Bentham’s Act utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham invented the first form of Utilitarianism – Act utilitarianism. He was one of the first atheist philosophers and wanted to devise a morality that would reflect an atheistic understanding of what it meant to be human. Such an understanding involved no longer considering ourselves as a special part of creation, but as just a part of nature. On this basis, Bentham made this claim:

 ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure’.

This means that it is human nature to find pleasure good and pain bad, which Bentham goes on claim suggests that it is pleasure and pain which determine what we ought to do as well as what we will do. We can say that we value something other than pleasure, but Bentham claims we would just be pretending. It is the nature of the human animal to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so that’s all there is for morality to be about. From this, Bentham devised the principle of utility:

An action is good if it leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory because it is what an action “leads to”, i.e. its consequences, that determines whether it is good.

Hedonic Calculus. The principle of utility holds that the ‘greatest’ pleasure is the goal of ethical action. It follows that a method for measuring pleasure is required. Bentham devised the hedonic calculus to do this. It is a list of seven criteria which each measure a different aspect of the pleasurable consequences of an action. In order to decide which action to do, you need to know in advance which action will result in the greater amount of pleasure. The hedonic calculus is what allows you to calculate that.

  1. How strong the pleasure is.
  2. How long the pleasure lasts.
  3. How likely it is that the pleasure will occur.
  4. How far away in time the pleasure will occur.
  5. The likelihood that the pleasure will lead to further pleasure.
  6. The likelihood that the pleasure will be followed by pain.
  7. How many people are affected.

Mill’s Rule utilitarianism

Mill proposed rule Utilitarianism, which replaces ‘action’ with ‘rule’ in the principle of utility, so ‘a rule is good if following it leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. Mill thought that Bentham’s hedonic calculus is far too time consuming to be of practical use for every single action, since happiness is ‘much too complex and indefinite’. Instead Mill proposes using rules since society has, over time, figured out what tends to cause happiness. We should go with those rules except in cases when they come into conflict with each other. Then we should apply the principle of utility to that particular case. In most cases we won’t be required to do such impractical calculating, however.

For example, Mill thought a key rule was the harm principle, which essentially states that people should be free to do what they want with their own lives so long as they aren’t harming anyone else. Mill thought that each individual is in the best position to make themselves happy and so if we all allowed each other to do what made us happy, society would overall be the happiest it could be.

Higher & Lower Pleasures. Mill claimed Bentham’s act utilitarianism was too hedonistic and focused on animalistic pleasures unduly. Mill claimed ‘it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. So quantity of pleasure is not better than quality. Mill devised higher & lower pleasures to deal with this. Lower pleasures are pleasures of the body like food, sex and drugs. Higher pleasures are pleasures of the mind like poetry, reading, philosophy, music. Lower pleasures have to be repeated constantly in order to get pleasure from them, but higher pleasures have a lasting effect on the mind capable of appreciating them, making it more happy intrinsically, therefore being worth more.

Utilitarianism justifies bad actions and is against human rights

The moral basis of human rights is deontological because human rights are intrinsically good. This seems incompatible with consequentialist ethics like Utilitarianism, which argue that something is only good not because of anything intrinsic but depending on whether it leads to happiness. So, Utilitarianism could never say ‘X is wrong’ or ‘X is right’. They can only say that ‘X is right/wrong if it leads to/doesn’t lead to – the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. In that case they couldn’t say ‘torture is wrong’. In fact, if 10 people gained happiness from torturing one person, a Utilitarian it seems would have to say that was morally right as it led to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When a majority of people decide, for their benefit, to gang up on a minority, that is called the tyranny of the majority.

Bentham didn’t accept that his theory had this consequence. In a case like 10 torturers gaining pleasure from torturing one person, that is certainly more pleasure than pain – but Bentham’s theory is not simply about producing more pleasure than pain. It is about maximising pleasure. An action is good if it maximises pleasure, meaning if it is the action which produces the maximum amount of pleasure possible. The action of allowing torture produces less pleasure than the action which finds a way to make everyone happy – not just the torturers.

However, what if, since we have limited resources, the best action we can possibly do is not one which enables everyone to be happy? In that situation, which does seem to be our actual situation, it looks like the logic of Bentham’s theory would justify the sacrifice of the well-being or even deliberate infliction of pain on some minority of the sake of the pleasure of the majority.

Mill’s Rule utilitarianism attempts to solve those kinds of issues too. The rule of the harm principle will result in a happier society than one which doesn’t. Since torture is harm, Mill’s utilitarianism can overrule individual cases where torture might result in happiness. Mill does not believe in rights. He thinks that everyone should be free to do whatever they want except harm others. The justification for this freedom from harm is not that people have a ‘right’ to be unharmed, but that it is for the greatest happiness for the greatest number that we live without harming each other. So, while Mill doesn’t believe in intrinsic rights, he proposes rules which seem identical to rights in their ethical outcome. Arguably that is sufficient.

It’s questionable whether Mill’s harm principle really is what would make people happiest. Arguably individuals are not in the best position to figure out and follow through on what will make them happy. This can be seen by the various mistakes and bad life choices people make when trying to achieve happiness.

Many argue that the problem with secular society is that people have become selfishly focused on their own happiness. The hyper-individualism that comes from capitalism and the oversexualisation of western culture are argued to be the result of Mill’s liberalism and his utopian belief that individuals best know how to make themselves happy.

Mill was writing in a time when religion and culture created a huge pressure of social conformity. Mill thought that because people were actually so different, each person would be much better off trying figure out what made them happy than if they were forced to behave the way others might prefer.

The issue of intentions and character

 Utilitarianism only views the consequences of actions as good, not the character (integrity) of the person who performs them. This goes against the intuition that a person can be a good person. It also has the bizarre effect that e.g stabbing someone could be good if after being rushed to hospital it was found, coincidentally, they had a brain tumour. Or someone who attempts to do good but bad consequences result which were unforeseeable, such as the priest who saved Hitler’s life when he was a child. The way we’d normally solve this problem is to claim that although the action had good consequences, the person’s intentions or character was bad. However, consequentialist theories seem unable to claim that because for them, it is only consequences which are good or bad, not intentions/character.

Mill responds firstly that a person’s character does matter because it will determine their future actions. The stabber should be condemned for his motive because that will prevent them stabbing others in future. The priest should be forgiven because he’s not likely to do anything bad in the future as his character is good. Secondly, Mill argues that having a good character helps you become happy. Motives and character therefore do matter ethically, though not intrinsically but only insofar as they result in good consequences, in line with consequentialism.

Issues with calculation

Utilitarianism claims that the consequences of an action are what make it good or bad. This seems to require that we know the consequences of our actions before we do them, which is arguably impossible. The butterfly effect is a concept from chaos theory which states that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might cause a hurricane halfway across the world. Future actions are incalculable in such a complex world.

Bentham argues that an action is right regarding ‘the tendency which it appears to have’ to maximise happiness. So, we actually only need to have a reasonable expectation of what the consequences will be based on how similar actions have tended to turn out in the past.

Mill argued that the hedonic calculus was too time consuming to be applied to every action, and thus impractical. His version of rule utilitarianism arguably overcomes this issue because it doesn’t require that we measure the pleasurable consequences of our future actions. Instead we should conform our actions to the rules which have been determined to be those which will produce the greatest amount of general happiness in society. General social happiness and life satisfaction seems easier to measure than each individual’s feelings.

Issues regarding measuring/calculating pleasure

We can only measure objective features of the world. We can measure distance using a tape measure because distance is objective. However, pleasure/happiness is a subjective feeling. There doesn’t seem to be a way to measure subjective feelings. There is no way to put a ‘tape measure’ next to pleasure. 

We can subjectively measure feelings. For example, we can tell the difference between a pin prick and getting stabbed. Or we can tell the difference between getting to eat a nice meal and winning the lottery. We can therefore somewhat measure how much pain or pleasure an action can be expected to produce. For example, in hospital, doctors ask patients how much pain they are in out of 10.

The issue of partiality

Utilitarianism argues that we should do whatever action leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It does not consider an individual’s particular emotional ties to their family or friends as relevant to that ethical calculation. E.g most parents would save their child’s life over the life of two random people. However, Utilitarianism would not regard that as the most moral action as saving two rather than one would lead to the greatest happiness. Therefore, Utilitarianism seems to be against the foundation of familial relationships which is at least a practical impediment to its implantability because family relationships define so much of our social existence. It is arguably also a conceptual flaw since family is intuitively thought of as a good thing.

Mill tried to respond that most people don’t have the opportunity to help a multitude of people so it’s good to just focus on those in our lives.

However, these days we have charities so Mill’s argument seems outdated.

Peter Singer makes the point that being brought up in a loving family is the best way to ensure children grow up to be as happy as they can. Singer points out that there have been experiments at bringing up children without parents and that they haven’t worked out well. So, if no one had a family, people would be much less happy therefore perhaps the happiness we gain from family is worth the unhappiness caused by our exclusion from our consideration of those who are not our family.

But, if you think about how much parents in the west spend on their children, if half that money were given to charity instead, actually the amount of suffering that reduced might outweigh the happiness the world gains by its having family relationships.

The burning building

If you were in a burning building and had a choice between saving a child and an expensive painting, which would you choose? Most people on first hearing this scenario would say the child, but utility based ethics seems to suggest that saving the painting is better because we could sell the paining for enough money to save the life of a hundred children. Giles Fraser argues that saving the painting suggests a lack of sympathy for the child and thus Utilitarianism encourages us to be immoral.

William MacAskill responds that actually saving the painting suggests a more cultivated sympathy which is able to connect to the many more children elsewhere who are in just as much need of saving and outnumber the single child there now. Their needs are greater than the individual needs of the one child.

Arguably it is practically impossible to expect people to act in the way utilitarianism wants, even if we admitted it was right in theory. Human emotions, especially empathy, are thus a practical impediment to the implementation of utilitarianism.