Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) worked for legal and political reforms with his ethics providing their philosophical rationale. His ethics is found in his major work, the compendious Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), which contains his hedonistic theories of psychology and ethics informing not only his ethical theory but also his impulse to legal and political reform. Bentham’s ethics is utilitarianism in its classic form. This is a teleological theory stating that the moral worth of an action depends wholly on its beneficial consequences for the larger society, that is, an action is good—positively put—if it maximizes “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (that formulaic phrase, incidentally, was coined by the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria), or—negatively put—it minimizes the misery of the greatest number.
Bentham equates good and evil with pleasure and pain respectively—the good is pleasure and pleasure good; evil is pain and pain evil. He thus revives the hedonism of Epicurus. Bentham’s hedonism is based on his belief that the most fundamental motives driving human behavior are the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. Even expressly nonhedonistic systems of ethics, he contends, implicitly fix on pleasure or happiness as their ultimate justification and the goal of life.
Bentham’s original contribution to hedonism is his effort to quantify pleasure and pain according to a “hedonic calculus” that enables one to measure the amount of either of them—there can be more or less of pleasure and so of pain—thereby to determine their value. The amount of pleasure can be determined according to the following measures its (1) intensity; (2) duration; (3) certainty/uncertainty; (4) propinquity/remoteness (distance from one); (5) fecundity, or the chances of its issuing in further pleasures or not; (6) purity, or the chances of its resulting in pains; and (7) the number of other persons affected by one’s indulging certain pleasures. Thus, the gustatory pleasures of eating are more intense than those produced by reading, though the latter typically last longer than the former. The certainty of receiving a raise in salary will give more pleasure than only its possibility. The thought of attending a concert this evening will provide more pleasure than that of attending a concert a month from now.
Friendship is fecund in the amount of felicity it promises for the future while watching a film is not. Studying for an exam is pure because it entails no risk, whereas the imbibing of alcoholic beverages is impure because it does. Finally, the pleasure derived from doing charitable work will benefit others, whereas staying home to watch television will not. However, Bentham advises that applying the hedonic calculus will not yield exact measurements of the degree of pleasure (or pain) but at best only approximations.
Bentham identifies two factors determining the amount of pleasure/pain felt: one is the strength of the pleasurable or painful stimulus itself; the other is a person’s degree of “sensibility,” or susceptibility, to the stimulus in question. Pleasure and pain thresholds vary among people. Individuals’ susceptibilities may be influenced by such factors as their health, physical strength, infirmities, gender, age, and mental outlook.
Bentham defines “pleasure” as “an interesting perception” that is simple or complex. A simple pleasure is irreducible to one or more basic ones, whereas a complex pleasure is thus reducible. Thus, the sweetness of honey is a simple pleasure, whereas a meal shared with friends is complex, being composed of the flavors of food and pleasant conversation. Complex pleasures may be mixed with pains such as strenuous exercise that reinvigorates but strains. What distinguishes a complex pleasure from merely an aggregate of simple ones is that it stems from the same cause. The simple pleasures of eating and friendship constituting the complex pleasure of the table are alike occasioned by food. Bentham provides a long list of simple pleasures coordinated with simple pains. Among the simple pleasures are those derived from the four senses, friendship, wealth, power, practicing a skill, the imagination (as stimulated by the fine arts), and the practice of virtue. The simple pains include those deriving from the senses, privation, enmity, and guilt.
Bentham identifies four of what he calls “sanctions,” that is, sources and motives of pleasure or pain: (1) physical, those sanctions resulting from the course of nature distinct from human agency such as a salubrious spring day or a destructive storm; (2) political, for example, sentences and laws issuing from officials like judges and legislators respectively; (3) moral/popular, sanctions deriving unofficially from the populace such as public approbation or disapprobation of one’s behavior; and (4) religious, sanctions inspired by religious beliefs as in divine commands. The pleasures/pains resulting from these sanctions differ not in kind but only in the circumstances of their occurrence, which determine their interpretation. Thus, suffering from natural causes (hurricanes, disease) or human negligence (traffic accidents) is interpreted as a calamity. Suffering inflicted by legislation or the judgment of a court is interpreted as punishment. Suffering resulting from public disapprobation is interpreted as moral.
Bentham’s “psychological” hedonism lies behind his “ethical” hedonism. Since the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the motives and goals of life, then human beings, both individually in their private lives and collectively in their political lives, ought to maximize the pleasure and minimize the misery of all persons and other sentient beings, that is, those capable of suffering. The “greatest happiness principle,” then, is the maxim of utilitarianism. Bentham’s ethical hedonism results in the two fundamental principles of his political theory: (1) the legislative end of government is to maximize public happiness by passing laws that serve the commonweal, and (2) the judicial end of government is to minimize public misery by punishing crime.
Objections to Bentham’s hedonism begin with the ambiguity of the term good. Bentham equivocates by defining “good” as pleasure or happiness—he uses the terms “pleasure” and “good” interchangeably. However, this is to overlook the following important differences between them— some of which were noted by Aristotle:
- Happiness lasts longer than any momentary pleasure.
- While pleasure is related to happiness, a pleasure-filled life is not necessarily a happy life, let alone a good one.
- Happiness is a state of the whole person, whereas pleasures are functions of particular appetites or capacities; thus, warmth may gratify one’s body but not one’s eye and ear.
- There can be no excess of happiness— one cannot be too happy—but one may have a surfeit of pleasure, which may dull the sense gratified.
- Overindulgence in certain pleasures, as Bentham himself noted, may risk future pain; excessive drinking may lead to a hangover or worse.
- A life of unceasing pleasures may become wearisome and boring. According to an old Arab adage, “All sunshine makes a desert.”
- “Pleasure” itself is ambiguous. The term may mean either the objects themselves giving pleasure—as in “the simple pleasures of life” or in the bartender’s question, “What is your pleasure?”—or the qualitative tone or “feel” of the pleasure taken in the objects.
- For Bentham, pleasures differ only quantitatively, as in their intensity and duration, but not qualitatively. His disciple John Stuart Mill rectifies this oversight by arguing that pleasures differ qualitatively insofar as some are superior in value to others; that is, they differ not only in degree but also in kind. Thus, to use Mill’s example, the pleasure taken in poetry is better than that taken in bowling.
- Oftentimes the more one seeks pleasure or happiness as a goal the more elusive it becomes. This syndrome is known as the hedonic paradox. Thus, there is no guarantee that a state’s mission of securing the public’s happiness will succeed.
- Neither pleasure nor happiness exhausts the possible meanings of “good.” Of anything deemed pleasurable or productive of happiness, it may be further and meaningfully asked, “Yes, but is it actually ‘good?’”
Bentham’s hedonistic theory of good and evil is significant for the following reasons. First, insofar as it does not derive the good from some supernatural sanction like God’s command or some transcendent principle like natural law, but instead from the experience of pleasure, it is empirical and materialistic.
Second, it is radically inclusive and egalitarian. It enfranchises not only the whole of humanity, but also all sentient animals as objects deserving of moral respect because a being’s sentience is a sufficient condition for its having the right not to be hurt gratuitously. Third, it provides an objective rationale for law and its enforcement: A law is justified only if it promotes the quantifiable interests of the citizenry.
- Bentham, J. An Introduction to “The Principles of Morals and Legislation.” New York: Hafner, 1948.
- Bowring, J., ed. The Works of Jeremy Bentham. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
- Goldworth, A. “The Meaning of Bentham’s Greatest Happiness Principle.” Journal of the History of Philosophy, v.7 (1969).
- Lyons, D. In the Interest of the Governed: A Study in Bentham’s Philosophy of Utility and Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.
- Mack, M. P. A Bentham Reader. New York: Pegasus,
- Mack, M. P. Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
- Manning, D. J. The Mind of Jeremy Bentham.London: Longmans, 1968.
- Schofield, P. Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2009.
- Schofield, P. Utility and Democracy: The Political Thought of Jeremy Bentham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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