The search to understand the way in which we arrive at ethical judgements about behaviour led philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) to this conclusion –
'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.'
Bentham has removed goodness as being something inherent in an action. What he is looking at is the outcome of an action.
Bentham is described as a Hedonist, which means someone who dedicates their life to the search for Pleasure. The Hedonists were a group of ancient Greeks who sought true Pleasure which has no Pain in it. Twenty-First Century Society is frequently described as Hedonistic but this is different because Alcohol and Consumerism often have Painful Consequences.
Pleasure or Pain
Bentham said that when anyone has to decide on a right or wrong course of Action, they ask themselves: ‘What is the most useful thing to do in this situation?’ and what they are actually weighing up is which path will lead them to the greatest pleasure. He called this the Principle of Utility –
'By the Principle of Utility is meant that property of any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.'
Bentham thought you could measure Pleasure. He lived in a time of major Scientific Advances and in his opinion Pleasure was not something abstract, but measurable. He devised a chart to quantify the pain or pleasure caused by an action. It is called the Hedonic Calculus.
- Intensity of Pleasure.
- Duration of Pleasure.
- How certain is it that Pleasure will Result?
- How near is the Pleasure to you?
- How Continuous is the Pleasure?
- Is there likely to be Pain mixed with this Pleasure?
- How widespread will the Pleasure be?
The Strengths of Bentham’s Utilitarianism
- It provides a clear, mathematical method of deciding any course of action by Balancing Pleasure and Pain which makes it easy to compare Different Options.
- It is a popular approach to Ethics because people do seek Pleasure and avoid Pain.
- It looks at the Consequences of an Action.
- Common sense is involved, this Ethical Code is accessible to everyone.
John Stuart Mill
Because John Stuart Mill’s father, James, had been a follower of Bentham, the son grew up well steeped in Utilitarian Philosophy. Mill regarded Bentham as the ‘The Father of English Innovation, both in Doctrines’ and in Institutions’. Mill’s knowledge put him in an excellent position to appraise and revise the Eighteenth-Century Philosopher’s thinking.
Weaknesses in Bentham’s Utilitarian Argument
- The emphasis on Pleasure Mill saw as little more than Animal instincts. For Example, The pursuit of Sex, Food and Drink.
- Bentham does not distinguish between different sorts of Pleasures of give them any rank order.
- What is Pleasure for one person may not be for another, and may indeed cause Pain.
- The Hedonic Calculus is not easy to apply and certainly not practical when faced with a situation requiring a quick response.
- Bentham’s Utilitarianism relies on accurately predicting the consequences of an action. That is not always possible.
- Decisions favour ‘The greatest number’ of people, which means the wishes of minority groups are ignored.
- Some people make decisions that are not designed to bring them personal Pleasure.
Quantity isn’t Everything
Mill rejected the Hedonic Calculus, which measured the Quantity of Pleasure involved and equated one form of Pleasure with another. He had stated: ‘All Things being equal, pushpin is equal to poetry’. Mill did not agree. In his view some pleasures are of a higher quality than others because they engage those parts of the brain which distinguish humans from animals in intelligence.
Higher Pleasures – Satisfy the Mind
Lower Pleasures – Pleasure the Body.
Through his Philosophy, Mill tried to define Utilitarianism in a way that made it Practical to use when creating rules for Society. Unlike Bentham, Mill concentrated on how decisions are reached so the Greatest Good is given to the Greatest Number of People in a Society.
This could of course mean that individual Pleasure is sacrificed to the Community. Nobody gets Pleasure from paying a Bus Fare, but the Community gets Pleasure from a Good Public Transport System. Mill believed a Society had to have general rules arrived at by Utilitarian Reasoning, in order to operate. These needed to be generally agreed and accepted for a society to operate. His example was that it is necessary to tell the truth because that leads to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Bentham’s brand of Utilitarianism judged every situation individually and in isolation from the community. In every case he asked what action would bring about the Greatest Good. This means every Action is judged on its own Merits and individual Circumstances taken into Consideration, which gives it the Merit of being flexible but is time-consuming to operate. Critics say this could be used to justify almost anything.
Utilitarianism, like other ethical theories, is offered as a way of making a moral judgment about the right and wrong way of behaviour. Let’s consider how useful it is for arriving at personal decisions and communal decisions.
Mill was concerned that Bentham’s Utilitarianism favoured the wishes of the majority at the expense of the minority. It was a philosophy that could justify slavery and even torture if the number of sadists enjoying it outweighed the number of victims.
Bentham’s Utilitarianism offered a straightforward approach to arriving at Moral Decisions with one simple rule, the Principle of Utility. It is referred to as ‘Strong Utilitarianism’ because Bentham insisted the principle must be adhered to without exceptions.
Mill’s ‘Weak Utilitarianism’ took a more flexible approach, accepting there might be occasions when it was necessary to break the principle if the consequences of the action were harmful. The example of truth-telling he gave was qualified with the understanding that telling the truth could be set aside if it would result in harm.
Preference Utilitarianism developed in the Twentieth Century with Philosophers such as R.M. Hare (1919-2002) and, more recently, Peter Singer (1946) sought a way of Decision-Making that would take account of the view of Minorities. Preference Utilitarian’s consider whether a decision is right or wrong by asking whether it fits in with what people would rationally prefer.
Peter Singer was as concerned as Mill about the rights of Minorities: ‘Our preferences cannot count any more than the preferences of others’, Singer wrote. He went on to say that everyone’s individual preferences must be taken into consideration when deciding what was in the best interests of the group. By doing that, he believed everyone’s interests were given equal value.
He also went on to argue that the right thing to do is what is in the best interests of the greatest number, rather than simply the result of calculating Pleasure against Pain. What Singer’s approach to Utilitarianism does is concentrate on minimizing suffering, rather than maximizing pleasure. He believes there is a far Greater agreement about what causes pain than what gives Pleasure.
Strengths of Utilitarian Ethics
- It is a simple and common sense Philosophy which people in the Twenty-First Century feel able to apply.
- It is Fair and suits a Democratic Society.
- Considering the consequences of an Action comes naturally to People.
- It is a Universal Rule, applicable whatever the Culture, Religion or Society.
Weaknesses of Utilitarian Ethics
- You have to know what gives other people happiness, or what is in their best interests. How can you be sure? What if one persons idea of happiness involves giving Pain to another?
- No account is taken of situations where a person wants to do something irrespective of the consequences.
- It relies on accurate predictions of the outcome.
- A rule that benefits those involved is not always applicable in all situations.
- No account is taken of situations where the wrong motives lead to the right outcome.