AS 4 Ethical Theories



Bentham on human nature and the hedonic calculus 

  • The first utilitarian thinker was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham was a legal and political thinker, as well as a moral philosopher. He was interested in both what was good for society and what was good for humans as individuals. Bentham’s moral thinking starts with an observation about human nature. 

Bentham on human nature: 

  • Bentham suggests that pain and pleasure are our masters. We instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain. It seems nature has built us this way. It is not God that has made us, nor are we driven by our logical reason. Our psychology is built on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. 

Bentham on utility:

  • Given that we are motivated by pleasure and pain. Bentham proposes one simple moral principle that both individuals and governments should adopt. The idea of utility is that actions should be carried out if they produce more happiness, pleasure or goodness and are likely to prevent pain, misery and unhappiness.

  • In A Fragment on Government, Bentham argued that ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’. Bentham rejects any appeal to the good of the country or the community. Communities are merely the sum of the individuals 

    • ‘By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. According to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.’  Jeremy Bentham 

UTILITY: The idea of ‘usefulness’ that we should do whatever is useful in increasing overall good and decreasing overall evil. 

The Hedonic Calculus 

  • In addition to suggesting that we are motivated by pleasure and pain and that the only moral principle needed is that we should do whatever is useful to achieve this end, Bentham also provides a method of calculating which course of action to take. This is known as the hedonic calculus

  • He suggests there are seven factors that should be taken into account when making a decision. In order to understand these, imagine that you have a sadistic teacher who offers to give you chocolate in class as long as you agree to be kicked in the shins each lesson 


What Bentham Means

Example (sadistic teacher)


How near is it?

Would things change if the chocolate was given at a later date?


How many people will be affected?

What if 100 got chocolate for 10 being kicked in the shin


How long will it last?

How long does the taste last? How long does the pain last?


How likely is that pain will come from the original pleasure?

Will the pleasure of stolen chocolate lead to the pain of being arrested?


To what extent will it lead to other pleasure?

Will more chocolate follow?


How strong will it be?

How much


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