Utilitarianism is a consequentialist moral theory that was developed in its classical forms in the 18th and 19th centuries by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Both theoreticians were interested not only in a clearer formulation of a principle for personal morality but also a principle for social policy making. This dual intent of early utilitarianism is evident in the title of the early book in which Bentham introduces utilitarian moral theory: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
One striking feature of utilitarians has been their advocacy for public policy positions. Bentham advocated for the abolution of slavery, prison reform, economic liberalization, the freedom of expression, the right to divorce, greater women’s rights. Mill similarly embraced such reforms. The best known contemporary utilitarian, Peter Singer, who is a professor at Princeton University, also has continued this legacy. His early book, Animal Liberation is one of the most influential works on the animal welfare movement. He has been a strong voice vegetarianism and for progressive policies on global development aid, poverty relief, climate action and many other issues.
Both Bentham and Mill are value hedonists — that is, they think that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and view all other goods as derivative from that. Bentham also sees humans as largely motivated to pursue pleasure and to avoid pain for themselves. However, his moral theory argues that humans should act to increase the pleasure and decrease the pain not of themselves as individuals but of the majority of people. So although Bentham (especially in his early work) thinks we have a tendency to act egoistically, he recognizes that morality requires that we overcome that. Morality beckons us to act taking into consideration the well-being of all who will be effected by an action. This should certainly motivate the actions of civil servants and state policy makers.
Bentham advocates the principle of utility, which “approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” But more specifically, in his application, he sees it as imperative that we maximize the well-being and minimize the suffering of all. This view is normally succinctly formulated in the Greatest Happiness Principle: acts are recommended that produce “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Bentham and other utilitarians came to see difficulties in this formulation, because it might be thought to justify the oppression of a minority if the good to a majority were great enough. Yet even in his later writings Bentham emphasized that this would be a wrong conclusion. Oppressing a minority would in fact lead to lower aggregate well-being.
One of the fundamental ideas of utilitarianism is in fact that the value of all people is equal. Individuals are not more or less worthy of moral consideration because of some special characteristics of social prestige or intelligence. People are morally considerable because they are capable of pleasure and pain. Indeed, given this criteria, in Bentham’s view, even sentient animals are deserving of moral concern. Among other things, Bentham was an early advocate for the humane treatment of animals.
In evaluating pleasure, Bentham emphasized that we should look for numerous characteristics: its intensity, duration, the certainty of gaining it, its availability (that is proximity or remoteness), the chance that it is followed by similar sensations, the number of people it extends to. Considering what course of action to pursue, we will reflect on all of these issues. But this, and the fact that we have to consider the evaluation of this pleasure for all affected by the action does make decision making difficult.
This is complicated even more by the fact that Bentham advocates the equality of all pleasures. As he says “pushpin is equal to poetry.” That statement alone might not be so controversial — it may not be very important whether individuals find pushpin, a game similar to bowling, with smaller pins and a smaller ball, to be as good an activity as enjoying poetry. But if we conclude that all pleasures are equal, as Bentham seems to, then there are more serious issues. Certainly, it raises difficulties for decision making. We not only have to think about how intense a pleasure is and the like but also about who it is pleasurable for and how pleasurable it is for them. The calculations for making decisions under these conditions can be truly daunting.
Be that as it may, the idea of the equality of pleasures underlines that different people may find different activities to be good. Later “preference utilitarians” who emphasize this want a theory sensitive to individual difference and one that resists the tendency of state actors to act on preconceived and possibly dogmatic views of what is truly good for the individuals in a polity. (It is also important to note that preference utilitarians move away from value hedonism. They formulate a utilitarianism that should account for not only what pleasures and pains people have but for whatever they indicate they value, whatever they prefer.) But to return to the main point here, throughout history, states have had religious requirements for all in the state because of the presupposition that these were for the benefit of each individual (or that they should derive pleasure from them even if the don’t). Proponents of preference utilitarianism, who generally accept that people have different preferences, think it is desirable for the state to react to what people indicate they in fact want rather than to impose the state’s own view of what the people do want or should want. This can help avoid the problems of such a religious state, for example, that might dogmatically presuppose that they know what is in a groups interest. Whatever the value of that for democratic decision-making that in fact aims to meet the will of the people, the view of preference utilitarianism has problems. The view of the equality of pleasures met immediately with considerable resistance for equating sensual and other pleasures. The philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, in response, quickly drew on the idea of the equality of pleasures to ridicule Bentham’s utilitarianism, calling it a “pig philosophy.” If all pleasures are equal, then wouldn’t a pig’s life be as good as or better than a persons?
Bentham’s utilitarianism has been criticized on many counts. Is the decision-making calculus that it requires even possible? Given that what people take pleasure in changes over time, how do we take account for that in our calculus? How do we get a correct reading of what people do in fact desire? Besides that, there was resistance by many (like Carlyle) to the idea that all pleasures are really equally good. Isn’t there a greater pleasure in accomplishing a life-long dream than in enjoying a drink in the evening? Also, Bentham denigrated at least the formal acceptance of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts.” The fear spread among critics of utilitarianism that utilitarian states might all too easily roll over individual well-being and individual rights whenever social expediency seems to require it.
John Stuart Mill develops a form of classical Utilitarianism that builds on Bentham’s but addresses various problems that he sees in his predecessor’s views. That will be taken up next.