Hedonism part 2: Jeremy Bentham. Sport or opera houses – which should we be promoting?

15 Sep

The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is associated with the brand of hedonism known as utilitarianism. He argued that happiness was the ultimate good, and that pleasure and the absence of pain were its chief ingredients.

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think. (Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

But happiness for Bentham was not a purely egotistical exercise. In his view the maximisation of collective happiness was the true basis for moral behaviour.

It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong …the obligation to minister to general happiness was an obligation paramount to and inclusive of every other. (A Fragment on Government)

For Bentham, then, only an action that appears to maximise the happiness of all the people likely to be affected by it is the morally right action. He may have borrowed the phrase ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’  from the Ulster philosopher Francis Hutcheson.

Each person’s happiness depends on the aggregate balance of pleasures over pains, and this balance is the end which individuals, moral leaders, and legislators must have in mind when they establish rules and make judgements about moral conduct. Basically self-interested individuals should be encouraged and directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both themselves and others. 

To help achieve this, Bentham devised a Hedonic Calculus, a method of measuring the value of the pleasures or pains that would probably be caused by specific actions. In the Calculus he identifies  certainty, propinquity, intensity, duration, fecundity, purity, and extent as factors which determine the value of any anticipated pleasure or pain. Taking these into consideration will help us decide whether we should  perform the action or not.

Looking at each of these factors in turn:


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Certainty  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will  be caused by the action?

Propinquity How long will I have to wait for pleasure or pain to occur?

Intensity How strong will  the pleasure or pain be?

Duration How long will  the pleasure or pain be felt for?

Fecundity  Will this particular pleasure or pain lead to more of the same?

Purity  How likely is it that pleasure or pain will lead to some of the opposite sensation, pain or pleasure?

Extent   How many people will  the pleasure or pain be likely to affect?

Bentham measured all pleasures by the same criteria.  He didn’t  give intellectual or sophisticated pleasures a higher value than basic ones. According to him,  the pleasure gained from the parlour game push-pin is just as valuable as pleasure derived from music or poetry.  If games bring the population in general more pleasure than going to the opera, then it is vital that society devotes more resources to promoting games than to running opera houses.

Some of  Bentham’s ideas were anticipated by Epicurus. He believed that we have to take into account the pains which our pleasures may cause us in the future. He also took duration into account. “Continuous bodily pain does not last long,” he writes. “Pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.” (Principal Doctrines 4)

Bentham saw his Calculus as something that people who were aware of their own interests would be able to use; but others have insisted that it is quite impractical. Bentham, however, did not expect either individuals or legislators to follow the process to the letter. Rather, the Calculus was a model of an ideal calculation, offering a set of guidelines for those attempting to maximise pleasure and promote the greatest happiness. 

Bentham’s influence is still felt in the field of economics, where the Calculus provided the basis for the development of policies based on cost-benefit analysis. And his collectivist conclusions, though modest, influenced later reformist thinkers who paved the way for modern welfare economics.

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