Jeremy Benthamís An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) is a presentation of an ethical theory that actions are right insofar as they produce pleasure or prevent pain, and is an explanation of a political theory that the purpose of civil or criminal laws is to maximize the amount of pleasure or happiness which may be enjoyed by society. Bentham argues that if utility is defined as the ability to produce happiness, then the rightness of an action is determined by its utility. Bentham also argues that if happiness is viewed as the only thing which is intrinsically good, then the principle of utility is the only right principle of human action.
Bentham advocates a doctrine of psychological hedonism, that all human actions are motivated by the desire to enjoy pleasure or prevent pain, and that the enjoyment of pleasure or the avoidance of pain is the only rational aim of human action. He also advocates a doctrine of ethical hedonism, that the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by whether the action tends to promote happiness or unhappiness. If an action conforms to the principle of utility (i.e. if the action tends to promote happiness or prevent unhappiness), then the action is morally right, or at least is not morally wrong. If an action does not conform to the principle of utility (i.e. if the action tends to prevent happiness or promote unhappiness), then the action is morally wrong, or at least is not morally right.
Bentham maintains that the principle of utility is the only sufficient ground for deciding whether an action is morally right or wrong. The principle of sympathy and antipathy (i.e. the feeling of instinctive approval or disapproval for the expected consequences of an action) is not a sufficient ground for judging the moral rightness or wrongness of an action. According to Bentham, the principle of sympathy and antipathy is merely a disposition to approve or disapprove of an action and is not an affirmative principle of moral conduct.
Bentham argues that the principle of utility is a morally right principle of action for every situation. He says that the principle of utility may also be described as the greatest happiness principle, in that it asserts that the only morally right and proper goal of action is to achieve the greatest happiness of all individuals whose interest is affected by the action.1
Bentham rejects the notion that the law of reason is a sufficient principle of morality. For Bentham, such concepts as common sense, the rule of right, the law of reason, and the law of nature are only theoretical or speculative principles and cannot be practically applied to every moral situation.
Bentham describes a quantitative method (or hedonistic calculus) by which the moral rightness or wrongness of an action may be calculated according to the amount of pleasure or pain which is produced by the action. Bentham explains that the quantity of a pleasure or pain may depend on the intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity, fecundity, and purity of the pleasure or pain. The fecundity of a pleasure or pain may be determined by the likelihood that the pleasure or pain will be followed by pleasures or pains of the same kind. The purity of a pleasure or pain may be determined by the likelihood that the pleasure or pain will not be followed by pleasures or pains of the opposite kind.
According to Bentham, actions which are morally right tend to produce the greatest possible amount of pleasure and the least possible amount of pain, while actions which are morally wrong tend to produce either a lesser amount of pleasure or a greater amount of pain than other actions which could be performed. The total amount of pleasure or pain which is produced by an action may depend on the total amount of pleasure or pain which is experienced by all individuals whose interest is affected by the action.
Bentham provides a classification of the various kinds of pleasures and pains. Pleasures and pains may be caused by various kinds of sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, expectations, and associations. Simple pleasures and pains may be combined to form complex pleasures and pains. Pleasure may also be caused by the relief of pain, and pain may be caused by the cessation of pleasure. Pleasure may be caused by the satisfaction of desire, and pain may be caused by the frustration of desire.
Bentham explains that the sensitivity to pleasure or pain may vary among individuals, and that each individual may respond differently to the same pleasure or pain. If rewards for good conduct or punishments for bad conduct are to be administered fairly, then these rewards or punishments must account for the differences that may occur among individuals in their sensitivity to pleasure or pain.
Bentham also provides a classification of motives for action. However, many of his arguments for the theory that motives are morally neutral are not only misdirected but morally repugnant. For example, he argues that there is no difference between the aim to avoid punishment by telling the truth and the aim to avoid punishment by telling a lie, because the aim in either case is to avoid punishment. He argues that there is no difference between the aim to preserve oneself from danger by helping another person and the aim to preserve oneself from danger by not helping another person, because the aim in either case is to preserve oneself from danger. He argues that there is no difference between the aim to gain a personís favor by being kind to that person and the aim to gain a personís favor by being cruel to the enemy of that person, because the aim in either case is to gain the personís favor.
According to Bentham, pleasure is intrinsically good, and pain is intrinsically evil. The motives which individuals may have for their actions are only good or evil if they have good or evil consequences. Motives may not be intrinsically good or evil, and their consequences may vary according to each situation and according to each individualís sensitivity to pleasure or pain.
Bentham tries to justify the oppression of women by men by arguing that women may be more sensitive to smaller pleasures and pains and that women may thus have less "firmness of mind."2 Bentham also argues unsuccessfully that women are more likely to conform their actions to the principle of sympathy and antipathy, and that they are less likely to conform their actions to the principle of utility.3
Bentham asserts that if good intentions are produced by a motive, then the motive may be described as good. If bad intentions are produced by a motive, then the motive may be described as bad. The goodness or badness of an intention to perform a particular action may depend on the material consequences of that action. The material consequences of an action are the sensations of pleasure or pain which are produced by that action. Good actions produce pleasure, while bad actions produce pain. According to Bentham, motives produce intentions, and the sum of an individualís intentions may produce a disposition to perform, or not to perform, a particular action. Whether or not an individual performs a particular action may depend on his or her disposition to perform that action and on the particular circumstances which may affect the expression of that disposition.
Bentham divides motives into two kinds: 1) seducing (or corrupting), and 2) tutelary (or preservatory). Seducing motives may cause an individual to perform wrongful acts, while tutelary motives may cause an individual not to perform wrongful acts. Tutelary motives may be either standing (i.e. constant) or occasional. Standing tutelary motives may govern an individualís conduct in most (or all) situations, but occasional tutelary motives may govern an individualís conduct in only some situations.
According to Bentham, the weaker the temptation that is required for an individual to perform a wrongful act, the more that performance of this wrongful act may testify to the corruption of the individualís disposition. The stronger the temptation that is required for an individual to perform a wrongful act, the less that performance of this wrongful act may testify to the corruption of the individualís disposition. The wrongfulness of an act may be determined by calculating how much pain is gained and how much pleasure is lost as a consequence of the act.
Bentham defines ethics as the art of producing the greatest possible amount of happiness for oneself and for others.4 Ethics is both the art of fulfilling oneís duty to oneself (by exhibiting prudence) and the art of fulfilling oneís duty to others (by exhibiting probity and beneficence). While private ethics is concerned with the personal happiness of an individual, public ethics and the art of legislation are concerned with the happiness of all individuals. If an act of legislation conforms to the principle of utility, then it tends to increase the total happiness of all individuals.
Bentham enumerates five classes of illegal offenses against society: 1) private offenses against individuals, 2) semi-public offenses against groups of individuals, 3) self-regarding offenses against the rights of the individual, 4) public offenses against the community, and 5) offenses by acts of falsehood or by breaches of trust. Bentham argues that private offenses against individuals may include those against: 1) person, 2) property, 3) reputation, 4) condition (by breach of duty), 5) person and property, and 6) person and reputation. Semi-public offenses may include wrongful acts which endanger the well-being and security of a particular class or group of individuals. Public offenses may include wrongful acts which endanger public security, justice, general happiness, social harmony, economic prosperity, or national sovereignty.
Bentham argues that the punishment of illegal offenses against society should be proportional to the amount of harm which is caused by these offenses. Punishment of offenses is not justified if it is disadvantageous or needless. The amount of punishment for an offence should be sufficient to deter further offences but should not be unjust or arbitrary.
Bentham also contends that any form of punishment for violating civil or criminal laws should conform to the principle of utility. Any punishment which is inflicted upon an offending individual should have a sufficient ground for the infliction of pain upon that individual. The purpose of punishing illegal offenses against society is not only to prevent similar or greater offenses but to offer satisfaction to those who have been injured and to discipline and reform the offender.
1Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 1.
2Ibid., p. 58.
3Ibid., p. 59
4Ibid., p. 310.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988.