Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Mr. Betham in the Auto-Icon

  • Bentham was born in England in 1748, the son of a wealthy Conservative family. At an early age, he was recognized a prodigy, given his ability to read complicated texts.
  • By 1769, he was a successful and wealthy lawyer.
  • He became disillusioned with the law, believing it was too complicated and, as a result, unfair.
  • For the last 40 years of his life, he wrote philosophical observations about a number of subjects, producing 10-20 pages every day.
  • He developed theories of justice and prison reform.
  • The last part of his life was dedicated to education reform—and he worked as the leader of the University College London.
  • When he died, he stipulated in his will that his body be preserved in a wooden cabinet, called the “Auto-Icon”. The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, but the entire body was preserved when Bentham died. Unfortunately, his head was badly damaged and was the object of many practical jokes.

Utilitarianism Explained

  • Most basically, Utilitarianism is defined as “The greatest good for the greatest number.” or: “The greatest good over the least pain.”
  • Utilitarianism is both a theory of the good and a theory of the right:
    • As a theory of the good, utilitarianism is welfarist, holding that the good is whatever yields the greatest utility –‘utility’ being defined as pleasure, preference-satisfaction, or in reference to an objective list of values.
    • As a theory of the right, utilitarianism is consequentialist, holding that the right act is that which yields the greatest net utility.
    • From the principle of utility, he found pain and pleasure to be the only absolutes in the world: “nature has put man under the governance of two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain.” From this he derived the rule of utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Later, after realizing that the formulation recognized two different and potentially conflicting maximanda, he dropped the second part and talked simply about “the greatest happiness principle”.
  • Bentham’s philosophy is described as felicific calculus, an algorithim for determining the degree/amount of pleasure and pain generated by an action. Bentham said that one needed to measure the action in terms of:
    • Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
    • Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
    • Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
    • Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
    • Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
    • Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
    • Extent: How many people will be affected?

Act Utilitarianism, Rule Utilitarianism, and Negative Utilitarianism

  • Traditional utilitarianism is also known as “Act Utilitarianism,” because it stresses the idea that the best act is whichever act would yield the most utility.
  • Rule Utilitarianism states that the best act is the one that would be enjoined by whichever rule would yield the most utility.
    • An example to illustrate the difference would be a situation where a surgeon has six patients: one needs a liver, one needs a pancreas, one needs a gall bladder, and two need kidneys. The sixth just came in to have his appendix removed. Should the surgeon kill the sixth man and pass his organs around to the others? This would obviously violate the rights of the sixth man, but utilitarianism seems to imply that, given a purely binary choice between (1) killing the man and distributing his organs or (2) not doing so and the other five dying, violating his rights is exactly what we ought to do.
    • A rule utilitarian would look at the rule, rather than the act, that would be instituted by using the 6th man for parts. The rule, in this case, would be: “whenever a surgeon could kill one relatively healthy person in order to transplant his organs to more than one other person who needs them, he ought to do so.” This rule, if instituted in society, would obviously lead to bad consequences. Relatively healthy people would stop going to the hospital, we’d end up performing many risky transplant operations, etc., etc. So a rule utilitarian would say we should implement the opposite rule: don’t harvest healthy people’s organs to give them to sick people. If the surgeon killed the sixth man, then he would be doing the wrong thing.
  • Negative Utilitarianism just reverses the priorities of the Bentham model. Rather than focusing on maximizing pleasure, a negative utilitarian would argue that minimizing pain is the most important priority.

Criticism of Utilitarianism

  • Individual Difference. Impossible to construct a model that deals with the differences in pleasure and pain of individuals.
  • Could lead to violations of “common sense” morality. For example, if forced to choose between saving one’s child or saving two children of strangers, most people will choose to save their own child. However, utilitarianism would support saving the other two instead, since two people have more total potential for future happiness than one.
  • Time Frame. It can take an enormous amount of time to find out the impact in terms of pleasure/pain.
  • Attacks theory of natural rights. For example, if slavery or torture is beneficial for the population as a whole, it could theoretically be justified by utilitarianism.




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