Utilitarianism is a moral and ethical philosophy in political theory. Though the
traces can be finding even in ancient Greek philosophy it was popularized
because of contributions made by Jeremy Bentham and J.S.Mill. This concept has
played an important role in the first half of the Nineteenth century.
Utilitarianism is a theory mainly based on the principle greatest happiness
to the greatest member
. Utilitarianism became a core principle for all most all
Nations in their political, economical, social functioning today. Though Bentham
and J.S.Mill are the strong supporters of Utilitarian concept there are some
differences between their approaches.
Bentham strongly said that men's life
always lies between two different masters like Pain and Pleasure. Moreover Bentham said that pain and pleasure can be measured through arithmetical method
and there is a possibility for quantitative difference between pain and
pleasure. J.S.Mill is the strong supporter of the utilitarianism and
individualism. Mill in his explanation he pawed a mid way between utilitarianism
and individualism on modern bases. Mill explained that the difference between
pain and pleasure can be measured through quality measures.
Utilitarianism is an English philosophy. It is a theory of morality. It is a
tradition of ethical philosophy. It advocates actions that foster happiness or
pleasure and opposes actions that cause unhappiness or harm, when directed
toward making social, economic, or political decisions. A utilitarian philosophy
would aim for the betterment of society as a whole. It would say that an action
is right if it results in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a
society or a group.
Utilitarianism considers the interests of all humans
equally. Though Utilitarianism is one of the most powerful and persuasive
approaches to normative ethics in the history of philosophy. But this concept
was not articulated until the 19th Century.
The traces regarding utilitarianism can be found in ancient Greek philosophy
- The ancient Greek philosopher and hedonists Aristippus and
Epicurus viewed that the happiness as the only good for well being of the
people. Later this idea became principle/doctrine and
- Scottish philosopher David Hume became the founder of Utilitarianism.
- English philosopher Joseph Priestly vigorously advocated the
- Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (in his book ‘A system of moral
philosophy') was the first to use the formula of the ‘greatest happiness of
- More over Cumberland, Shaftesbury, John Gay etc also supported the concept of
- English philosopher Jeremy Bentham made a systematic exposition of
utilitarianism. He made it most popularized. Later it was famously known as
‘Bentham's School'. So, the entire of popularizing Utilitarianism theory goes to Bentham, for giving a systematic exposition of this theory, and making it widely
known and its conceptions, characteristics.
- J.S.Mill improved and modernized utilitarian approach to political obligation
by inducting qualitative aspect of its substance.
However, utilitarianism substitutes absolute empiricism for absolute idealism
and promotes egalitarian concept.
- Utility means the quality or state of being used; the quality to
satisfy human wants; a public utility, a service provided by one of
- Utilitarianism means the doctrine, expounded by Jeremy Bentham, that the
moral and political rightness of an action is determined by its utility, defined
as its contribution to the greatest good of the greatest number.
Utilitarian approach to political obligation means the habitual obedience of the
people to the laws of the State because of its utility to promote the general
happiness of the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is hedonistic,
pragmatic and altruistic. According to G.H. Sabine, the philosophical radicals
hold that utilitarianism is the only guide to private morals and public
policy. Utilitarianism is its sole justification. Utility is the basis of
Objectives of the State according to Utilitarianism
In the utilitarian State, political obligation depends upon the objectives of
the State. When the State sought to promote general welfare of the people, the
people are obliged to obey the laws made by the State.
The State exists for the individual. But the individual does not exist for the
Therefore, the State cannot absorb the individual. That means it is not purely
supports individualism and idealism.
The main object of the utilitarianism is enlightened benevolence.
Everyone seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Utilitarianism has an ethical
appeal. Reason reconciles self-regarding and other regarding impulses of
individual. Utilitarian approach to political obligation does not
separate individual from the society. It blends the individual happiness
with the happiness of others. This is called the philosophy of enlightened benevolence
Jeremy Bentham (1748 to 1832)
Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, Jurist, economist and Social
reformer. He regarded as classical philosopher and the founder of modern
utilitarianism. He was rightly regarded as the foremost apostle of the practical
and the leader of Utilitarian school of England. He has been described as one of
the oddest figures in the history of political thought. His father was a lawyer.
He also studied law at the Lincoln's inn.
Though he studied law he was not
interested on advocate profession. He concentrated on the study of legal
philosophy (Jurisprudence). His legal and political thoughts influenced the
development of welfarism. He worked in several fields like economics, logic,
psychology, penology, theology, politics and ethics etc. because of his eminent
knowledge the Portuguese Constitutional committed had took the services of
Bentham was influenced by both Hobbes explanation about human nature and Hume's
account of social utility.
His name would be remained as a reformer in the English legal history. He
denounced antiquates and the age-long institutions. He is one of the leading
theorist in Anglo- American philosophy of law. He opposed the idea of natural
law and natural rights of the men.
He had made a serious comment about divine principle as it is nonsense
. He supported for positive law and individual
legal rights. He advocated for individual and economic freedoms, the separation
of church and state, worked for freedom of expression, equal rights for women,
the right to divorce and he also proposed through an unpublished essay for
decriminalizing of homosexual acts.
He supported for abolition of slavery,
capital punishment (death) and physical punishments (too much painful), more
importantly he raised his voice against violent punishments to children. He is
well known animal lover and proposed for animal rights.
By his virtues he influenced many well known persons among them James Mill and
his son John Stuart Mill, the legal philosopher John Austin and Robert Owen, who
is the one of the founder of ‘utopian socialism', are prominent persons.
Bentham was the practical men with a typical character. One of the
examples for this is his will about his death. He left instructions for
his body to be first dissected, and then to be permanently preserved as
, which would
be his memorial. This was done, and the auto-icon is now on public display in
the entrance of the student centre at University College London (UCL). He is the
spiritual founder of UCL.
Bentham made his explanations in his famous work Fragmentation of
Government and Introduction to the principles of moral and legislation
. He said
that the true end of the State was to promote the greatest happiness of the
greatest number. In his theory the following issues are the most important. They
- Mankind placed between two sovereign masters
According to Bentham, Nature itself has placed mankind under the governance of
two sovereign masters, namely Pain and Pleasure. So, he said that it is the duty
of the State or the State is necessary to the individual to maximize his
pleasure and minimize his pain. More over according to him utility is the
property in any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage,
pleasure, good, happiness or to prevent happening of mischief, pain, evil or
According to Utilitarianism the business of the government is to promote the
happiness of the society. If there is any disturbance the State has every power
to punish the culprits. Bentham distinguished four sanctions like
physical/natural, religious, moral and political.
- The Physical or Natural Sanction comprises the pains and pleasures which
we may experience or expect, in the ordinary course of nature, not purposely
modified by any human interposition
- The Moral Sanction comprises such pains and pleasures as we experience
or expect at the hands of our fellows, prompted by the feeling of hatred or
good will, or contempt or regard; in a word, according to the spontaneous
disposition of each individual. The sanction may also be styled popular; the
sanction of public opinion or of honour, or the sanction of the pains and pleasures of
- The Political Sanction comprises such pains and pleasures as may
experience or expect, at the hands of the magistracy, acting under law. This
might, with equal propriety, be termed the legal sanction.
- The Religious Sanction comprises such pains and pleasure as we may
experience or expect, in virtue of the forebodings and promises of religion.
Here, Bentham said that men obey the laws of the State because the probable
mischief of obedience is less than the probable mischief of disobedience.
- Pain and Pleasure could be calculated on Felicific Calculus
According to Bentham there are two kinds of pleasures and pains are there. They
- Simple pleasures or those which cannot be resolved into other (as the pleasures
of senses, wealth, skill, amity, good name, power, piety, benevolence,
malevolence, memory, imagination, expectation, assistance and relief etc.) and
- Complex pleasures are those which can be resolved into various simple ones.
Simple pains are privation, awkwardness, enmity, ill-repute, benevolence,
malevolence, memory, imagination, expectation and association.
Complex pains are those which can be resolve into simple ones.
According to Bentham, pleasure or pain could be arithmetically calculated by
taking into account seven factors, namely:
- Intensity (more or less efficaciousness)
- Duration (longer or shorter life)
- Certainty (consideration of definiteness or indefiniteness)
- Propinquity (consideration of nearness or remoteness of time)
- Purity (accompaniment of all pleasure or pain)
- Fecundity (capacity of being productive or barren) and
- Extensiveness (the number of persons fallen under influence)
These seven factors influence on pleasures or pains. More over according to him
the balance will show the tendency of good or bad. He also had given a list of
12 simple pains. These factors make one pleasure more or less and create
dimensions. But Bentham said that these can be mathematically calculated.
However, the critics said that pain and pleasure can't measure in quantitative
Utilitarianism rejects Natural rights and Social Contract theory
Bentham utilitarianism rejected the dogma of natural rights. He regarded the
natural rights as ‘rhetorical nonsense upon stilt'. Rights are created not by
nature, but by law (men made law). Need not the contract, is the basis of state.
People obey law because it aims at four ends, viz., security, substance,
abundance and equality. Government exists because they promote happiness of the
people, but not because of any social contract.
The greatest good of the greatest number
This is the most important formula of Bentham Utilitarianism. It is the central
idea of this theory. Each government is obliged to adopt such policies which
could give the greatest good of the greatest number. A government which works
for the good of a few numbers is not at all a good government. It is tyranny and
unjustifiable government. Thus the principle of ‘the greatest good of the
greatest number' is benevolent and universalistic shape.
Bentham explained that
the happiness of one individual on the one side and that of the many on the
other, the formula of the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the right
answer. Bentham observed that only under a system of self-government, the
interests of the governors and those of the governed would coincide.
Bentham regarded State as law-making agency. According to him, the State is a
group of persons organized for the promotion and maintenance of happiness; but
for this end, it acts through law. By means of law, the State rewards or
punishes so that the happiness is increased and the pain decreased.
him, the law should take cognizance of bad actions and inflict punishment on the
people so that the net balance of pleasure is increased and that of pain
decreased. Mere morality is not sufficient and unless law comes into operation,
bad things cannot be out of place. Only law being the command of the sovereign
can secure habitual obedience of the people.
John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)
Early life of the J.S.Mill
J.S.Mill was a British philosopher. He is a prominent economist, political
philosopher and more over he was worked as a civil servant in East India
Company. He is the reformist of the utilitarianism and the best of the
individualist. He is the liberalist, feminist, supporter of utilitarianism,
representative democracy and economic freedom.
J.S.Mill was the son of James Stuart Mill, who is the best friend and follower
of Jeremy Bentham. J.S.Mill guided by God fathers James Stuart Mill and Jeremy
Bentham. After the death of his father he become independent researcher and
became an ardent defender of liberty.
Mill regarded individual liberty as the
supreme possession of man and declared the government is the best which
governs the least
(laissez – fair theory
). According to Mill liberty included with the
freedom of thought, expression, freedom of conscience, association etc. He
believed that the social well-being has inevitably bound with individual
well-being. Like these explanations and through his strong support to individual
freedom he became one of the prominent individualists. He advocated for
compulsory education, minority representation, woman franchise, plural voting,
open ballot etc.
The famous works of the Mill are Principles of political economy, Essays on
liberty, Utilitarianism, Considerations on representative government, Subjection
of women, Autobiography etc.
J.S.Mill - Utilitarianism
In his famous works Utilitarianism and Individualism and liberty one can find
the views of the Mill about Utilitarianism and individualism. Though Mill is
strong supporter of Utilitarianism he himself declared that he is the reformist
of the utilitarianism and proposed several modifications. Because of this he
became one of the prominent personalities in utilitarianism approach.
considerably modified Bentham's thesis of pleasure versus pain by admitting and
emphasizing the qualitative aspect of pleasure. He asserted that pleasures also
differ in quality. Those pleasures which go with the exercise of intellectual
capacities are higher and better than sensuous pleasures. Mill made a difference
between higher quality of pleasure and lower quality of pleasure. He preferred
more noble pleasure over less noble pleasure.
The main differences between Bentham theory and Mill theory are:
- Bentham advocated that the pleasures and the pains differ in quantity and not
in quality. He said that pains and pleasures can be computed mathematically. But
Mill said that pain and pleasure can't be measured arithmetically they differ in
- According to Bentham utilitarianism there is a gulf between individual
interest and general happiness. But Mill narrowed down the gulf between
individual interest and general happiness.
- Bentham recognized only external sanctions. But Mill recognized not only
external, but internal sanctions also which would constrain the individual to
promote general happiness, because every individual possesses a feeling for the
happiness of mankind.
- Bentham's principle of utility, in a society of wolves, would exalt
wolfishness; in a society of saint it would exalt saintliness. But according to
Mill saintliness should be the criterion of utility in any society whatsoever.
- Bentham utilitarianism supports the greatest good of the greatest number.
But here there is a chance for suppression of minorities' rights. So, Mill
- Bentham supported democratic government in any condition but Mill supported
monarchy for primitive man and democratic government for people who are able to
understand value of democratic government. It means Mill supported democracy
based on condition of man.
- Bentham purely did not accept State's intervention in the individual's
liberty. But Mill supported State control over the institution of private
property by holding that it can well impose taxation on the socially-created
However, Mill reformed Utilitarian concept with his liberal thoughts. But
according to criticism made by Wayper In all these alterations that he makes in Benthamism, Mill may think that he is defending it, but in fact he is destroying
Utilitarian approach to political obligation demolished the theories of divine
rights, natural rights and social contract. This concept placed the individual
before the State. It is altruistic, but not egoistic. At present the concept of
Utilitarian became the core concept of all legislations. In fact the present
democratic government based on the principle the greatest happiness to the
. Though the concept is not free from lacunas they can be
reduced in implementation of the principle.
Written By: Dr. Koneru Anuradha
- Hedonism is a school of thought that argues seeking pleasure and
avoiding suffering are the only components of well being.
- Aristippus of Cyrene was a pupil of Socrates. He is the founder of the
Cyrenaic school of Philosophy.
- Epicurus was the one of the ancient Greek philosopher. He was influenced
by Aristippus. He established a school knows as ‘the Garden' in Athens.
- The theory that all knowledge is based on experience derived from the
Assistant Professor in Law, SVD Siddhartha Law College,
Kanuru, Vijayawada, Krishna DT, AP State, India. Pin code: 52007.
Phone no. 9491448532. Email: [email protected]