The Architect of Utilitarianism
By Matt McKeown
What is the proper calculus of morals and, to the extent they differ, of politics?
Born in England in 1748, Jeremy Bentham was not the sort of man one might expect to radically alter the very foundations of political and ethical thought. He grew up in a wealthy, conservative family in an age of English ascendancy: if anyone could have been expected to be content with the world as it was, it would have been he. Nevertheless, he founded a new school of philosophy that has transformed the western world and remains active and contentious to this day.
The roots of Bentham’s philosophy, which we know today as utilitarianism, were not new in themselves. He argued that the most useful course of action (both for individual decisions and for legal and political affairs) was dictated by whatever would bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This aligns generally with western notions of ethics; happiness was a central principle for Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and most other thinkers in our tradition (Kant being a conspicuous exception). In defining happiness primarily in terms of pleasure and pain, Bentham aligned with the intelligent hedonism of Epicurus and Lucretius—as well as the latter’s hostility to religion. Where Bentham innovated was in stating that the useful course of action was, ipso facto, the morally correct course of action.
This may sound simplistic, but Bentham’s ethical calculus was very sophisticated. He identified no fewer than twelve types of pain and fourteen types of pleasure to help analyze any individual action, and set forth a list of criteria he called “circumstances” to determine how important a possible pleasant result from a proposed action was (the course of action which earned the highest “score” being the morally correct one). These included how intense the pleasure in question is, how long it lasts, how certain it is to result from the proposed action, how likely it is to produce more pleasures, how likely it is to be followed by pain, and how many people it affects.
While classical Liberal thought had earlier sources, such as the writings of John Locke and Voltaire, Bentham (largely through his famous pupil John Stuart Mill) was among the most influential. The idea that the laws of a politically free society should be as morally neutral as possible—in contrast to the earlier notion that the state should actively promote the common good, including moral goodness—is traceable to Bentham, who considered laws themselves a necessary evil because they impinged on human autonomy. Bentham was also one of the early voices in a number of later Liberal reforms, such as extending the franchise to women, abolishing slavery, and banning cruelty to animals (on the grounds that their capacity to suffer made it wrong to needlessly inflict pain on them).
However, there was pushback on some of Bentham’s ideas from an early stage, not only among his opponents but even within the utilitarian school. Mill, mentioned above, criticized his failure to include conscience as an important element in human motivation, one distinct from the desires to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. Other utilitarians argued that pleasure and pain, by themselves, were not really enough to settle the question of utility in the first place: some take the view that the preferences of the people concerned must be given priority over pleasure and pain simply in the abstract, while Karl Popper (better known for his contributions to the philosophy of science) maintained that minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure must be the goal of a Liberal society. Interestingly, one of the strongest criticisms of utilitarianism ever written was hardly a philosophical rebuttal at all, but a short story—Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973, almost a century and a half after Bentham’s death.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like this author profile of Confucius, this essay on classical education as a form of play, or this “Great Conversation” piece on custom and convention. And check out our podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder Jeremy Tate.
Page image of the Palace of Westminster (source), London, the location of the Houses of Parliament in the United Kingdom.