Give an account of Bentham’s and Mill’s Utilitarianism
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...