Ethical Theory Spring 2021

Bentham’s Utilitarianism


We will talk 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.


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 are 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.

Bentham’s psychological egoism is distinct 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 is 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 means something more specific, namely, that people are motivated exclusively by thoughts about what would benefit themselves.

The theory of sanctions is needed to close a gap between the moral theory, utilitarianism, and the psychological theory of egoism. The moral theory says people should promote the greatest overall good. The psychological theory says they will promote their own good. Needless to say, those two things will often come apart. To bring them back together, Benthem proposes that the laws set out a schedule of rewards and punishments that will get egoistic people to act for the overall good.

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.

Questions for Discussion

I think that each point in Bentham’s theory is open to question.

For example, is it really true that people only pursue pleasure and avoid pain? Try to think of some examples in which people do not seem to be pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain. How do you think Bentham would try to explain those examples?

Egoism is also contestable. Again, people do lots of things that do not appear to be motivated by self-interest. We will do the same sort of thing that I suggested earlier: think of cases that seem to contradict what Bentham says and try to imagine how he would respond.

Perhaps the most important part of the theory is the argument for the moral theory. How does Bentham try to show that utilitarianism is the correct moral theory? As a hint, it involves comparisons with competing moral theories.

Fun Facts

The term “utilitarianism” came to Bentham 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)

If you are in London, you can see Bentham’s auto-icon. His preserved body is sitting in a cabinet in the hallway.

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.