 1776, in the Preface to the Fragment, Bentham had written: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

What is so moral about an individual seeking his pleasure? Bentham’s answer to the charge of utilitarianism being, instead of a theory of morality, a theory actually of selfish psychological hedonism is that utilitarianism does not propose that one seek only one’s own pleasure.

In deciding whether to act in a particular manner, one has to be impartial between one’s own pleasure and that of all those affected to that act. “If all happiness is either the happiness of the agent himself or the happiness of others”, then we can clearly show that utilitarianism is concerned with the happiness of others.

Let us take the example of punishment if punishment is to have some utility, and to have utility is to generate happiness, then punishment is obviously not going to make the person who is being punished happy. It will instead make others happy by making it less probable that the crime is committed again.

It is true that for Bentham the community is a ‘fictitious’ entity nothing more than individual members constituting it. “The interest of the community then is the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.” It remains true, however, that the interests (happiness) of others are to count as much as the interest of oneself.

The context of one’s action determines the circle of individuals affected by it. For government officials, all the members of their state are affected by their action, so the government has to calculate the balance of pleasure and pain on a country wide scale. A private individual has to consider only the pleasures and pains of those few directly affected by his action.

Thus the government is concerned about the happiness or welfare of all its citizens, and the individual is to think of the happiness of other persons apart from himself- that is then, what makes utilitarianism a moral theory.

Bentham identified four general motives for human action. The purely social motive of benevolence moves only a few individuals. Such benevolent individuals purse the happiness of others even at the cost of their own happiness. An individual acting out of the semi-social motive of love of reputation or praise pursues others’ happiness only when it promotes his own as well.

The majority of humankind act out of the social motive of self-interest, when one’s own happiness is pursued, taking care not to cause others pain but not pursuing their happiness either. Finally, there are some individuals moved by dissocial motives, who actually experience pleasure by harming others.

Bentham also provided a calculus for determining the balance between pleasure and pain from any action. According to this specific calculus, one must give a numerical value to the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, and propinquity or remoteness, of the pleasures and pains of the persons affected by one’s actions, and one must undertake the action only if the value of the pleasure is higher than the value of the pain.

One should also factor in the fecundity of the pleasure producing act, as well as the purity and extent of the pleasure being produced. In calculating pleasure and pain, one must be careful to abstract both from the object which is the source of the pleasure/pain, as well as from the person whose pleasure/pain is being calculated.

This means that the pleasures everyone is to count as one, and the pleasure from a worthwhile activity like writing a history of Egypt is not by definition of higher value than that from gambling with a deck of cards.

Human beings seek happiness, their own and that of others. They ought to seek happiness, their own and of others. To seek, however, is one thing; the question is, how can they attain what they seek. What is required, in general, for human beings to reach the happiness they are searching for? Human happiness, for Bentham, depended on the services men rendered to each other.

Government can ensure these services by creating a system of rights and obligations. Political society exists because government is necessary to compel individuals to render services to each other to increase their happiness—this then is how Bentham made the transition from his utilitarianism to his political philosophy.

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