With his famous formulation of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham suggests moral acts are those that have the highest positive impact on the world. The good life thus depends not on ‘duty’ or ‘virtue’, but simply on making a difference.
In his 1776 work A Fragment On Government, the English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham puts forward his formulation for a new theory for ethics, a theory he calls utilitarianism. Famously, he writes:
It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.
With this statement, Bentham — a self-proclaimed atheist, intent on providing a secular basis for ethics — suggests the foundation of morality doesn’t have to be some kind of divine authority, nor must it make any appeal to ‘virtue’ (whatever that may be).
No: moral acts are simply those that have the highest positive impact on the world.
Writing four years later in his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham expands his picture in a substantial yet important passage:
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: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognises this subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law.
In other words, all of human behavior is driven by pain and pleasure — that’s just natural, Bentham says (echoing the philosophy of ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus).
People might dress it up with words like ‘duty’ or ‘virtue’, but when you get right down to the fundamental drivers of why we act the way we do, ultimately we all want more pleasure, and we all want less pain. Happiness for each of us is simply constituted by the aggregate balance of the former over the latter (for a counterargument to this position, see Nozick’s Experience Machine).
The strength of his utilitarianism, Bentham thinks, is that it accepts this fact of human nature, and incorporates it into a secular ethical system: doing the right thing means performing so-called ‘hedonic calculus’ to ensure we act in ways that bring about more pleasure than pain.
Bentham’s philosophy was built on by the 19th-century thinkers John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick, both of whom developed classical utilitarianism with further clarifications on how we might calculate the right thing to do.
Sidgwick, for instance, emphasized the importance of impartiality in our calculations — and this is where utilitarianism departs from Epicureanism.
For, while Epicurus also wants us to weigh pain and pleasure and perform ‘hedonic calculus’, he advises us to do so from our own perspectives — i.e. by asking ‘what acts will lead to the best long-term consequences for my mental health?’
Utilitarians like Bentham and Sidgwick, by contrast, want us to be as objective as possible: we must dwell on what will lead to optimal happiness not from our own points of view, but, as Sidgwick puts it,
from the perspective of the universe.
We must subtract our personal biases or investments away from the situations we encounter, and simply add our own happiness or suffering to the communal pile when considering the right thing to do.
Utilitarianism has since developed beyond the ‘classical’ theories of Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick, and there are more branches than the hedonistic variety.
Some of those branches, for instance, emphasize preferences rather than pleasure; some suggest agent-relative weightings; and some soften the maximal demand of doing the most good to doing ‘enough’ good.
Regardless of the differences in emphasis that can be found in the movement, the important takeaway is that utilitarianism is a philosophy that claims morality depends entirely on outcomes.
To work out the best path forward, utilitarians say, we must consider not which action we think is ‘inherently’ good or virtuous, but which action will produce the best results — which will lead to more ‘good’ in the world (pleasure, happiness, preference-fulfillment) and less ‘bad’ (pain or suffering).
Utilitarianism is thus a form of what philosophers today call consequentialism, a type of ethical theory which states that the morality of an action or situation depends on its consequences.
While we won’t get too hung up on meta-ethics here, it’s important to recognize that this way of thinking about morality is quite radically different to that put forward by many major philosophers.
For instance, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Buddha, and Confucius (as I point out in my How to Live a Good Life guide) all to some extent advocate for a form of virtue ethics — i.e. a good life is one that expresses particular virtues like wisdom, courage, kindness, patience, and so on.
Beyond virtue ethics, another ethical system is deontology, which refers to duty- or rule-based ethics. Here morality is determined by adherence to certain rules or principles — think the Ten Commandments, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, or the ‘golden rule’ (treat others as you wish to be treated).
For deontology — as with virtue ethics — consequences are not relevant; the important moral content lies in behavior itself.
Consequentialists, by contrast, think rules and virtues play no role in morality: an act should be described as moral or virtuous only if it leads to a good outcome overall, not because it expresses a particular quality or follows a certain rule.
A common example to draw out the difference between consequentialism and rule-based systems is to consider an ethically dubious act like torture.
For many deontologists, torture can never be morally justified in any circumstances. For consequentialists, however, it depends on what the torture leads to. Does it unlock information that could save the lives of thousands? If so, it may be the moral thing to do.
This is a simplification, and it should be noted that the debates between consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics are nuanced, and philosophers are quick to qualify each system with new rules and defenses.
The important takeaway for our discussions here is that, in general, consequentialists like Bentham say we live good lives not by claiming to be ‘virtuous’ or ‘principled’ people, but only if our efforts result in an overall net positive of pleasure / happiness / utility from the perspective of the universe.
Indeed, for consequentialists, the good life isn’t simply about cultivating our characters or enjoying our subjectivity; the good life is about making a difference.
While Bentham’s famous statement sounds rather straightforwardly appealing, many philosophers think this formulation actually reveals a key problem with utilitarianism: in most cases, it is hopeless as a guide for moral action.
For, when you inspect it closely, Bentham’s statement is actually combining two principles that often clash.
On the one hand, you have ‘the greatest happiness’, which is a principle that tells us to maximize how much individual human happiness should be produced.
On the other, you have ‘of the greatest number’, which is a principle that tells us to distribute happiness as equally as possible.
Finding ways to simultaneously fulfill both principles is at best challenging — and at worst simply unrealistic.
Bentham might respond that his founding formulation of utilitarianism itself is not intended as a guide for moral action. He writes:
It is not to be expected that this process [i.e. hedonic calculus] should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment.
Our individual capacity for hedonic calculus has no bearing on whether hedonic calculus itself is an accurate measure of morality: Bentham is looking to present an ideal theory for ethics, not a practical guide.
As the scholar Walter Sinnott-Armstrong puts it in his essay on utilitarianism:
Just as the laws of physics govern golf ball flight, but golfers need not calculate physical forces while planning shots; so overall utility can determine which decisions are morally right, even if agents need not calculate utilities while making decisions.
Even if we frame utilitarianism as a ‘criterion of what’s right’ rather than as a practical kind of ‘decision procedure’, however, we might still wonder exactly how pain and pleasure can be reliably quantified and calculated.
If utilitarianism cannot determine a consistent system for doing so, then as well as no practical use, surely it has no theoretical use either.
Bentham presented his own formula, which involves working out a consequent pleasure or pain’s “intensity”, “duration”, “certainty or uncertainty”, and its “propinquity or remoteness” — but he recognized the impracticality of performing such a calculation in lived experience.
Instead, he again recommends it as a model of the ideal calculation, suggesting that
as near as the process actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one.
Working out how one might accurately perform such hedonic calculus remains a hot topic for moral philosophers to this day.
If you’re interested in learning more about utilitarianism and other theories of moral philosophy, then consider exploring my ethics and morality reading list, as well as my How to Live a Good Life guide, which compares the wisdom of 7 major philosophies for life.
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