Bentham's Utilitarianism

Class notes for 11 April

Main points

We discussed the five parts of Bentham’s utilitarianism. Mill’s version will modify each of these points in significant ways.

Bentham is different from Singer and Cohen in at least two ways.

First, he is looking for a moral principle or rule that will, in theory, settle all cases. No more ambiguities about whether a given sacrifice is “morally significant” or whether an instance of potential suffering and death is really my responsibility or not: the utilitarian principle has a definite answer for everything (even ties — if two courses of action have the same expected utility, then they are morally equal, period).

Singer and Cohen, by contrast, each consider only one or two moral principles, usually with a particular kind of problem in mind.

Second, it is derived from theoretical considerations rather than reflection on the consistency of our beliefs about cases. Bentham’s argument for utilitarianism is that all other abstract accounts of the nature of morality are either implicitly utilitarian or senseless.

That is a very different kind of argument from those found in Cohen and Singer, which center more on questions about the consistency of our reactions to different cases.

Remarks about the utilitarian calculus

Several examples were brought up in the course of our discussion that seemed to show that the utilitarian calculus would yield apparently objectionable results.

I say “apparently” because whether the results are objectionable or not depends on whether utilitarianism is the correct view. If the utilitarian calculus tells us to do X, then a utilitarian will insist with perfect consistency that it cannot be objectionable to do X.

That said, it is not always obvious that utilitarianism would yield the apparently objectionable results. Take, for example, Nathan’s example of criminal punishments for homosexual activity. There is something to be said for them, on the utilitarian view, given that many people have negative reactions to homosexuality. But there is a lot to be said against them, given that they impose significant pain on homosexuals. Running the utilitarian calculus on a case like this would be very complicated. But I would be surprised if the balance came out in favor of criminal sanctions on homosexuality.

Nathan may say that even so, there’s something odd about this way of making a decision. I think he described this as morality by democratic vote: whichever side has combination of numbers and intense feelings wins (in a democracy, by contrast, each vote counts the same, no matter how intense the preference that lies behind it). “Why should the feelings of people who dislike homosexuality count at all in deciding whether homosexuals should be subject to punishment? Don’t they have rights that protect them from?”

If that’s the way you think, you have a deeply non-utilitarian view of morality. You think that there’s something other than utility, namely rights, that should be taken into account in deciding what is morally correct. But the utilitarian calculus has no place for rights: they aren’t fundamentally valuable, only pleasure is.

Finally, Daniel reminded me of something that’s worth pointing out. The utilitarians were progressive reformers in their day. Bentham’s writing makes it clear that his targets were corrupt special interests that exploited the public for their own gain. He was an advocate of animal rights and John Stuart Mill was a passionate advocate of women’s rights. We tend to go straight to objections and those pick on what might happen. But when it came to actual policies, the 19th century utilitarians took the positions that most of us now would regard as correct.