Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think…
For much of the history of Moral Philosophy those who have proposed ideas about right and wrong have done so on the basis of rules and tradition. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Plato, Rene Descartes, William of Ockham, Nagel and Scanlon have all proposed various versions of rule based ethics. But in 1789 Jeremy Bentham, building on the work of other philosophers such as Joseph Priestley, changed the world of ethics when he introduced the concept of Utility in his work The Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Sometimes known as the greatest happiness principle, the principle of utility is the aim that actions should produce more pleasure that pain. As he wrote in The Principles of Morals and Legislation:
So it was that Bentham suggested that when we decide how to act we should think about how much pleasure our action will bring about and balance that against the amount of pain we will cause. So if torturing one person will prevent the deaths of ten innocent citizens then this is a moral action. He suggested that we can make this decision using a calculus (known variously as the hedonic or felicific calculus) to weigh up the extent, duration, propinquity etc of the action.
Bentham was also a very modern thinker for the eighteenth century - he argued that every individual counts equally regardless of status and that there should be no distinction between the type of pleasure being assessed - "pushpin is as good as poetry".
Many students that I teach rather like Bentham when they hear about him for the first time - his disregard for tradition, religion and the authorities of his age make him appealing. However it does not take long to show that it is not really a very sound ethical theory. The two most obvious problems are predicting the future and the risk of ”might being right” at the expense of minorities.
First of all, how can we really make a judgement about what will happen when we take a certain action? Take the earlier example of choosing whether to torture someone - how can we know that the information he gives under torture is genuine? How do we know that torturing him will not anger others more so that they are committed to retribution? We could make things much worse than we intended.
Secondly, there is the problem that if we adopt the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number then that means that the majority will always rule over the minority no matter the action. This is often illustrated through the hypothetical example of ten sadistic guards torturing one prisoner. Their torturing of the one cannot be prevented as ten sadists getting some pleasure outweighs the pain of the one.
Despite these criticisms Bentham’s principle of Utility would go on to spawn other versions of Utilitarianism that would attempt to deal with these problems. Thinkers such as J S Mill, Sidgwick, Hare, Glover and Singer have all created new versions of what might broadly be called Consequentialism. These theories together have influenced popular and political thought in ways that Bentham could have only dreamt.
If you want to know more about Utilitarianism I would suggest that you look at my recent post about In Our Time and their episode about it - you can find it here.