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The utilitarian philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill

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Compare and contrast the utilitarian philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Which do you think is the more convincing moral theory, and why?

In terms of Utilitarianism, this assignment shall outline the philosophies of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It shall firstly illustrate the ideas of Bentham and then follow on to compare and contrast those of Mill. To continue, the assignment will view the failing qualities in both the men’s works. Bentham did leave a great deal unsaid in his work yet the fact that he allowed for individuality to be applied to his theory shall be revealed. To a large extent, the work of Mill was deeply valuable to the theory of Utilitarianism; however a number of aspects cannot be applied to all cases. Mill asserted his own preconceptions into his theory so that it could not always be found applicable. In consideration of these points I will explain why I believe Bentham’s theory to be more convincing, or rather more appropriate.

Bentham preached that ‘an act is morally right if it produces the greatest balance of pleasure (happiness) over pain’ (Khan, 2002, online: www.jeromekahn123.tripod.com/utilitarianismtheethicaltheoryofalltimes/id4.html). He wrote a poem so as to make methods in decision making easy to remember;

‘Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure –

Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure

Such pleasures seek if private be they end

If it be public, wide let them extend

Such pains avoid, whatever be they view

If pains come, let them extend to few.’

(Bentham cited in Shimomisse, 1999, online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm).

By this poem Bentham describes different factors that are important in decision making. By ‘intensity’ he means the intensity of the pleasure or pain that an action may cause, by ‘long’; the duration through which that pleasure or pain exceeds. In quoting ‘certainty’ he denotes the certainty or uncertainty experienced in the decision making, by ‘speedy’; the convenience or inaccessibility of options when the action is to be made. ‘Fruitful’ indicates the tendency of the action to create a chain reaction of other pleasures or pains. The result of an action may release one from pain or may enforce pleasure. A motivation for happiness may put one in pain, yet is seen to be worthwhile. He also refers to the fact that a pain may be worthwhile if it is to release one from other pains. Finally pure signifies the number of persons affected by which degree of pleasure or pain in result of the action. Putting oneself in the result of a pain may be worthwhile if it is to do good for another; this may be seen as a noble quality but is not necessarily expected of a person.

Bentham’s philosophy was that each man ultimately wants to be happy and so, in taking each of these factors into account, the result should be aiming towards an effect of happiness and that pains should be avoided (Bentham, 2002, p5). He justified the principle of utility by saying that ‘an action conforming to the principle of utility is right or at least not wrong; it ought to be done, or at least it is not the case that it ought not be done’ (Bentham cited in Mautner, 2002, online: www.utilitarianism.com/bentham.htm).

Bentham then devised a calculus, called the hedonistic equation, for the immediate analysis of a situation. This calculus involved the summing up of all the advantages of an outcome of an action on one side versus the summing up of all the disadvantages of the outcome on the other. The resultant decisive factor would be whether the action causes more griefs or more delights (Bentham cited in Beauchamp, 2001, p113). He stated that happiness should be most wanted for the interests of those concerned and that this could either be applied to the community in general or to an individual (Bentham, 2000, p5). An important factor of Bentham’s theory is that he did take into account the effect of an action on other people. This point defined Bentham’s hypothesis from other hedonist theories making him more involved in ‘collective egoism’ (Shimomisse, 1999, online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm).

As Bentham involved in the subject of law he, applied his theory to the discipline. He stated that the responsibility of legislators was to punish those who had committed a crime with a penalty which gave more pain (or unpleasantry) than the crime had given him pleasure (Shimomisse, 1999, online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm).

In the words of Mill, Bentham’s theory is ‘a most brief and general one’ (Mill, 1859, p8). Bentham’s theories on Utilitarianism are advanced and developed ones of Bentham’s theories and in numerous ways do not show much disparity.

Similar to Bentham, Mill uses words such as ‘utility’, ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’ as synonyms; ‘Desiring a thing and finding it pleasant…are…in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact’ (Mill cited in Milgram, 2000, p2). Mill followed two basic principles, firstly that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness’ and secondly ‘to do as one would be done by and love one’s neighbour as oneself’ (Mill cited in Beauchamp, 2001, p108). Mill shows more of an insight to religious matters in this theory and considers that Bentham has a view that mankind’s only interests are in ‘self-interest…sympathies, or occasionally antipathies’. A point that Mill makes is that Bentham does not identify with man’s interests in ‘spiritual perfection’ or ‘self-respect’ (Mill, 1859, p8). He felt that Bentham’s terminology for such a variety of motivations was too singular and simple (Lachs, 2002, online: www.utilitarianism.com/mill.htm). These remarks on Bentham’s work distinguish Mill as more altruistic than Bentham was egoistic or hedonistic and that, in terms of morals and responsibilities, Mill was more apprehensive (Shimomisse, 1999, online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm). Either way, Mill did still follow the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’;

‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasures and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure. All desirable things (which are numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain’

(Shimomisse, 1999, online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm).

Mill expanded on Bentham’s account of what happiness was by accentuating moral and intellectual pleasures over those of ‘mere sensation’ and ‘superiority of mental over bodily pleasures’ (Mill cited in Beauchamp, 2001, p107). While Bentham had left the expression of happiness open to interpretation, Mill felt that ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied… and that if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question’ (Mill cited in Beauchamp, 2001, p108). He also opposed the hedonistic equation as not all pleasures or pains are preferred or resented equally (Mill cited in Beauchamp, 2001, pp107-8). To state this more clearly I present a simplified example; one may think of eating a bran muffin. As plus points to eating the muffin 1) he is hungry and 2) he loves the taste of bran muffins and on the minus side the only factor to not eating it is that he has an allergy to bran that causes him to stop breathing. In relation to Bentham’s hedonistic equation the fact that there are two positive sides and only one negative would cause the man to eat the muffin. Mill argues that the outcome of Bentham’s principle is not logical and that a ‘decided preference criterion’ is needed (Mill cited in Milgram, 2000, p6).

Mill’s ‘decided preference criterion’ composes of either making decisions in terms of what choices one has learnt from before, or by consulting the preferences of other people who have learnt from past experience (Mill cited in Milgram, 2000, p6). Whether or not the witnesses are wrong, Mill makes no comment. In judgment of Mill’s ‘decided preference criterion’ all personal taste is cancelled.

In considering which theory of the two is more convincing I shall consider each of failures of the theories. While Bentham’s work is very minimal it is left open to interpretation. Mill does expand on Bentham’s work and yet I find that he goes to the next extreme and that his extensions cause his theories to only apply to certain cases.

In looking at Bentham’s version of motivation being happiness, it is true to say that nobody wants to be unhappy or discontented. It is only reasonable to say that every person wants what they want and when they get what they want they are happy. Considering that one wants what they don’t want it would only be due to the fact that it is a means to eventually get what they want, for example one may not want to run but will do it so that they may get fit. Human nature is selfish, even in love people love others due to the fact that the other person makes them feel like a better person. Even though Mill feels that Bentham does not take ‘spiritual perfection’ into account Bentham still does not directly dismiss it. ‘Self-respect’ again is a selfish motive, one will act in a manner that makes him feel good about himself and so it makes him happy.

Indeed Bentham’s hedonistic equation has the weakness that Mill proposes, yet his attempt to correct it through the ‘decided preference criterion’ is again a weakness on Mill’s behalf. Just because one person has an experience over the other does not mean that the other will have the same preference. Indeed someone else’s preference may be taken into account but may surely not be the only deciding factor.

Finally the presupposition that ‘it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied… and that if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question’ (Mill cited in Beauchamp, 2001, p108). This may be the point where Mill’s biases get him into the most trouble. His opinion is shown greatly here through his insult to those that may feel differently. Indeed many people who are not fools would rather not know certain data that they have the access to. This does not make them a fool; it is merely their personal taste. As an example take the political situation in Zimbabwe. Many problems of terrorism occur repeatedly with hardly any hope or means of an end to the situation, having each terrible occurrence known over and over becomes a factor that can cause depression. One may want to leave the country for their own safety yet many are not able to and so have to live on under such circumstances. In such a case, for many it is better to be a fool satisfied than to be the wise one who is continuously well informed.

In conclusion Bentham does leave much unsaid, yet in such a manner that leaves his theory one that may be applied to every situation. His work is more applicable as a pose to Mill who simply added to Bentham’s work as it just seemed too simple. Mill’s ‘decided preference criterion’ may definitely be taken into account yet may not be applied in the manner that he suggests. Bentham’s ‘hedonistic equation’ may also be taken into account yet may not be the deciding factor. While Mill’s work may work for some it may not work for all, his instrumentalism does him no justice. Bentham’s work is minimal, applicable and has no biases, by far the most appropriate theory; ‘an action conforming to the principle of utility is right or at least not wrong; it ought to be done, or at least it is not the case that it ought not be done’ (Bentham cited in Mautner, 2002, online: www.utilitarianism.com/bentham.htm).


Beauchamp. T, (2001), Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (3rd Edition), Georgetown University.

Bentham, (2002), Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, London.

Kahn. J, (2002), Bentham’s Paradox, available online: www.jeromekahn123.tripod.com/utilitarianismtheethicaltheoryofalltimes/id4.html, cited May 2003.

Lachs. J, (2002), Mill, Hedonism and Value, available online: www.utilitarianism.com/mill.htm, cited May 2003.

Mautner. J, (2002), Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), available online: www.utilitarianism.com/bentham.htm, cited May 2003.

Milgram. E, (2000), Mill’s (1806-73) Proof of the Principle of Utility, Chicago

Mill. J, (1859), Bentham, Westminster.

Shimonisse. E, (1999), Utilitarianism (Bentham and John S Mill): Universalized Hedonism (and Egoism), available online: www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ethics/lect_3.htm, cited May 2003.

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