Happiness Is Seeking the Greatest Pleasure for the Greatest Number of People
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Jeremy Bentham, from An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation
Kem Stone - 24 September 2007
During my first year of studies in philosophy, I attended a lecture on morality by Louis Pojman that asked the
question, “Why should I be moral?” Unsatisfied with Pojman’s reasons, and still naïve enough to believe that I
could do better, I did not stop thinking about the matter until I had developed and written down my own system
of morality which would be based on concrete principles rather than divine authority or any other dubious
foundation. When I submitted this to my professor, he told me I had discovered utilitarianism—which we would
be covering in class the following week. Since then I have found that this system suffers from many flaws, but I
still believe that its essence is strong when it comes to making moral judgments.
Jeremy Bentham outlines a system of utilitarianism in a very strict framework, based on the proposition that pain
and pleasure are the sole bases that nature gives us for determining what we ought to do or not do. To determine
the rightness or wrongness of an action, we must appeal to the principle of utility, which is “that principle 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” (179). A good action will be one
that conforms to the principle of utility—its tendency to augment the happiness of an individual or community is
greater than its tendency to diminish it. Bentham asserts that the terms ought, right, and wrong can have no real
meaning outside this framework.
Bentham does not spend much time objecting to opposing systems of morality, claiming that if utilitarianism is the
correct moral theory, we can refute others simply by showing that they are opposed to it. Certain moral theories
are directly opposed to it, such as asceticism, which approving of actions in as far as they tend to diminish
happiness is the direct opposite of utilitarianism. Most other moral systems, according to Bentham, fall under the
principle of sympathy and antipathy, which approves or disapproves of actions “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” (181). According to
Bentham, this is not a positive principle but in fact a negation of all principle, as it demands we accept one’s moral
opinion as justification for itself. Because its prescriptions will sometimes agree with and sometimes disagree with
those of utilitarianism, it too fails as a moral theory.
I will comment here that I believe Bentham may be guilty of offering straw-man arguments, as the principles he
deals with do not seem to be those widely accepted by those who would oppose utilitarianism. Ascetics believe
that pleasure is evil and all pain is good, but they constitute a very small minority—usually only the most devout of
the devoutly religious. As far as sympathy and antipathy goes, while it is true that most people without any ethical
training may justify their judgments by appealing only to their own moral sentiments, I have never come across a
serious moral theory that asserts our own prejudices are a sufficient basis for an ethical system. This being said,
Bentham’s argument does not suffer from these considerations, as his claims do not rest on the refutation of other
moral systems but merely the strength of his own.
To determine whether an action is right or wrong in a utilitarian framework, Bentham appeals to what he terms
“the hedonistic calculus.” We judge an action according to its tendency to produce pleasure or pain, but to
evaluate the pleasure or pain we must take into consideration four things: its intensity, its duration, its certainty
or uncertainty, and its propinquity or remoteness. When we are looking at the pleasure or pain in terms of the
tendency a certain action has to produce either sensation, we must make two further considerations: its fecundity
(the chance that the sensation will be followed by a sensation of the same kind) and its purity (the chance that the
sensation will not be followed by a sensation of the opposite kind). These six considerations will suffice to
determine the value of a pleasure or pain with respect to an individual, but when taking a community into account
we must also add its extent: the number of persons to whom the pleasure or pain extends.
Bentham now outlines a strict formula for taking an exact account of the general tendency of any act to produce
pleasure or pain within a community. I will paraphrase:
1. Determine the value of each pleasure produced in the first instance.
2. Determine the value of each pain produced in first instance.
3. Determine the value of each pleasure produced after the first (fecundity of the pleasure and purity
of the pain).
4. Determine the value of each pain produced after the first (fecundity of the pain and impurity of the
5. Sum up the values. If the balance is towards pleasure, it is good for the individual, if towards
pain, it is bad.
6. Take the number of concerned parties into account, sum up the values for each individual, and
take the balance of the whole. If it leans towards pleasure it is good for the community, if towards
pain, it is bad.
Bentham does not expect us to go through this process every time a moral decision is made, but recommends that
we always keep this in mind. The closer we adhere to this formula, the more exact our moral calculations will be.
Bentham concludes with a discussion of motives, as he understands that many would object to his system on the
grounds that it does not take into account the motive of an action when determining whether it is right or wrong.
Bentham does not subscribe to moral theories which commend or condemn actions based on the intent of the
agent. According to Bentham, actions are good or bad “only on account of their effects: good, on account of their
tendency to produce pleasure, or avert pain: bad, on account of their tendency to produce pain, or avert pleasure”
(183). A motive is not good or bad in itself but can only be judged on account of how often it leads to greater
pleasure or pain.
To those who would assert that certain motives (e.g. lust, cruelty, and avarice) are always bad and therefore
condemnable, Bentham replies that these names are only applied in cases where the motive leads to negative
consequences. For instance, the same motive may lie behind sleeping with one’s own wife or committing adultery,
but in the former case it is called sexual desire and in the latter it is termed lust. Therefore to condemn lust as an
evil motive is not to say anything at all, as lust is a term only applied when it leads to an evil. “Hence we see the
emptiness of all those rhapsodies of commonplace morality, which consist in the taking of such names as lust,
cruelty and avarice, and branding them with marks of reprobation: applied to the thing they are false; applied to
the name, they are true indeed, but nugatory” (184)
I believe that utilitarianism, when stripped to its basic principle of determining the rightness or wrongness of an
action on account of its tendency to augment happiness or diminish suffering, is essentially a good system. It does
not force us to justify our actions by appealing to anything outside or above the realm of our own experiences, and
is therefore more defensible than divinity-based ethical systems. It works well in most cases, and indeed I often
find myself appealing to the principle of utility to determine whether I should or should not perform a certain
action. In most cases, it is easy to determine which course will lead to increased happiness and which to
increased suffering, and in these cases we need look no further than the principles of utilitarianism to justify our
However, there are a few consequences of this system that cause it to ultimately fail as a complete moral theory.
In many cases, it will prescribe that we perform evil in order to bring about a greater good. For instance, we may
believe it is better to invade a country and cause the death of thousands of innocent people so that this country will
not invade ours at some point in the future and cause the death of tens of thousands of innocents. I would not
grant that we are therefore justified in the invasion, and so I cannot claim to adhere to utilitarianism as the basis of
my morality. It is often very difficult to determine whether an action will lead to greater good or increased
suffering, and therefore if we try to base all our actions on account of our supposition that they will lead to greater
good, we will often find that it leads to greater suffering. Therefore adhering to utilitarianism in itself may bring
about more harm than good, and thus by its own principles it ought not to be adopted at the exclusion of all other
Finally, it is contrary to instinct (and perhaps just wishful thinking) to say that right and wrong can be determined
by a mathematical formula such as that which is laid out by Bentham. For one thing, there is no basis for how we
can come to an agreement of the value of any pleasure or pain with respect to anything. How do we arrive at a
value for the duration or intensity of a pain when two people may consider the same pain and one find it weak and
short-lived while the other strong and long-lasting? In moral disputes that can not be so clearly resolved, this
system will not make it easier to determine the proper course but could in fact make things more complicated.
For these reasons, I would conclude that any sound moral judgment ought to take the principle of utility into
consideration, but not rely on it as its sole basis.