Utilitarianism: Bentham and Mill
Utilitarianism begins with the work of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English political and social reformer. Educated at Oxford, Bentham eventually headed up a small group of thinkers called the “Philosophical Radicals.” This group, which included James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill, more on him later), was dedicated to social reform and the promulgation of Bentham’s ideas.
Bentham based utilitarian ethics on the so-called “greatest happiness principle,” an idea originally enunciated by Frances Hutcheson (16941746), one of the founders of the Scottish Enlightenment. Put simply, Bentham believed that the goal of ethics was to promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Interestingly enough, Bentham went on to say that happiness consists in experiencing more pleasures than pains. That is, Bentham connects the welfare of the greatest number to a hedonistic view that values pleasure over pain. He then constructed what he termed a “hedonistic calculus” as an objective measure of the value of various pleasures or pains in terms of such categories as “intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent.” Using such quantitative measures, Bentham felt he could calculate the “happiness factor” of various proposed courses of action. The action promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number in a particular situation would be morally best.
Notice two things about Bentham’s approach. First, implicit in his argument is the belief that the only way to measure the moral worth of an action is to evaluate its consequences: Will it produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number or not? Whatever does produce the greatest happiness in a particular situation, Bentham claims, will be morally correct. Second, the contrast to Kant could not be more clear. For Kant, the moral worth of an action lies strictly in the motive for taking the action, never its consequences. Only a good will, properly apprehending its duty through use of the categorical imperative and then acting to fulfill that duty, is capable of performing a morally good action.
Bentham himself was an ardent political reformer, arguing tenaciously for a number of, what were for the day, radical views, including equality for women, prison reform, decriminalization of homosexuality, and animal rights. The more philosophical development of his ethical ideas fell to his followers, particularly James Mill and, later, Mill’s son John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The younger Mill, aggressively educated by his father from ages three to fourteen, grew to be one of the
great thinkers of the nineteenth century. In the process, John Stuart Mill considerably refined Bentham’s utilitarianism.
Writing in his 1861 essay Utilitarianism, Mill modifies Bentham’s view of pleasure and pain. Bentham had sought to distinguish pleasures and pains quantitatively (e.g., more or less intense, more or less in duration, more or less in extent, etc.). Mill, by contrast, sought to include qualitative features, arguing, for instance, that the experience an intellectual or aesthetic pleasure (like reading a good book) might be more pleasurable than the physical pleasure of something like a good meal. Mill otherwise seeks to defend Bentham’s basic ideas. In doing so, Mill tries to resolve a conflict in Bentham’s thought. This conflict arises because of a difference between Bentham’s account of (1) hedonism for the individual and (2) hedonism as an ethical theory. An individual acts, Bentham says, solely out of a desire for happiness (i.e., more pleasures than pains). This account could be termed descriptive in that it claims to explain why a person acts. But according to hedonism as an ethical theory, however, the individual should seek “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” This view is not descriptive, but normative because it tells what the individual should do.
This conflict leads to two problems. The first is obvious:
if each individual is motivated to act to attain personal happiness, then why would that person have any concern to promote the welfare of others? The second is more theoretical: How to get from a descriptive theory of how individuals act to a normative theory of why individuals should all seek “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
To solve the first problem, Mill introduces the idea of external and internal sanctions. These sanctions serve for Mill as the bridge between the world of the individual and the larger social universal of which we are all a part. External sanctions, for example, are social rules and laws that reward or punish persons for particular actions. Individuals view these sanctions in terms of their potential for pleasure or pain and adjust their future behavior accordingly.
Mill’s view of internal sanctions is different. There, he sounds a bit like Hume, arguing that obeying a moral law produces a feeling of pleasure (and disobeying such a law produces a feeling of pain). Such feelings can, in turn, be can be observed to develop (in some people, at least) into a deep sympathy for others, thus illustrating the operation of the “greatest happiness principle” from within such persons. For such persons, their own happiness may truly depend on the happiness of others, which seems
to show that the individual desire for happiness can be reconciled with the theoretical demand that individuals act for the welfare of all. Why such connection might occur in some individuals rather than in others remains a question. At this point, contrasting Mill with Hume is instructive. Mill argues that, as can be observed, individuals develop a sense of pleasure or pain associated with obeying or disobeying moral laws and that, at least for some, those pleasures and pains become the basis for a sympathetic connection with others. Hume argues that such sympathetic connection is natural. By growing up in a human society, we intuitively learn to associate a feeling of moral pleasure with some acts and moral pain with others. Thus, for Hume, sentiment (or the particular feelings associated with moral or immoral acts) is a normal part of human development; whereas, for Mill, internal sanctions—and the role of the “greatest happiness principle”–can be observed in people’s behavior, but a general theory of why people do this is lacking.
Another place where a general theory is lacking is in the
second problem described above: How to get from a descriptive theory of how
individuals act to a normative theory of why individuals should all seek “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Mill argues here that there is no way to prove such a first principle as the “greatest happiness principle.” Indeed, he says, “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.”
Since Mill’s time, utilitarianism has been widely debated, and an interesting distinction has emerged between Bentham and Mill’s theories. For Bentham, what makes an action right depends upon whether it contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. That is, Bentham focuses on the happiness-producing potential of each individual action. We can call this act-utilitarianism. Mill, to some extent, seems to subscribe to this view, but he also at points takes a position we might call rule-utilitarianism. From this viewpoint, the morality of an action does not depend on whether it actually produces the greatest happiness; rather, what counts is whether the rule that the action exemplifies in fact satisfies the need for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. These two forms of utilitarianism continue to be debated by ethicists today. To illustrate the distinction between these two forms of
utilitarianism, consider the following case. Suppose that a person unknowingly carried a deadly, highly contagious disease. An act-utilitarian might argue that we would be justified in killing such an individual to protect society from the disease (and thereby promote the greatest
happiness of the greatest number). A rule-utilitarian, on the other hand, might point out that the rule or principle involved in such an act (that we might kill someone when we found it in the best interest of the greatest number) should be rejected because it was, in fact, a dangerous rule and could ultimately lead to diminishing the greatest happiness of all. (Incidentally, you may have noticed that the rule-utilitarian’s position is reminiscent of Kant.)
In conclusion, the utilitarian viewpoint championed by Bentham and refined by John Stuart Mill has come to be one of the two major schools of ethical thought among academic philosophers in the United States and elsewhere. Its major competition, of course, comes from Kant’s deontological ethics. It is worth mentioning as well that utilitarianism has also had a powerful impact outside ethical circles. Remember that Bentham himself was primarily a liberal political reformer, so it is fitting that politics and public policy are also areas in which reasoning about the “greatest good for the greatest number” continues to widely practiced.