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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’” – Bentham.

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.

Bentham’s felicific/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 qualitative Utilitarianism; higher & lower pleasures

The claim of Utilitarianism, that the morality of an action reduces entirely to how far it maximises pleasure, provoked many to criticise it for degrading morality and humanity; that it is a “doctrine worthy only of swine”.

Mill combated this objection by distinguishing between lower pleasures gained from bodily activity, such as food, sex and drugs, and higher pleasures gained from mental activity, such as poetry, reading, philosophy, music. Swine are not capable of experiencing higher pleasures, so to combat this objection Utilitarianism need only show that higher pleasures are superior to the lower.

Mill points out that Utilitarian thinkers had already successfully defended against this issue by showing that higher pleasures are overall superior at producing a greater quantity of happiness than lower. Lower pleasures are fleeting, lasting only for the duration of the action that produce them. Furthermore, lower pleasures are costly because they are addictive and tempt people to choose instant gratification, or what Mill calls a ‘nearer good’ over greater goods like health, for example by consuming sugar or drinking alcohol. Higher pleasures of the mind have no such ill effects and can have a lasting enlightening effect on a mind which has cultivated a habit of appreciating them.

Bentham claimed that all pleasures were equal, that the pleasure gained from poetry is just as valuable as that gained from playing pushpin (a children’s game). Yet even Bentham’s quantitative approach will judge higher pleasures superior for tending to produce more durable pleasure with less cost than lower pleasures.

However, Mill goes further than Bentham and claims that the superiority of higher pleasures can be proven not only on quantitative grounds, but a ‘higher ground’ than that, their superior quality.

“It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others” – Mill

Higher pleasures are of greater quality than lower pleasures. That is why they are worth more. We can determine whether a pleasure is of greater quality than another based on which is preferred over the other. Through education in the collective experience and choices of humanity we can discover which pleasures are desired over others.

‘Competent judges’ are people with experience of both higher and lower pleasures. Mill claims they always prefer higher pleasures to lower pleasures, thus demonstrating their greater quality. Mill now has his full answer to those who say Utilitarianism is a doctrine fit only for swine:

“it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides” – Mill.

Humans can experience mental pleasures of a higher quality than the low pleasures that both humans and pigs can experience. Socrates illustrates that some humans can experience mental pleasures of a higher quality than other humans. Mill’s claim is that when we investigate such cases, we find that beings prefer the highest mental pleasure they are capable of experiencing over lower pleasures. In fact, people acquainted with both higher and lower pleasures show such a great preference for the higher that they will put up with discontent to get them and would not lose it even for any quantity of a lower pleasure. Mill concludes:

“we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account” – Mill.

When we study what types of pleasure are preferred over others by those with the capacity to experience many types, we find that it is those higher pleasures of the mind that are preferred and are often pursued while sacrificing comfort. We can thus conclude of their greater quality.

For example, consider the case of an artist who suffers from financial deprivation to produce their art. A piano player who arduously wades through hours of practice to finally experience the pleasure of playing some composition of genius. A student who avoids short-term pleasures and indolence by diligently studying for their exams, to avoid a monotonous life and pursue the pleasure that comes from development, exercise and eventual mastery of their interests and talents.

Many will object to Mill’s claim that a person who can and has experienced higher pleasures will always prefer them to lower ones. There are plenty of times when mentally cultivated people will occasionally give in to instant gratification or even sink into complete addiction to lower pleasures.

However, Mill responds that this objection misunderstands his argument. Everyone prefers the highest pleasures they have been able to experience, but it doesn’t follow that everyone always chooses them over lower ones. The ability to experience higher pleasures requires careful cultivation which is easily lost, either due to falling into addiction, weakness of will/character, external pressures or lack of internal support.

“Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.” – Mill.

Rule Utilitarianism

Generic Rule Utilitarianism adds the idea of following rules to the principle of utility. So, an action is good if it conforms to a rule which maximises happiness.

We need to determine whether following a rule, e.g., like not lying, will promote more happiness than not following it. If so, then following that rule is good.

This then typically splits into strong and weak rule Utilitarianism. Strong Utilitarianism is the view that the rules should be stuck to no matter the situation. Weak Utilitarianism is the view that the rules can be broken if it maximises happiness to do so.

Strong Rule Utilitarianism is typically criticised for simply becoming deontological, for abandoning the principle of utility and its consequentialism and becoming an empty deontological theory that follows rules for no good reasons, having abandoned its own supposed meta-ethical grounding.

Weak Rule Utilitarianism is typically criticised for in effect reducing into act utilitarianism, since they would judge every action the same. If following a rule such as telling the truth maximises happiness in a situation, then both Act and weak Rule would say to tell the truth. If breaking the rule and lying maximises happiness in a situation, then both act and weak rule would say to lie.

Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism

Mill’s version of Rule Utilitarianism was an attempt to improve on Bentham’s and arguably also avoids the issues of the strong and weak varieties.

The principle of Utility holds that the goal of moral action is to maximise happiness. Mill says he “entirely” agrees with Bentham’s principle of Utility, that what makes an action good is the degree to which it promotes happiness over suffering. Mill calls this the principle of Utility the ‘first principle’.

However, Mill disagreed with Bentham’s approach of judging every action by the principle of utility. Mill claimed that happiness is ‘much too complex and indefinite a goal’ for that.

“Although I entirely agree with Bentham in his principle, I do not agree with him that all right thinking on the details of morals depends on its explicit assertion. I think that utility or happiness is much too complex and indefinite a goal to be sought except through various intermediate goals” – Mill.

This is an attempt to solve the issue of calculation. It is extremely difficult to calculate which action will maximise happiness. Even though that is what constitutes the moral rightness of an action, nonetheless because of our limited knowledge our actual moral obligation is to follow whatever secondary principles humanity’s current level of understanding has produced regarding how to gain happiness and minimise suffering. We can draw on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of our species on what avoids suffering and produces satisfaction and happiness.

This gives us ‘secondary principles’ which are more general rules and guidelines. These are the product of our civilisation’s current best attempt to understand how to produce happiness. They are therefore subject to improvement. As particularly obvious examples, Mill points to murder and theft as being injurious to human happiness.

Another secondary principle Mill thought important enough to be adopted as the practice of government was the harm principle. It essentially states that people should be free to do what they want so long as they aren’t harming others. Mill argued 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.

Of course, secondary principles will sometimes conflict. Another secondary principle could be helping others. In the case of the trolly problem, where killing one person is the only way to save five people, the harm principle conflicts with the principle of helping others. In the case of theft, which is a harm, if it is the only way to save a starving family then the secondary principles of not harming and not stealing come into conflict. Mill explains that to resolve conflicts we need to apply the first principle:

Those who adopt utility as a standard can seldom apply it truly except through the secondary principles … It is when two or more secondary principles conflict that a direct appeal to some first principle becomes necessary” – Mill

If we appeal to the first principle of utility, it looks like we should steal to save starving people or inflict harm (to the point of killing) by pulling the leaver in the trolly problem, to save five people.

It’s debated whether Mill is a Rule Utilitarian. He clearly thinks that it is morally right to do an action that conforms to a rule which experience has shown to maximise happiness. However, Mill clearly also thinks that sometimes individual actions should be judged to resolve a conflict or applicability issue in rules/principles. Arguably the question of how exactly to categorise Mill is irrelevant and we could simply conclude that Mill’s Utilitarianism is the perfect synthesis of Act and Rule Utilitarianism. It does avoid the problem of generic Rule Utilitarianism, that it either becomes a meta-ethically empty deontological theory or collapses back into Act Utilitarianism.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Problems with calculation

Utilitarianism seems to require:

  • That we know can the future.

If the goodness of an action depends on whether it maximises pleasure, then we need to know the consequences of the action before we do it. That seems to require that we know the future. Yet, predicting the future is often incredibly difficult.

Worse, we need to know not only the consequences of an action, but of all the possible actions we could do in a situation.

  • That we can make incredibly complex calculations about the range of possible actions, sometimes under time-constraints.

Once we know the consequences of all the actions we could do, we then need to calculate the impact they will have on pleasure and pain. Not just in the short, but in the long-term. Worse, we might need to make these calculations in time-sensitive situations.

  • That these calculations include the objective measuring of subjective mental states like pleasure and pain.

We can only make objective measurements of objective things. For example we can measure a thing’s length by putting a tape measure next to it. The calculations about the amount of pleasure and pain an action will lead to require that we measure subjective feelings, which seems impossible. There is no objective way to measure subjective feelings because we can’t put a ruler next to them.

All three of these conditions are plagued with difficulty, and yet each seems absolutely necessary if we are act on the principle of utility.

Bentham’s response to issues with calculation. Bentham claims 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.

To further defend Bentham, we could argue that we can measure subjective feelings. In hospital, doctors ask patients how much pain they are in out of 10. Doctors will admit that this is never a perfect indicator, but it is accurate enough to be informative.

Mill’s response to issues with calculation. Mill’s version of Utilitarianism seems to avoid these issues regarding calculation. We do not need to know the future, nor make incredibly complex calculations, nor measure subjective feelings. We only need to know the secondary principles that our civilisation has, through its collective efforts and experience, judged to be those best conducive to happiness. We then need to simply follow those principles as best we can. For Mill, the moral rightness of an action depends on maximise happiness, but because of the immense complexity of that, our only moral obligation is to just do our best to follow the principles geared towards producing happiness of our society, which are themselves only the best current principle that our current stage of civilisation and culture has managed to develop.

Mill is admitting that to perfectly act on the principle of utility is currently impossible. However, he denies that this means Utilitarianism fails in its requirement as a normative theory to successfully guide action. For that, Utilitarianism can rely on the principles and rules that, to the best of our current knowledge, most produce happiness. Society also ought to be progressive, meaning it should retrospectively assess and improve its principles and rules. This works well enough and in principle can continue to work better as we discover more, biologically, psychologically, sociologically and politically how to maximise happiness.

In cases of a conflict of rules, Mill adopts the same approach as Bentham and says we must judge the individual action by the principle of utility, though Mill adds that we should consider the quality not only quantity of the pleasure it could produce. He agrees with Bentham’s point that when judging individual actions, we can base our calculations on what we know of the ‘tendencies’ actions have. We do not need to exactly predict their consequences.

Regarding how to calculate or measure the quality of a pleasure, Mill explains that we need only investigate people’s preferences and we see that people always prefer higher pleasures to lower ones, except when falling into addiction or weakness of character.

Mill’s response to issues with calculation is quite amusing in how dismissive he is, so I’ve been tempted to quote part of it in full:

“Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this—that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life, are dependent … Men really ought to leave off talking a kind of nonsense on this subject, which they would neither talk nor listen to on other matters of practical concernment. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack. Being rational creatures, they go to sea with it ready calculated; and all rational creatures go out upon the sea of life with their minds made up on the common questions of right and wrong” – Mill.

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.

Kant vs consequentialism

If a Nazi asked whether we were hiding Jews and we were, it seems Kant is committed to the view that it’s wrong to lie. That seems to go against most people’s moral intuitions because of the obvious terrible consequences to telling the truth in that situation. This puts Kant at odds with consequentialist theories like Utilitarianism.

Kant could respond that each person is ultimately responsible for what they do. As a rational agent, you are responsible for what you do, and the Nazi is responsible for what they do. Lying to prevent the Nazi from killing is to act as if you were responsible for the Nazi’s action, but you are not. You are responsible for what you do, and so you should not lie.

Kant points out that we cannot control consequences in the example of the murderer at the door. If we lied about where the victim was, yet unknown to us the victim had actually moved there, then we would be responsible for their death. So Kant is arguing that we cannot control consequences and thus cannot be responsible for them. So, they cannot be part of our moral equation.

Arguably we are responsible for what others do. Kant pictures a human being as a rational agent who is ultimately an individual, responsible only for what they do. This arguably overlooks the fact that we exist in complex webs of social influence such that part of who we are depends on our interactions with other people. We exist in deep connection to other people and thus to that extent are in fact responsible for each other’s actions.

Furthermore, just because we can’t control consequences completely, does that mean they don’t matter ethically? Also, consequentialism isn’t arguing we can completely control the consequences, just that we should consider them when acting. Furthermore, we can control consequences to a degree. Shouldn’t we therefore be responsible for them to that degree?

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 extensive charities all over the world 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.

Possible exam questions for Utilitarianism

Does utilitarianism provide a helpful method of moral decision-making?
Can moral judgement be based on the extent to which, in any given situation, utility is best served?

Is it possible to measure good or pleasure and then reach a moral decision?
“The moral action is the one which has the greatest balance of pleasure over pain” – Discuss.
Is moral action a matter of following accepted laws that lead to the greatest balance of pleasure over pain?
Is an action morally justified if it produces the greatest amount of good over evil?
Assess whether rule utilitarianism successfully improves on act utilitarianism.
Critically compare act and rule utilitarianism

How morally valid is the hedonic calculus?
“Morality is not based on utility” – Discuss.
Should Utilitarianism aim to promote the greatest overall balance of good over evil or the greatest amount of good over evil?

Quick links

Year 12 ethics topics:
Natural Law.
Situation ethics. Kantian ethics. Utilitarianism.
Euthanasia. Business ethics. 

Year 13 ethics topics:
Conscience. Sexual ethics. 

OCR Philosophy
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions