Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarian Ethics

In most general terms, utilitarian ethics by Jeremy Bentham is a theory according to which moral significance of an act or behavior is determined by its utility or usefulness to the society (Read). Arguing for the principle of utility, the scientist believes that any action should be either encouraged or condemned depending on its tendency to strengthen or weaken the benefit to an individual or a group of individuals (Veenhoven). People tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The principle of benefits takes into account both of these motives. The concept of utility expresses an ability to protect from evil or to bring good (Bentham 2). Therefore, all laws and institutions should be assessed in terms of how they contribute to the ultimate good by increasing happiness of the greatest number of people possible (Glover 7). A significant place is given to the economic utility neglecting the spiritual and ethical values because all that is economically efficient is immoral, and vice versa (“Classical Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham”). Another idea is the concept of ethical hedonism as a system that destroys traditional morality (Bentham 3). Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism underlines the maximal achievement of harmony in an individual and his or her substantial interests through control of social groups, governing bodies which ensure the maximum level of satisfaction within a society.

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Jeremy Bentham, who believed that only utilitarian arguments can justify political decisions, offered the following theory. According to him, the impact of policies on the welfare of an individual can be determined by finding out how much pleasure or pain is brought by these policies (“Classical Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham”). Their impact on the collective well-being can be calculated by summing up all the pleasures and deducting from this amount all the suffering that these policies bring to the members of a society (Read). However, as critics of Bentham’s approach emphasize, it is doubtful that there is a simple psychological state of pleasure, common to all those who have benefited from a policy, or a state of suffering, common to those who have suffered from its disadvantages. In other words, it is impossible to identify the measure and to sum up all sorts of pleasure and pain felt by a huge number of people. To apply these principles to creating laws, Bentham tries to give his moral philosophy clarity and certainty (Read). Hence, his idea of happiness calculus, felicific calculus, is based on an attempt to rank the pleasures and sufferings (Glover 52). The fundamental axiom of this arithmetic is the assumption of homogeneity of pleasure and its measurability (Marvin).

Pleasures obtained by different people or one person at different times may be described by the following seven characteristics: intensity, duration, certainty, closeness in time, fruitfulness (the ability of the pleasure to produce new ones), purity (unconfounded by a passing suffering), and prevalence (the ability to give pleasure to other people). Nevertheless, all the pleasures with different characteristics, according to Bentham, can be converted into a homogeneous pleasure. The first versions of the theory even contain a scale to carry out this procedure.

In Bentham’s opinion, a similar calculation could be carried out regarding the analysis of any legislative project or decision affecting the interests of various members of a society. To this end, he proposed to calculate the primary and secondary interests, and derived pleasure and pain delivered by the relevant bill to each member of a society, and then summarize these estimates and strike a balance (Veenhoven). Bentham proposed to refer to their monetary value instead of directly comparing different characteristics of pleasures and pain (Glover 32). Similarly, Bentham paid attention to the development of pain or sanctions that may be assigned by the society to a person as punishment for the violation of laws.

Utilitarian argument that the policy is justified if it completely satisfies the increasing number of preferences seems, at first glance, to be an egalitarian argument, based on strictly impartial assessment. If drugs are available in the community only for a limited number of patients, this argument speaks in favor of treatment of especially those who have the worst condition (Read). If a society can afford either a swimming pool, or a new theater, but not both together, and if more people want a swimming pool, this argument speaks in favor of building a swimming pool, unless the supporters of the theater are able to prove that their preferences strongly outweigh those of the majority (“Classical Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham”). It is impossible to choose one patient over another because he or she is more worthy (Veenhoven). A person cannot give preference to the tastes of theater-goers due to the fact that they are more worthy of admiration. In Bentham’s words, everyone should be considered as one and no one should be considered as more than one.

These simple examples suggest that the utilitarian argument not only means respect for the right of every citizen to be treated as an equal, but also embodies this right (Marvin). The odds that each individual’s preferences would prevail in the adoptions of a specific social policy will depend on the importance of these preferences and how many people share them, compared with the competing preferences in intensity and quantity (Glover 26).

Considering the full range of real-life individuals’ preferences, the egalitarian nature of the utilitarian argument is often misleading. According to the utilitarianism of preferences, officials should meet the preferences of people in the best way possible (“Classical Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham”). However, considering the individual preference of the consequences of a particular policy, a person can be driven either by a personal preference aiming at one’s own pleasure derived from the mentioned law, or an external preference with respect to opportunities of others, or both together. For example, in the past, whites, while entering a university, may have had a personal preference for the consequences of segregation, because this policy improved their chances for successful studies, or it might have been an external preference because they despised blacks and did not approve of racially mixed social situations.

The difference between personal preferences and external ones is very important for the following reason. If the utilitarian argument is taken into account, along with personal and external preferences it undermines the egalitarian nature of the argument. The chances that anyone’s preferences will depend not only on their personal claim to the limited resource but also on his or her respect for other people or their way of life are rather low. If the outcome of the case depends on external preferences, justification of a policy that improves the situation in the society in the utilitarian sense is incompatible with the right of those who are negatively affected by it, because they are not treated as equals.

This defect of utilitarianism becomes apparent when external preferences of some people are valued more due to the political views which are incompatible with utilitarianism. Suppose many citizens are racists and therefore, being a majority, they prefer to provide themselves with the best solution whites need, while blacks would be ignored even if their rights are trampled. If utilitarianism requires taking into account political preferences as if they were personal, it refutes itself, since the racism question does not adhere to the utilitarian theory. In any case, such distribution is not egalitarian in the mentioned sense. Blacks suffer correspondingly to the strength of the racist preferences and due to the fact that others find them less worthy of respect and care.

A similar drawback occurs when external preferences taken into account are altruistic or moralistic. Suppose many citizens do not know how to swim, but prefer the pool over the theater because they approve of sport and admire the athletes, or because they believe that the theater is immoral and must be stopped. If these altruistic preferences or personal preferences were taken into account, each swimmer would use not only their personal preference, but also preference of someone else to whom he or she brings satisfaction. Given the moralistic preferences, the result is the same: the actors and the audience will suffer because of the preference of the majority of the citizens whose personal preference, in this case, is not affected.

In conclusion, Bentham’s theory solves the problem of happiness of the masses using the hedonistic calculus. Despite the fact that it may contain the infringement of freedom, people have the right to be safeguarded only from significant attacks on their freedom. If the restraint is sufficiently harsh, then the government does not have the right to impose this restriction only because it would serve the common interest. The government, for example, has no right to restrict the freedom of speech, even when it considers that this would improve the general well-being. Therefore, a general right for freedom is still present, but with the proviso that it is limited to only the most important freedoms to protect the citizens from serious discrimination. Bentham’s theory does not adhere to the political arguments presented before, because the path to satisfaction of the majority blocks the right for fundamental freedoms such as the freedom to make a choice.

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