Jeremy Bentham was an 18th Century lawyer and reformer, who lived during a period of radical scientific advance and social change. Modernism, fuelled by the advance of industrial and scientific discovery, saw a great decline in the reliance on religion. One reaction to this was to reject morality wholesale, as the existentialist Jean-Paul Satre did; but other, such as Bentham, believed that there was a way to judge morality.
Bentham was a relativist; he believed that the morality of an action was relative to the situation in which the choice could take place, thus for Bentham, absolute rules could not provide an acceptable basis for morality. For Bentham then, no two situations could be considered to be the same and so each and every action must be considered on its own merits. Furthermore, he held that the only way to know whether an act was truly moral or not was by looking at the consequences it produced. This consequentialist thinking means that Bentham believed moral knowledge was only attainable aposteriori.
However, this is not to say that Bentham rejected morality, he believed that there was a means of knowing whether or not an action was moral. He measured an actions morality against its success or failure in achieving a particular end, thus Bentham’s view of morality is Teleological. This end was pleasure – Bentham was a hedonist in that pleasure was something to be aimed for. Bentham believed that ‘nature has placed us under the governance of two masters, pleasure and pain.’
For Bentham it seemed reasonable to link pleasure with morality, believing that humans will always choose the action that will result in the greatest pleasure. Thus he came to the conclusion that pleasure is good. He came up with the general principle that ‘an action is good in so much as it creates the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people’, which has become known as the Principle of Utility.
Based on this, Bentham developed the normative ethical theory of Utilitarianism, which seeks to direct the moral agent to the correct choice by predicting the consequences of each possible course of action. The action which would produce the greatest happiness – or pleasure – would be deemed as the correct course of action.
In order to aid this process of predicting the consequences of a moral agent’s actions, Bentham devised the ‘Felicific Calculus’ (or ‘Hedonic Calculus’). This rather mathematical-sounding process was intended to be just that: a means of calculating the amount of pleasure or pain created by each action as a means of accurately deciding the most pleasure-producing, and therefore moral, act. The seven stages of the Calculus are as follows: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, extent, purity.
In applying this, Bentham believed in democracy, thus all parties’ pleasures and pains had to be considered. So, for example, in the hypothetical case of deciding whether or not one ought to lie, one would decide upon the intensity of the pleasure that that lie would bring about, how long the pleasure would last, whether the pleasure would be near to or remote from the agent, the chance of a succession of pleasures coming from this one act and whether the act would produce only pleasure or pain also, i.e. it may produce pleasure for the agent, but pain for a third party, thus Bentham would weigh up the amount of pleasure compared to the amount of pain. Once all seven stages had been considered, the agent would be able to decide whether or not the action was moral or immoral.“The hedonic calculus impairs justice”
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