Key Points

Theory in detail

The Greatest Happiness Principle

the greatest happiness for the greatest number

The Greatest Happiness Principle, stated above, is at the heart of a number of ethical theories that fall under the umbrella of ‘Utilitarianism’.   Utilitarianism is an incredibly useful, and increasingly popular, ethical position.   Its many benefits are matched with some serious flaws.  However, modern Utilitarianists have repeatedly adapted the theory rather than discard it.  Peter Singer is one example of a Utilitarian whose ideas have gained great popularity in recent years.

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon






Bentham equated happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain.  This was an empirical observation - people desire pleasure and seek to avoid pain. His scientific mind led him to believe that the study of ethics could be undertaken in a practical way, carefully measuring the possible consequences or outcomes of an action before deciding which choice to take.

Bentham’s theories led to extensive social reform affecting Parliament, criminal law, the jury system, prisons, savings banks, cheap postage etc, etc.  What was revolutionary about Bentham’s theory was that it resulted in all people being considered when making laws.  His felicific calculus (also called the ‘hedonic’ or ‘utility’ calculus) was helpful in determining how to measure different amounts of pleasure:

The Hedonic Calculus

Remoteness – how near it is

Purity – how free from pain it is

Richness – to what extent it will lead to other pleasures

Intensity – how powerful it is

Certainty – how likely it is to result

Extent – how many people it affects

Duration – how long it lasts

John Stuart Mill

Mill believed that quality was more important than quantity when it came to pleasure.  For example, the pleasures of the mind are far superior to the gratification of the body’s desires.  This deals with the problem of sadistic torturers, as their pleasure is of a significantly lower kind.   

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’

Act Utilitarianism

You look at an action to determine what is moral, and from this general rules can be derived.  E.g. when faced with a road traffic accident (rta) a paramedic will treat a pregnant woman first.  This is because in any given situation, the pregnant woman and her unborn child have a greater potential for future happiness than any individual involved in the crash. By deciding how to act in a specific case, the general rule ‘Always treat a pregnant woman first’ can be derived. This rule is only a guideline, and should be discarded if doing so will bring about more happiness (e.g. if a brain surgeon is in need of treatment).

A big criticism of Act Utilitarianism is that it is impossible to make the sorts of calculations it requires, although Bentham talked of a 'rule of thumb' which meant that you could repeat a previous decision under similar circumstances. Another is that people need rules - if you allow people to lie, steal etc. this could become too great a temptation e.g. to lie to avoid looking bad rather than because it genuinely brought better consequences.

On the plus side, it has most integrity, as it allows you to stick with the greatest happiness principle unswervingly – simply do whatever brings the most happiness in any given situation.

Rule Utilitarianism

Some general principles are formulated.  From these, certain actions will be ruled out as unacceptable.  The principle of utility is therefore applied to a rule, so the rule will hold if in general following it leads to greater happiness.  This means that in an individual case, even though an injustice might bring about greater happiness, if it goes against the general principle that injustice tends to lead to misery and a reduction in happiness, it is deemed wrong.

Bentham is generally seen as an Act Utilitarian, as the Greatest Happiness Principle seems to demand. As we saw, he is open to the criticism that Utilitarianism goes against justice and human rights, as it allows abuses of rights if they bring enough happiness. Mill may be seen as a Rule Utilitarian, as he clearly thinks certain rules have a Utilitarian justification. In his book 'Utilitarianism', Mill defends the idea of rights:

"To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought? I can give him no other reason than general utility."

Ultimately, Mill would break a rule if breaking it lead to the greatest happiness. Elsewhere in the book, Mill says:

" save a life, it may not only be allowable, but a duty, to steal, or take by force, the necessary food or medicine, or to kidnap, and compel to officiate, the only qualified medical practitioner."

Does this make him an Act Utilitarian? Peter Vardy says this is how most people view Mill. Others describe him as a 'soft' Rule Utilitarian, 'Hard' Rule Utilitarians would disagree with breaking a rule even if doing so led to the greater good. Many criticise 'soft' Rule Utilitarians, saying that this is effectively the same as Act Utilitarianism.

Mill strongly believed that the individual is sovereign over himself, which is an unusual principle for a Utilitarian! This means that, for example, we should allow people to smoke in private (banning smoking is an attack on the individual's sovereignty) even though smoking leads to terrible illness etc. Mill's belief in individual sovereignty could be justified by a Rule Utilitarian (can you explain how?)

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon






Other forms of Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism started out from the basic assumption by Bentham that man desires pleasure and seeks to avoid pain.This basic assumption can be challenged, as it seems to be wrong in at least some cases. People who wallow in self-pity seem to want to be in pain, and many people who have sinned or broken the law feel the need to be punished – they need to suffer in some way to put right what was wrong. Although it is possible to argue that in some long and complicated way the desire for punishment brings pleasure, it is easier and more satisfying to refine the Utilitarian theory further.  Rather than talk about pleasure and pain or happiness, some modern Utilitarians look at the degree to which an action fulfils the preferences of others.  This avoids making any judgement about the suitability of the desires of others or the ‘level’ of their happiness.  It doesn’t avoid the problem of being incredibly difficult to calculate, though.

In summary, people have adapted Utilitarianism in the following ways:

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