The theory of utilitarianism was put forward entierly by Jeremy Bentham, who wrote about Ethics and Politics. He was a social reformer keen to improve the lives of the working class. Many of the improvements made in the treatments of criminals in the 18th and 19th centuries were the results of Benthems ethics. Bentham believed that which is good is that which equals the greatest sum of pleasure and the least sum of pain. (Hedonism). We can divide his theory into three parts: His view on what drove human beings, and what goodness and badness was all about. ( The motivation of human beings)
The principle of utility, which is his moral rule
The hedonic calculus, which is his system for measuring how good or bad the consequence is. The motivation of human beings Bentham maintained that human beings were motivated by pleasure and pain, and so he can be called a hedonist. He said, in principles of morals and legislation, ‘nature has placed mankind underthe governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.
The principle of utility
Once Bentham had established that pleasure and pain were important qualities for determining what was moral, he developed the utility principle. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by its ‘utility’ or usefulness, Usefulness refers to the amound of pleasure or happiness caused by the action – hence it is a teleogical ethical theory which determines a good act by the ends it brings about.
The theory is known as the greatest happiness principle, or a theory of usefulness. ‘An action is right if it produces th greatest good for the greatest number’, where the greatest good is the greatest pleasure or happiness and the least pain or sadness, and the greatest number are the majority of people.
When faced with a moral dilemma, Bentham argued that one should chose an act in such a way that brings about the maximum possible happiness for the most people. However the possible consequences of different possible actions must be measured clearly to establish which option generates he most pleasure and the least pain. To measure the results, Bentham proposed the hedonic calculus This calculus was supposed to measure the amounts of pleasure and pain according to seven factors.
The seven factors
- Intensity: How intense is the pleasure or pain?
- Duration: How long does the pleasure or pain last?
- Certainty: What is the probability that the pleasure or pain will occur?
- Propinquity or remoteness: How far off in the future is the pleasure or pain?
- Fecundity: What is the probability that the pleasure will lead to other pleasures
- Purity: What is the probability that the pain will lead to other pains
- Extent: How many persons are affected by the pleasure?
In the hedonic calculus
Benthem considers how strong the pain or pleasure is, whether it is short lived or life long and how likely it is that there will be pain or pleasure. He considers how immediate the pain or pleasure is and how likely it is to lead to more of the same, the extent to which there might be a combination of pains and pleasures, and lastly the number of people affected. The balance of pleasures and pains is compared with those of other options and the best result determined. The action that leads to this best consequence is the morally correct one to pursue.