Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Bentham’s Utilitarianism


We talked about the five parts of Jeremy Bentham’s version of utilitarianism.

  1. His theory of the good: hedonism, pleasure is the only thing that is good and pain is the only thing that is bad.

  2. His theory of motivation: egoism, we are only motivated to act by considerations of our own good.

  3. His moral theory: utilitarianism, the right action is the one that produces the greatest overall good.

  4. His theory of sanctions: laws can rectify the gap between what people ought to do (promote everyone’s good) and what they will do (promote their own good).

  5. The utilitarian calculus: assign numbers to the intensity and duration of pleasures and pains that various actions would produce, add up the numbers for different people, and then do the thing that would get the highest score.

Our discussion

We spent a lot of time talking about whether it is obvious that people do, in fact, exclusively pursue pleasure and avoid pain. We talked through several examples of cases in which this seems not to be so and how Bentham would try to accommodate them. In a nutshell, he would say that people really are pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, despite appearances to the contrary. If someone was doing the opposite, he would try to show that this person is ill or disordered.

The strongest challenge to this way of interpreting human behavior comes from some suggestions made by Camille and Hutch. Some psychologists and philosophers think that we are primarily intellectual beings who seek to make sense of what they experience. Bentham by contrast, sees us as primarily feeling creatures who seek out pleasure and avoid pain.

Our discussion concerned Bentham’s hedonistic theory of good and bad. Strictly speaking, the question of whether people are actually motivated by pleasure and pain is different from the question of whether pleasure and pain are the ultimately good or bad things. Our motivations may not match what is truly good or bad, after all. Nonetheless, we were driven to this kind of discussion by Bentham himself because his argument for the proposition that pleasure is the only good thing relies on the claim that it is what we in fact pursue. His idea is that this suggests, without necessarily proving, that we don’t really think there is anything else that is good since what we actually pursue is pleasure.

I distinguished Bentham’s psychological egoism from other things that people mean by “egoism.” The important thing to remember is that, for Bentham, “egoism” is a theory about motivation. It doesn’t mean that it’s good or rational to be an egoist. It also means more than that people are motivated by their own desires. That simply amounts to saying that people are motivated by their own motivations; that’s true, but it’s not very interesting.

Bentham’s utilitarianism is individualistic and it applies to anything that can experience pleasure or pain.

The utilitarian calculus relies on the assumption that numerical values can be assigned to the intensity of pleasures and pains as well as their duration and that those numerical values can be compared for different peoples’ pleasures and pains. That is how they can say that one outcome could produce more good than another.

Fun Facts

Camille told us about Bentham’s auto-icon. Everything she said is completely true. He’s just sitting in a cabinet in the hallway.

I just learned another fun fact about Bentham. The term “utilitarianism” came to him in a dream.

In 1781, Bentham—who delighted in inventing new terminology to describe philosophical concepts—coined the name “utilitarian” in recording a dream he had while a guest at the country estate of his patron, the Whig politician William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737–1805). In this dream he imagined himself “a founder of a sect; of course a personage of great sanctity and importance. It was called the sect of the utilitarians.” (Crimmins 2019)

Key Points

You should know the five points listed at the beginning.


Bentham, Jeremy. (1789) 1993. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

Crimmins, James E. 2019. “Jeremy Bentham.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2019. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.