Utilitarianism (Latin utilis, “useful”), in ethics, the doctrine that what is useful is good, and consequently, that the ethical value of conduct is determined by the utility of its results. The term utilitarianism is more specifically applied to the proposition that the supreme objective of moral action is the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This objective is also considered the aim of all legislation and is the ultimate criterion of all social institutions. The utilitarian theory of ethics is generally opposed to ethical doctrines in which some inner sense or faculty, often called the conscience, is made the absolute arbiter of right and wrong. Utilitarianism is likewise at variance with the view that moral distinctions depend on the will of God and that the pleasure given by an act to the individual alone who performs it is the decisive test of good and evil.
British philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the originator of the doctrine known as utilitarianism. He declared that in order to come into accord with the laws of nature, government and citizens should act to increase the overall happiness of the community. The utilitarian principles of Bentham and others who shared his beliefs, including British philosopher-economists James Mill (1773-1836) and his son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), helped to bring about social and political reform in Britain.
In the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham advanced utilitarianism as the basis for reform. He claimed that one could scientifically ascertain what was morally justifiable by applying the principle of utility. Actions were right if they tended to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Happiness was equivalent to pleasure. Through a kind of moral-mathematical calculation of pleasures and pains, one could tell what was a right or a wrong action. If all pleasures and pains were of the same order, then a utilitarian evaluation of moral, political, and legal activities would be possible. Also, Bentham argued, if values were based on pleasures and pains, then theories of natural rights and natural law were invalid. John Stuart Mill, severely modifying some of Bentham’s principles, discounted Bentham’s method for calculating quantities of happiness.
In Britain, liberalism was elaborated by the utilitarian school, chiefly the jurist Jeremy Bentham and his disciple, the economist John Stuart Mill. The utilitarian reduced all human experiences to pleasures and pains, maintaining that the only function of the state was to increase pleasure and reduce pain and that legislation was acceptable as an evil designed to reduce worse evils. Utilitarian liberalism had an especially beneficial effect on the reform of British criminal law. Bentham demonstrated that the harsh penology of the 18th century was uneconomical and that leniency was shrewd as well as decent. Mill defended the individual’s right to act freely, even to the person’s own detriment. His essay “On Liberty” (1859) is one of the most eloquent defenses of free speech.
WORK OF BENTHAM
Utilitarianism was enunciated in its most characteristic form by the British jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). In Bentham work, utilitarianism is as illustrated in his definition of virtue as the “doing [of] good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness.” Bentham employed the utilitarian theory as a foundation, not merely of an ethical system, but also of legal and political reforms. He maintained the necessity of sacrificing smaller interests to greater, or, at all events, of not sacrificing greater interests to smaller, and so posited as the ethical goal of human society the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Bentham sought to illustrate the doctrine of utilitarianism by counterpoising it to the doctrine of asceticism on the one hand and to the theory of sympathy and antipathy on the other. Asceticism he defined as the principle that pleasure should be forfeited, and pain incurred, without expectation of any recompense. The theory of sympathy and antipathy he held to be based on the “principle which approves or disapproves of certain actions, not on account of their tending to augment the happiness, nor yet on account of their tending to diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question, but merely because a man finds himself disposed to approve or disapprove of them: holding up that approbation or disapprobation as a sufficient reason for itself, and disclaiming the necessity of looking out for any extrinsic ground.”
In his exposition of the theory of utilitarianism, however, Bentham postulated “four sanctions or sources of pain and pleasure,” namely, the physical, the moral, the religious, and the political. The physical sanction, according to Bentham, is the basis of all the others. He sought further to devise a scale of pleasures and pains, rating them in terms of their intensity, purity, duration, propinquity or remoteness, certainty, fruitfulness, and the extent to which pleasure and pain are shared among the greatest number of people.
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