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The Utilitarian Theory and ethics


Dive deeper into the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to uncover the fundamental motivations behind their efforts to develop the utilitarian theory. Learn about how this philosophy has shaped modern ethics and utilizing utilitarian theory in business practices.

Utilitarianism- definition & Criticisms
The utilitarian theory, developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, applies the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" to moral and ethical decision-making. This philosophy has had a significant influence on our modern understanding of ethics.

The Utilitarian theory

THROUGHOUT the period from Kant to Nietzsche, professional philosophers in Great Britain remained almost completely unaffected by their German contemporaries, with the sole exception of Sir William Hamilton, who had little influence. Coleridge and Carlyle, it is true, were profoundly affected by Kant, Fichte, and the German Romantics, but they were not philosophers in the technical sense. Somebody seems to have once mentioned Kant to James Mill, who, after a cursory inspection, remarked: "I see well enough what poor Kant would be at." But this degree of recognition is exceptional; in general, there is complete silence about the Germans. Bentham and his school derived their philosophy, in all its main outlines, from Locke, Hartley, and Helvétius ; their importance is not so much philosophical as political, as the leaders of British radicalism, and as the men who unintentionally prepared the way for the doctrines of socialism.

The utilitarian theory first emerged in 18th century England as a response to the inequities of the time. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are credited with formulating this ethical philosophy, which seeks to bring justice and equality for all people. In Bentham's utilitarianism, utility could be measured mathematically by weighing the pleasure or happiness (utility) against the pain created by an act, or "the greatest good for the greatest number". Mill developed this concept further, introducing his own principles of utility which stated that actions should be judged based on their consequences. This led to the creation of a new approach to ethics which became known as ‘The Greatest Happiness Principle’.

What is the Utilitarian Theory?

The utilitarian theory proposes that an action is right if it produces the greatest ratio of good over bad for all people affected. It is based on the concept of utility which refers to the usefulness of a given action or choice for achieving desired ends. Utilitarianism attempts to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, seeking to create overall happiness by balancing potential benefits with possible harms.

What Are the Arguments for and Against Utilitarianism?

Proponents of utilitarianism argue that, by focusing on the greatest aggregate benefit for the most members of society, this approach allows us to make fair and equitable decisions that would otherwise be subjective. Critics, however, suggest that utilitarianism places too much emphasis on rewards (in terms of pleasure or support) and not enough on maintaining internal moral integrity. A further criticism stresses that utility is something to be maximized rather than minimized over a period of time. Ultimately, there are no clear and straightforward answers as to which approach is better – one simply needs to consider the potential implications of their decisions both in the short-term and in the long-term.

Bentham's theory of utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham, who was the recognized head of the "Philosophical Radicals," was not the sort of man one expects to find at the head of a movement of this sort. He was born in 1748, but did not become a Radical till 1808. He was painfully shy, and could not without great trepidation endure the company of strangers. He wrote voluminously, but never bothered to publish; what was published under his name had been benevolently purloined by his friends. His main interest was jurisprudence, in which he recognized Helvétius and Beccaria as his most important predecessors. It was through the theory of law that he became interested in ethics and politics.

Jeremy Bentham was one of the main supporters of utilitarianism. He argued that moral decisions should weigh consequences and prioritize an outcome that achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He believed this approach to be rational and objective, allowing individuals to make ethical choices free from emotions or personal biases. According to Bentham, pleasure and pain are the two motivating forces behind all decisions, meaning that we must balance our own needs with those of others in order to achieve a maximally beneficial result.

The utilitarian principle

Utilitarian perspective Jeremy Bentham bases his whole philosophy on two principles, the "association principle," and the "greatest happiness principle." The association principle had been emphasised by Hartley in 1749; before him, though association of ideas was recognized as occurring, it was regarded, for instance by Locke, only as a source of trivial errors. Bentham, following Hartley, made it the basic principle of psychology. He recognizes association of ideas and language, and also association of ideas and ideas. By means of this principle he aims at a deterministic account of mental occurrences. In essence the doctrine is the same as the more modern theory of the "conditioned reflex," based on Pavlov's experiments. The only important difference is that Pavlov's conditioned reflex is physiological, whereas the association of ideas was purely mental. Pavlov's work is therefore capable of a materialistic explanation, such as is given to it by the behaviourists, whereas the association of ideas led rather towards a psychology more or less independent of physiology.

utilitarianism examples : There can be no doubt that, scientifically, the principle of the conditioned reflex is an advance on the older principle. Pavlov's principle is this: Given a reflex according to which a stimulus B produces a reaction C, and given that a certain animal has frequently experienced a stimulus A at the same time as B, it often happens that in time the stimulus A will produce the reaction C even when B is absent. To determine the circumstances under which this happens is a matter of experiment. Clearly, if we substitute ideas for A, B, and C, Pavlov's principle becomes that of the association of ideas.  

Both principles, indubitably, are valid over a certain field; the only controversial question is as to the extent of this field. Bentham and his followers exaggerated the extent of the field in the case of Hartley's principle, as certain behaviourists have in the case of Pavlov's principle. 

To Bentham, determinism in psychology was important, because he wished to establish a code of laws and, more generally, a social system- which would automatically make men virtuous. His second principle, that of the greatest happiness, became necessary at this point in order to define "virtue."

Bentham maintained that what is good is pleasure or happiness he used these words as synonyms and what is bad is pain. Therefore one state of affairs is better than another if it involves a greater balance of pleasure over pain, or a smaller balance of pain over pleasure. Of all possible states of affairs, that one is best which involves the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. 

There is nothing new in this doctrine, which came to be called "utilitarianism." It had been advocated by Hutcheson as early as 1725. Bentham attributes it to Priestley, who, however, had no special claim to it. It is virtually contained in Locke. Bentham's merit consisted not in the doctrine, but in his vigorous application of it to various practical problems.

Bentham held not only that the good is happiness in general, but also that each individual always pursues what he believes to be his own happiness. 

The business of the legislator, therefore, is to produce harmony between public and private interests. It is to the interest of the public that I should abstain from theft, but it is only to my interest where there is an effective criminal law. Thus the criminal law is a method of making the interests of the individual coincide with those of the community; that is its justification.

Men are to be punished by the criminal law in order to prevent crime, not because we hate the criminal. It is more important that the punishment should be certain than that it should be severe. In his day, in England, many quite minor offences were subject to the death penalty, with the result that juries often refused to convict because they thought the penalty excessive. Bentham advocated abolition of the death penalty for all but the worst offences, and before he died the criminal law had been mitigated in this respect. 

Civil law, he says, should have four aims: subsistence, abundance, security, and equality. It will be observed that he does not mention liberty. In fact, he cared little for liberty. He admired the benevolent autocrats who preceded the French Revolution--Catherine the Great and the Emperor Francis. He had a great contempt for the doctrine of the rights of man. The rights of man, he said, are plain nonsense;  the imprescriptible rights of man, nonsense on stilts. When the French revolutionaries made their "dã©declaration des droits de l'homme," Bentham called it "a metaphysical work- the ne plus ultra of metaphysics." Its articles, he said, could be divided into three classes: (1) Those that are unintelligible, (2) Those that are false, (3) Those that are both. 

Bentham's ideal, like that of Epicurus, was security, not liberty. "Wars and storms are best to read of, but peace and calms are better to endure."

His gradual evolution towards Radicalism had two sources: on the one hand, a belief in equality, deduced from the calculus of pleasures and pains; on the other hand, an inflexible determination to submit everything to the arbitrament of reason as he understood it. His love of equality early led him to advocate equal division of a man's property among his children, and to oppose testamentary freedom. In later years it led him to oppose monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, and to advocate complete democracy, including votes for women. His refusal to believe without rational grounds led him to reject religion, including belief in God; it made him keenly critical of absurdities and anomalies in the law, however venerable their historical origin. He would not excuse anything on the ground that it was traditional. From early youth he was opposed to imperialism, whether that of the British in America, or that of other nations; he considered colonies a folly.

The classical Utilitarians Bentham and mill

Bentham and mill

It was through the influence of James Mill that Bentham was induced to take sides in practical politics. James Mill was twenty-five years younger than Bentham, and an ardent disciple of his doctrines, but he was also an active Radical. Bentham gave Mill a house (which had belonged to Milton), and assisted him financially while he wrote a history of India. When this history was finished, the East India Company gave James Mill a post, as they did afterwards to his son until their abolition as a sequel to the Mutiny. James Mill greatly admired Condorcet and Helvétius. Like all Radicals of that period, he believed in the omnipotence of education. He practised his theories on his son John Stuart Mill, with results partly good, partly bad. The most important bad result was that John Stuart could never quite shake off his influence, even when he perceived that his father's outlook had been narrow.

James Mill, like Bentham, considered pleasure the only good and pain the only evil. But like Epicurus he valued moderate pleasure most. He thought intellectual enjoyments the best and temperance the chief virtue. "The intense was with him a bye-word of scornful disapprobation," says his son, who adds that he objected to the modern stress laid upon feeling. Like the whole utilitarian school, he was utterly opposed to every form of romanticism. He thought politics could be governed by reason, and expected men's opinions to be determined by the weight of evidence. If opposing sides in a controversy are presented with equal skill, there is a moral certaintyso he held--that the greater number will judge right. His outlook was limited by the poverty of his emotional nature, but within his limitations he had the merits of industry, disinterestedness, and rationality.

His son John Stuart Mill, who was born in 1808, carried on a somewhat softened form of the Benthamite doctrine to the time of his death in 1873. 

Throughout the middle portion of the nineteenth century, the influence of the Benthamites on British legislation and policy was astonishingly great, considering their complete absence of emotional appeal. 

Bentham advanced various arguments in favour of the view that the general happiness is the summum bonum. Some of these arguments were acute criticisms of other ethical theories. In his treatise on political sophisms he says, in language which seems to anticipate Marx, that sentimental and ascetic moralities serve the interests of the governing class, and are the product of an aristocratic regime . Those who teach the morality of sacrifice, he continues, are not victims of error: they want others to sacrifice to them. The moral order, he says, results from equilibrium of interests. Governing corporations pretend that there is already identity of interests between the governors and the governed, but reformers make it clear that this identity does not yet exist, and try to bring it about. He maintains that only the principle of utility can give a criterion in morals and legislation, and lay the foundation of a social science. His main positive argument in favour of his principle is that it is really implied by apparently different ethical systems. This, however, is only made plausible by a severe restriction of his survey.

There is an obvious lacuna in Bentham's system. If every man always pursues his own pleasure, how are we to secure that the legislator shall pursue the pleasure of mankind in general? Bentham's own instinctive benevolence (which his psychological theories prevented him from noticing) concealed the problem from him. If he had been employed to draw up a code of laws for some country, he would have framed his proposals in what he conceived to be the public interest, not so as to further his own interests or (consciously) the interests of his class. But if he had recognized this fact, he would have had to modify his psychological doctrines. He seems to have thought that, by means of democracy combined with adequate supervision, legislators could be so controlled that they could only further their private interests by being useful to the general public. There was in his day not much material for forming a judgement as to the working of democratic institutions, and his optimism was therefore perhaps excusable, but in our more disillusioned age it seems somewhat naïve (blemish). 

John Stuart Mill, in his Utilitarianism, offers an argument which is so fallacious that it is hard to understand how he can have thought it valid. He says: Pleasure is the only thing desired; therefore pleasure is the only thing desirable. He argues that the only things visible are things seen, the only things audible are things heard, and similarly the only things desirable are things desired. He does not notice that a thing is "visible" if it can be seen, but "desirable" if it ought to be desired. Thus "desirable" is a word presupposing an ethical theory; we cannot infer what is desirable from what is desired. 

Again: if each man in fact and inevitably pursues his own pleasure, there is no point in saying he ought to do something else. Kant urged that "you ought' implies "you can"; conversely, if you cannot, it is futile to say you ought. If each man must always pursue his own Pleasure, ethics is reduced to prudence: you may do well to further the interests of others in the hope that they in turn will further yours. Similarly in politics all co-operation is a matter of log-rolling. From the premisses of the utilitarians no other conclusion is validly deducible.

There are two distinct questions involved. First, does each man pursue his own happiness? Second, is the general happiness the right end of human action?

When it is said that each man desires his own happiness, the statement is capable of two meanings, of which one is a truism and the other is false. Whatever I may happen to desire, I shall get some pleasure from achieving my wish; in this sense, whatever I desire is a pleasure, and it may be said, though somewhat loosely, that pleasures are what I desire. This is the sense of the doctrine which is a truism.

But if what is meant is that, when I desire anything, I desire it because of the pleasure that it will give me, that is usually untrue. When I am hungry I desire food, and so long as my hunger persists food will give me pleasure. But the hunger, which is a desire, comes first; the pleasure is a consequence of the desire. I do not deny that there are occasions when there is a direct desire for pleasure. If you have decided to devote a free evening to the theatre, you will choose the theatre that you think will give you the most pleasure. But the actions thus determined by the direct desire for pleasure are exceptional and unimportant. Everybody's main activities are determined by desires which are anterior to the calculation of pleasures and pains. 

Anything whatever may be an object of desire; a masochist may desire his own pain. The masochist, no doubt, derives pleasure from the pain that he has desired, but the pleasure is because of the desire, not vice versa. A man may desire something that does not affect him personally except because of his desire-for instance, the victory of one side in a war in which his country is neutral. He may desire an increase of general happiness, or a mitigation of general suffering. Or he may, like Carlyle, desire the exact opposite. As his desires vary, so do his pleasures. 

The utilitarian theory of ethics

Utilitarianism poster

Ethics is necessary because men's desires conflict. The primary cause of conflict is egoism: most people are more interested in their own welfare than in that of other people. But conflicts are equally possible where there is no element of egoism. One man may wish everybody to be Catholic, another may wish everybody to be Calvinist. Such non-egoistic desires are frequently involved in social conflicts. Ethics has a twofold purpose: First, to find a criterion by which to distinguish good and bad desires; second, by means of praise and blame, to promote good desires and discourage such as are bad. 

The ethical part of the utilitarian doctrine, which is logically independent of the psychological part, says: Those desires and those actions are good which in fact promote the general happiness. This need not be the intention of an action, but only its effect. Is there any valid theoretical argument either for or against this doctrine? We found ourselves faced with a similar question in relation to Nietzsche.

His ethic differs from that of the utilitarians, since it holds that only a minority of the human race have ethical importance- the happiness or unhappiness of the remainder should be ignored. I do not myself believe that this disagreement can be dealt with by theoretical arguments such as might be used in a scientific question. Obviously those who are excluded from the Nietzschean aristocracy will object, and thus the issue becomes political rather than theoretical. The utilitarian ethic is democratic and anti-romantic. Democrats are likely to accept it, but those who like a more Byronic view of the world can, in my opinion, be refuted only practically, not by considerations which appeal only to facts as opposed to desires. 

utilitarianism in business ethics

Utilitarianism ethic
Utilitarianism is a widely-used theory that promotes an approach to decision-making based on maximizing the beneficial outcomes for the greatest number of people. In business, it can be used in a variety of ways, from ethical considerations to maximizing organizational success.

Utilitarianism can help businesses make decisions that prioritize the greatest good for all stakeholders, including customers, employees, and the organization as a whole. It has the potential to reduce risks by making sure decision-makers are taking into account the interests of everyone who could potentially be affected by their choices. Utilitarianism also allows organizations to better assess potential outcomes and choose the path that's most likely to bring about positive results.

Utilitarianism in business offers ethical benefits, as it helps to minimize harm while maximizing benefit. The core objective of utilitarian theory is to weigh up each outcome and choose the one that brings the most pleasure or satisfaction to all, while also taking into consideration potential ethical pitfalls such as any potential suffering that would result from a particular decision. This approach makes it easier for businesses to make the right choices, even when those decisions may not be immediately obvious or unpopular.

While utilitarianism can be a powerful tool in certain business contexts, keeping ethical considerations front and center is essential. There are some potential pitfalls to be aware of when using the theory, such as the tendency to neglect individual rights or well-being in favor of society’s happiness. Additionally, it can be difficult to forecast outcomes with accuracy, meaning that decisions made based on utilitarian theory have the potential to have unintended consequences which could cause more harm than good. To counteract these risks, careful consideration must be given to any possible scenarios before making consequential decisions.

It is important to consider how utilitarianism can be practically applied in business contexts. Start by assessing the goals and objectives of a decision in order to appropriately weigh the costs and benefits associated with various actions. Evaluate every possible consequence, from ethical considerations to immediate and future outcomes. Additionally, it can be beneficial to solicit input from multiple points of view, as well as any stakeholders involved in the process. This will allow for an accurate assessment of potential outcomes to ensure that decisions serve the greater good rather than a handful of individuals.

Pros and Cons the Utilitarian Theory

The utilitarian theory has a number of distinct pros and cons to consider. On the positive side, this theory is often seen as providing an objective means for assessing ethical decisions and actions, especially with regard to their consequences. As such, it’s sometimes viewed as preferable to personal or arbitrary subjective standards of ethics. Criticisms of this approach may include the fact that ‘utility’ – which is seen as the basis of most utilitarian calculations – can be difficult to measure or quantify in practice and that it places too much emphasis on external pleasurable considerations (across individuals) rather than internal moral integrity.

Philosophical Radicals

Is a loose term for the group of reformers in the early 19th cent. who based their approach to government and society largely on the utilitarian theories of Jeremy Bentham, though they were also influenced by Malthus, Ricardo, and Hartley. The leading proponents were James and John Stuart Mill, George Grote, and John Roebuck, supported by the Morning Chronicle, Westminster Review, and London Review. Their efforts to construct a radical party in Parliament after 1832 did not succeed: ‘they did very little to promote any opinions,’ wrote J. S. Mill, ‘they had little enterprise, little activity.’ But the general influence of utilitarian ideas permeated politics and, particularly in the period 1820 to 1850, produced an ‘age of reform’.

The Philosophical Radicals were a transitional school. Their system gave birth to two others, of more importance than itself, namely Darwinism and Socialism. Darwinism was an application to the whole of animal and vegetable life of Malthus's theory of population, which was an integral part of the politics and economics of the Benthamites -a global free competition, in which victory went to the animals that most resembled successful capitalists. Darwin himself was influenced by Malthus, and was in general sympathy with the Philosophical Radicals. There was, however, a great difference between the competition admired by orthodox economists and the struggle for existence which Darwin proclaimed as the motive force of evolution. "Free competition," in orthodox economics, is a very artificial conception, hedged in by legal restrictions. You may undersell a competitor, but you must not murder him. You must not use the armed forces of the State to help you to get the better of foreign manufacturers. Those who have not the good fortune to possess capital must not seek to improve their lot by revolution. "Free competition," as understood by the Benthamites, was by no means really free. 

Darwinian competition was not of this limited sort; there were no rules against hitting below the belt. The framework of law does not exist among animals, nor is war excluded as a competitive method. The use of the State to secure victory in competition was against the rules as conceived by the Benthamites, but could not be excluded from the Darwinian struggle. In fact, though Darwin himself was a Liberal, and though Nietzsche never mentions him except with contempt, Darwin "Survival of the Fittest" led, when thoroughly assimilated, to something much more like Nietzsche's philosophy than like Bentham's. 

These developments, however, belong to a later period, since Darwin Origin of Species was published in 1859, and its political implications were not at first perceived. 

Socialism, on the contrary, began in the heyday of Benthamism, and as a direct outcome of orthodox economics. Ricardo, who was intimately associated with Bentham, Malthus, and James Mill, taught that the exchange value of a commodity is entirely due to the labour expended in producing it. He published this theory in 1817, and eight years later Thomas Hodgskin, an exnaval officer, published the first Socialist rejoinder, Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital. He argued that if, as Ricardo taught, all value is conferred by labour, then all the reward ought to go to labour; the share at present obtained by the landowner and the capitalist must be mere extortion. Meanwhile Robert Owen, after much practical experience as a manufacturer, had become convinced of the doctrine which soon came to be called Socialism. (The first use of the word "Socialist" occurs in 1827, when it is applied to the followers of Owen.) Machinery, he said, was displacing labour, and laisser faire gave the working classes no adequate means of combating mechanical power. The method which he proposed for dealing with the evil was the earliest form of modern Socialism.

Critique utilitarianism

Although Owen was a friend of Bentham, who had invested a considerable sum of money in Owen's business, the Philosophical Radicals did not like his new doctrines; in fact, the advent of Socialism made them less Radical and less philosophical than they had been. Hodgskin secured a certain following in London, and James Mill was horrified. He wrote: 

"Their notions of property look ugly; . . . they seem to think that it should not exist, and that the existence of it is an evil to them. Rascals, I have no doubt, are at work among them. . . . The fools, not to see that what they madly desire would be such a calamity to them as no hands but their own could bring upon them."

This letter, written in 1831, may be taken as the beginning of the long war between Capitalism and Socialism. In a later letter, James Mill attributes the doctrine to the "mad nonsense" of Hodgskin, and adds: "These opinions, if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilized society; worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars."

Socialism, in so far as it is only political or economic, does not come within the purview of a history of philosophy.

Utilitarian Quotes 

"The principle of utility…approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency it appears to have to increase or lessen—i.e. to promote or oppose—the happiness of the person or group whose interest is in question."  - Bentham 

"The dictates of utility are just the dictates of the most extensive and enlightened—i.e. well-advised—benevolence." - Bentham 

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation."-Bentham 

"By ‘utility’ is meant the property of something whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…or…to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered. If that party is the community in general, then the happiness of the community; if it’s a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual." - Bentham 

"Pleasure is in itself a good; indeed it’s the only good if we set aside immunity from pain; and pain is in itself an evil, and without exception the only evil; or else ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have no meaning! And this is equally true of every sort of pain, and of every sort of pleasure." - Bentham 

"Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains." - Bentham 

"Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure—Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure. Such pleasures seek if private be thy end: If it be public, wide let them extend. Such pains avoid, whichever be thy view: If pains must come, let them extend to few." - Bentham 

"The day may come when the non-human part of the animal creation will acquire the rights that never could have been withheld from them except by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the whims of a tormentor. Perhaps it will some day be recognised that the number of legs, the hairiness of the skin, or the possession of a tail, are equally insufficient reasons for abandoning to the same fate a creature that can feel? What else could be used to draw the line? Is it the faculty of reason or the possession of language? But a full-grown horse or dog is incomparably more rational and conversable than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. Even if that were not so, what difference would that make? The question is not Can they reason? Or Can they talk? but Can they suffer? " - Bentham 

"Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes." - Bentham 

"Judges of elegance and taste consider themselves as benefactors to the human race, whilst they are really only the interrupters of their pleasure…There is no taste which deserves the epithet good, unless it be the taste for such employments which, to the pleasure actually produced by them, conjoin some contingent or future utility: there is no taste which deserves to be characterized as bad, unless it be a taste for some occupation which has mischievous tendency." - Bentham 

"When a whole community, that is a multitude of individuals, is considered as being concerned in it, the value of it is to be multiplied by the number of such individuals. The total value of the stock of pleasure belonging to the whole community is to be obtained by multiplying the number expressing the value of it as respecting any one person, by the number expressing the multitude of such individuals." - Bentham 

"The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what is it?—the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it." - Bentham 

"The Greatest Happiness Principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness and wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." - Mill

'I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." - Mill

"The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end." - Mill

"That the morality of actions depends on the consequences which they tend to produce, is the doctrine of rational persons of all schools; that the good or evil of those consequences is measured solely by pleasure or pain, is all of the doctrine of the school of utility, which is peculiar to it." - Mill

"The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator." - utilitarian

"It is not human life only, not human life as such, that ought to be sacred to us, but human feelings. The human capacity of suffering is what we should cause to be respected, not the mere capacity of existing." - utilitarian

"A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception." - utilitarian

"The ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable…is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments…This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation." - utilitarian

"The utilitarian morality does recognise in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted. The only self-renunciation which it applauds, is devotion to the happiness, or to some of the means of happiness, of others; either of mankind collectively, or of individuals within the limits imposed by the collective interests of mankind." - utilitarian

"All honour to those who can abnegate for themselves the personal enjoyment of life, when by such renunciation they contribute worthily to increase the amount of happiness in the world; but he who does it, or professes to do it, for any other purpose, is no more deserving of admiration than the ascetic mounted on his pillar. He may be an inspiriting proof of what men can do, but assuredly not an example of what they should." - utilitarian

"We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules, and, when under temptation, will see a utility in the breach of a rule, greater than he will see in its observance. But is utility the only creed which is able to furnish us with excuses for evil doing, and means of cheating our own conscience? They are afforded in abundance by all doctrines which recognise as a fact in morals the existence of conflicting considerations; which all doctrines do, that have been believed by sane persons. It is not the fault of any creed, but of the complicated nature of human affairs, that rules of conduct cannot be so framed as to require no exceptions, and that hardly any kind of action can safely be laid down as either always obligatory or always condemnable." -  utilitarian

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." - utilitarian

"What, in unenlightened societies, colour, race, religion, or in the case of a conquered country, nationality, are to some men, sex is to all women; a peremptory exclusion from almost all honourable occupations, but either such as cannot be fulfilled by others, or such as those others do not think worthy of their acceptance." - utilitarian

"The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex." - utilitarian

"The reasons for legal intervention in favour of children, apply not less strongly to the case of those unfortunate slaves and victims of the most brutal part of mankind, the lower animals." - utilitarian

"Society between human beings…is manifestly impossible on any other footing than that the interests of all are to be consulted. Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally." - utilitarian

"No longer enslaved or made dependent by force of law, the great majority are so by force of poverty; they are still chained to a place, to an occupation, and to conformity with the will of an employer, and debarred, by the accident of birth both from the enjoyments, and from the mental and moral advantages, which others inherit without exertion and independently of desert. That this is an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind have hitherto struggled, the poor are not wrong in believing." - utilitarian

"Justice remains the appropriate name for certain social utilities which are vastly more important, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others are as a class…and which, therefore, ought to be, as well as naturally are, guarded by a sentiment not only different in degree, but also in kind; distinguished from the milder feeling which attaches to the mere idea of promoting human pleasure or convenience, at once by the more definite nature of its commands, and by the sterner character of its sanctions." - utilitarian

"The “principle of utility” understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it…fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy…the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life. And I had a grand conception laid before me of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind through that doctrine." - utilitarian

"Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus impressed me was the chapter in which Bentham passed judgment on the common modes of reasoning in morals and legislation…and characterized them as dogmatism in disguise, imposing its sentiments upon others under cover of sounding expressions which convey no reason for the sentiment, but set up the sentiment as its own reason. It had not struck me before, that Bentham’s principle [of utility] put an end to all this. The feeling rushed upon me, that all previous moralists were superseded, and that here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought." - utilitarian

"Again, defenders of utility often find themselves called upon to reply to such objections as this—that there is not time, previous to action, for calculating and weighing the effects of any line of conduct on the general happiness. This is exactly as if any one were to say that it is impossible to guide our conduct by Christianity, because there is not time, on every occasion on which anything has to be done, to read through the Old and New Testaments. The answer to the objection is, that there has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species. During all that time mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions." - utilitarian

The Utilitarian philosophers

Jeremy Bentham Mill ,Henry Sidgwick , Peter Singer , Mozi , R. M. Hare , Harriet Taylor Mill , William Thompson, John Rawls, Henry R. West, William MacAskill , James Mill, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Bart Schultz ,G. E. Moore, John Broome , Hastings Rashdall ,Bertrand Russell ,H. L. A. Hart

External link

william james


Dark ages

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