Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill both expressed different versions of Utilitarianism; though both shared a broadly Utilitarian view, their conclusions had considerable differences. Utilitarian thinking can ultimately be traced back to the ancient Greek thinkers, but Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the first thinker to put the theory into a workable normative approach to ethics.
Bentham and Mill can both be considered to be relativists in that neither believed that there are set rules which must be taken into any and every situation; rather, they held that morality is relative to the situation in which the moral agent finds himself. Furthermore they were consequentialists: the morality of an action could only be known aposteriori through examination of the consequences. For an action to be considered moral, these consequences had to achieve a certain goal, making Utilitarianism a teleological approach. This goal, according to Bentham, can be summed up by what has become known as the Principle of Utility, which can be shortened to “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”.
For both Bentham and Mill, the interpretation of this ‘happiness’ is ‘pleasure’. Bentham said, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain”, indicating that humans naturally associate pleasure with morality and pain with immorality. This, however, is where their views diverge: for Bentham, this pleasure was quantitative, for Mill, a qualitative approach was preferred.
Bentham’s view was that any action that maximised happiness for the majority of people was moral. It is here that Bentham breaks away from the hedonism of ancient Greece as his approach is democratic in that an action should maximise pleasure for the majority, even if the moral agent herself receives pain. He realised that the interpretation of this could be seen as being ambiguous and so he developed his ‘Felicific’ or ‘Hedonic’ calculus in order to aid persons in making moral decisions. The calculus is seven stages (intensity, duration, purity, fecundity, propinquity, certainty and extent) which one ought to apply to every moral decision that one makes. So when considering, for example, the morality of clearing an area of rainforest, the moral agent ought to consider the intensity of the pleasure gained compared to the pain caused; whether the immediate pleasure will be followed by sensations of the opposite kind, i.e. the future pain caused by deforestation and the certainty of pleasure over pain etc. Bentham held that by applying this calculus to every act, one could reasonably predict which course of action would prove the most moral.
Mill (1806-1873) was a student of Bentham and continued in his Utilitarian tradition, though he rejected Bentham’s quantitative approach and, consequently, the Hedonic Calculus. He believed that Bentham’s approach allowed for injustices to occur, for example, the pleasure gained by a group of sadists could outweigh the pain that their victim felt at their torture. Mill came up with the idea of ‘higher’ and ‘lower order’ pleasures and suggested that certain pleasures were more valuable than others and therefore deserved greater consideration and weighting in the decision making process. He said that it was ‘better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied”. By this he was suggesting that certain pleasures are preferable to others and regardless of the quantity of pleasure, higher order pleasures should be chosen over lower order. This overcame the problems created by the hedonic calculus as Mill would never allow someone to forgo a higher order pleasure for the sake of a majority of lower order pleasures, thus sadists would never be allowed to torture a victim just because they represent the majority.
Further to this, Mill advocated the use of rules based on the Principle of Utility, rather than applying the Hedonic Calculus to every single decision. Mill proposed that general rules should be generated and that these rules, when applied generally, will generally produce the greatest good for the greatest number. These rules would be ones such as driving on the left hand side of the road; though it may be frustrating if the right carriageway is free, it is generally the greater good to stay on the left.
“An action that maximises happiness will always be the right action.”
At first this statement would seem quite easy to agree to as the notion of maximised happiness is easily pleasing to human intuition. However, when analysed in greater depth it proves to be somewhat more problematic.
For Bentham, this statement equates to the Principle of Utility and thus he would agree entirely. Bentham’s understanding of happiness is pleasure and any action is morally right as long as the pleasure is maximised for the majority. Yet despite Bentham’s care in attempting to ensure justice via the Hedonic Calculus, this view of happiness is still open to misuse and injustices could occur, whereby a majority received pleasure at the expense of the rights or dignity of a minority, therefore Bentham’s view of this statement cannot be accepted.
Mill attempted to overcome a number of the difficulties created by Bentham’s view by suggesting that it was not the quantity of pleasure that ought to be denoted by ‘happiness’, but rather the quality. Mill thereby overcame the difficulty of gaining pleasure at the expense of others as this type of pleasure would be considered base, or ‘lower order pleasure’. However, Mill’s view fares no better as his understanding of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ order pleasures are vague and subjective and seem to have been heavily influenced by Mill’s own personal experiences. What Mill might consider ‘high’ order, another may well find detestable and in no way pleasurable and so Mill’s understanding of happiness cannot equate to a right action either.
A Christian may well be undecided as to this statement as she will believe that, ultimately, following God’s commands will lead to happiness, both in this life and eschatologically. She may, however, take umbrage with the idea that an action’s morality is based on its consequences only. Christians tend to take a deontological, absolutist perspective, approaching moral issues with Biblical commands or Church teachings thus the happiness produced is irrelevant as one’s duty is to follow the commandments. Some Christians, however, may interpret the Golden Rule of Christ to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ as an indication that you should treat others in a way that you would wish to be treated and that everyone would want to be happy. So for the Christian they may well agree that happiness is important but that it should not be the deciding factor.
It seems clear that this view is not without its flaws, the chief ones being the definition of happiness and its measurement. Yet to distinguish morality from happiness seems to go against our moral inclination and so it seems reasonable to agree with this statement to a certain extent, allowing for its ambiguities.
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