Utilitarianism through British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and James Mill

Utilitarianism first emerged at a time when man’s conception of morality seemed to be changing. It was one of the first responses to the sprouting Kantian view of morality that lacked happiness and failed to promote many images of a “good life”. The ethical theory of utilitarianism was first developed by British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. The core of utilitarianism revolves around the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Meaning that the right action is always the action that produces the greatest amount of utility, not only for the person controlling the action, but everyone affected by this action as well. Utilitarianism believes that every individual must be taken into account for every individual is capable of experiencing happiness. It places emphasis on happiness of the whole by means of the actions of the individual.

Though Mills and Bentham are both considered to be the father’s of utilitarianism their ideals to tend vary. The heart of Bentham’s theory lies in the formulation of a method for deciding, in every case, the value of alternative options. Determining the alternative amounts of pleasure or pain an action will disperse is what he calls “happiness calculus”. This is when a person before making a decision must examine the pleasures and pain that their actions will create. They then must add them up, if the total amount of pleasures results in a positive balance against the total pains they should proceed with that course of action. If the balance result is negative then they should not.

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This is both the driving force behind Bentham’s argument and what appears to be the biggest flaw. This portion of his theory seems to allow for an innocent person to be killed if the masses were deriving a great deal of pleasure from it. As long as the amount of people who would find happiness in this killing outweighed the pain that the victim would experience then, according to Bentham, killing this person would be the right course of action. This flaw in Bentham’s theory comes from his emphasis on quantity instead of quality. He focused so much on the quantity of people experiencing happiness that he did not focus on the quality of happiness they were experiencing.

This brings us to Mills theory which offers a solution to Bentham’s problem of quantity vs. quality. Mills believed the basic idea of utilitarianism was the “greatest happiness principle”, the fundamental idea that an action taken in any given situation should be the one that promotes the greatest happiness. He defends this principle using an analogy between desirability and visibility that falls considerably short of an adequate defense. He claims that just as the visibility of something rest on the proof that someone sees it, the desirability of something merely rests on the proof that someone desires it. He then concludes that since ultimately what people want is to be happy their most desirable decision will be the one that creates the greatest amount of happiness for all.

Mills argument reconstructed appears as so:

1. Seeing something proves that it is visible

2. Hence, desiring something proves that it is desirable

3. The only thing that each person ultimately desires is his or her own happiness.

4. The only thing that is ultimately desirable for a person is his or her own happiness.

Hence, each person should perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.

One of the most obvious problems with this argument lies in his comparison between visibility, a definitively descriptive word, and desirability which is a subjective concept. [Just because something is desirable doesn’t mean that it is possible to desire it.] (Sober p432) His argument also offers no solution to the subjectivity of the desirable. What is desirable to you may not be desirable to me. Therefore we cannot infer that following the desirable will always create greatest amount of happiness for everyone. This also poses the question of what happiness really is. One may find happiness unknowingly through one’s ignorance. Is this truly happiness? This brings us back to the quality vs. quantity issue that Bentham failed to answer.

Mill proposes the idea of “higher” and “lower” pleasures to answer this. Mill said that one who experienced pleasure by remaining ignorant was experiencing the lower end of pleasure where as on the other hand one more informed human being may not be completely satisfied with his or life, but may be experiencing the higher form of pleasure. He felt that any competent human would rather choose the higher form of pleasure than the lower (“ignorance is bliss”) form of pleasure.

Even though Mill attempted to strengthen to the somewhat shaky foundation of utilitarianism he still could not plug the endless holes the theory appears to have. If utilitarianism is based on maximizing the happiness of the masses, then why is there so much room for bad things to occur? These questions soon gave birth to two divisions of utilitarianism, rule and act.

Act utilitarianism – the right action in s particular situation is the one that maximizes net utility for the person affected by the action.

Rule utilitarianism – the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on its conformity to an ideal set of rules the general following of which would maximize utility for all person affected by the action.

Act utilitarianism appears to offer the reason why bad things are plausible in utilitarianism, for in a theory that only focuses on the majority there is always a minority that is forgotten and/or suffers. This leads me to believe that rule utilitarianism is by far the most just theory, but there are scenarios that beg to differ. What if, according to my rule utilitarian laws, I do not wish to inflict any pain on innocent people who do not deserve it. This appears to be a good rule to follow. But wait, what if I am placed in a situation where the hurting of this innocent person will save the lives of hundreds of more innocent people. According to my rule utilitarianism mode of thinking I must not hurt the innocent person and let hundreds of others die, against my own moral conviction.

It is this constant ambiguity and hypocrisy in Utilitarianism that won’t allow me to subscribe to the theory as whole. I do however, believe that several good things can be extracted form this theory. I like how the theory implores one to think of the consequences of ones actions before making them. I also admire the mode of positive thinking that it appears to promote. However, as a concrete ethical theory it just seems to have to many contradictions named a plausible theory.