- Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by Bentham


The new middle classes in Britain, professionals and capitalists, who were rising in the 18th. century thanks to the industrial revolution, confronted the power of the previous landowner class. They had a new philosophy based on reason, experience and ambition: utilitarianism which offered the idea of achievement and utility as its guiding principle in governing. The new middle classes were concerned, not with ideology or philosophy, but with their own interests which were practical. 

They enforced these interests through improving the legal system and the expansion of suffrage. The Reform Bill of 1832 handed over Parliamentary power from the landowners to middle class representatives of the industrial towns. The 1834 Poor Law established workhouses for the indigent among the factory workers. In 1871 workers' unions were legalised by the Trade Union Act thus recognising two new classes, which Marx named the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He analysed the new class conflict in Capital Vol.1 and founded the International Workingmen's Association in London in 1864. However he disagreed with the utility principle.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is considered the father of Utilitarianism in the UK. This philosophical approach to life had a long previous tradition. Bentham wanted to establish a social system which would ensure virtuous living. He defined virtue as the greatest happiness for the greatest number. 

Bentham asserted that good meant happiness or pleasure and that pain was bad. This hedonistic principle is found in ancient Greece in the V century B.C. Cyrenaic school and in VI century Epicureianism. The concept of a universal morality was also accepted in the rival school of Stoicism and in Christian thinking. Bentham and Epicurus agreed that the goal was security, not liberty. Both philosophies valued moderate pleasure.

Within the British utilitarian tradition, Hutcheson, an 18th. century professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, used the greatest happiness model of ethics and proposed a way of calculating for optimum results: a "moral arithmetic". Hume also analysed virtue with regard to utilitarian principles. Bentham claimed that a variety of 18th. century writers had influenced him: Priestley, a clergyman famous for his discovery of oxygen, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the French author of a philosophy of physical sensation; Cesare Beccaria, an Italian legal theorist, John Gay, a theologian and the sceptical David Hume.

Bentham's originality is not in the idea but in his practical applications. He applied the utilitarian concept to legal and social reform in order to change corrupt laws and practices. To judge which actions made a law immoral he used the utility yardstick of its tendency to produce happiness or misery in the greatest number of people. The ethical benchmark was that if a law or social practice did no good, then it was no good. The legislator's work was to harmonise public and private interests. For example a law against theft is of interest both to the public, since it protects property, and also to private citizens, because thieves are imprisoned, which they will wish to avoid. Bentham summed up his utilitarian concept in this phrase:

"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."


Bentham wrote An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), as an introduction to an overall map of a penal code.

This book presents an ethical theory for virtuous behaviour, based on the concept that it is right if based on pleasure, wrong if it causes pain. It is also a political theory stating that the goal of legislation is to expand pleasure or happiness in society. Utility produces happiness so the morality of actions can be determined by their utility. Utilitarianism is a hedonistic doctrine which asserts that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is a rational aim of humanity.

However, Bentham argues that reason alone is no guide to ethics. Common sense, the rule of right, the law of reason, and the law of nature are, for him, theories, not applicable to all moral situations. He proposes a hedonistic calculus through which the quantity of pleasire or pain can be determined and says it depends on various factors: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, nearness, fecundity, and purity. Bentham maintains that behaviours which are morally correct provoke most pleasure, while the opposite is true of pain. The total pleasure or pain will depend on the amounts of each experienced by all the group concerned.

The author offers a classification of pleasures and pains to help evaluate morality: sensations, thoughts, emotions, memories, expectations and associations. Complex experiences are combinations of simple ones. He includes frustration, satisfaction, relief and the ending of both feelings, as causes. Individuals also experience these phenomena differently so rewards and punishments must also vary according to that personal sensitivity.

Bentham's analysis of motivation has attracted criticism. He argues that some motives are morally neutral. For instance he states that avoiding punishment by lying is equivalent to telling the truth since the outcome in each case is the avoidance of punishment. In another argument he maintains that helping someone in danger and not helping the same person is the same because your goal is self-preservation. Cruelty to an enemy and kindness towards their friend is regarded in the same way since the aim in both cases is to obtain the person's favour. According to Bentham it is the results of behaviour which makes it good or evil, not the motivations behind it. Motives vary with individuals, consequences do not.

The author separates motives into two types: seduction (corruption) and tutelary (preservatory). The first can make a person commit immoral acts; the second may not do so. Tutelary motivation is either constant or occasional. If constant, tutelary motives may decide a person's behaviour in most situations; occasional tutelary motives only in some situations.

Temptation, for Bentham, plays a part in acting wrongfully. When the temptation is weaker the performance of the wrongful action means that the individual's motivation is more corrupt. The opposite is also true. You can calculate the wrongfulness of a behaviour by determining the pain and the loss of pleasure it causes.

There are five types of illegal social offenses, according to the theory: 1) private offenses against individuals which include those against a person, property, reputation, condition, 2) semi-public offenses against groups of individuals that include bad behaviour which puts a group of people in danger 3) self-regarding offenses against the rights of the individual, 4) public offenses against the community which include wrongful actions endangering public security, justice, general happiness, social harmony, economic prosperity, or national sovereignty 5) offenses by acts of falsehood or by breaches of trust. He also argues that punishment be proportional, avoiding needless or arbitrary sanctions. All penalties for violation of the law should be based on the principle of utility. The reason for legal disciplining is to prevent further crime, satisfy the injured party and reform the delinquent.



Bentham's rationalist approach to morality was based on the consequences of actions, not the intentions of the behaver. In this way ethics became quanitifiable and he proposed a 'utilitarian calculus' to estimate good and bad behavioural results in a positivist manner. This is based on the principle that condemnation or comendation of an action depends on the pleasure or pain it produces. However, this applies to the group, not the individual. True utilitarians would put the group's pleasure before their own.

His calculus relied on four elements: intensity, duration, certainty and nearness (immediate or delayed). Certain types of action needed two more: fecundity (secondary pleasures); purity(secondary pains). Bentham did not consider the interests of a group but maintained that this interest was the sum of individuals.

Bentham's ethical theory was criticised on the basis that it could be used as justification for any crime. A surgeon could use it to justify killing one healthy patient to save five. Its algorithmic aspect appeared to reduce moral decision-making to a calculation, which is in itself immoral.

The theory also appears as impracticable since it is too complex to calculate the consequences of an act before acting. Marx criticised utilitarianism on its failure to consider socioeconomic contexts where people perceive pleasure and pain in different ways. Pope John Paul II put forward an argument which criticised the 18th. century industrial premise innate in the theory which treated people as objects:

 “Utilitarianism is a civilisation of production and of use, a civilisation of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used." 

Another core criticism is that this theory is consequential since it values the results of behaviour, not intention. This leads to the ends justifying the means.

However, utilitarianism has assisted in developing policies by analysing the results they might produce to make sure they affect the greatest number of people. The theory is the foundation for the modern animal rights campaign.


Bentham's hedonistic doctrine comes in two formats. One was psychological hedonism, meaning rational human behaviour is motivated by enjoying pleasure and avoiding pain. The other is ethical hedonism meaning that the moral correctness of an action depends on its consequences as happiness or unhappiness.

Bentham's positivist approach led him to classify pleasure and pain on the basis of human psychology: 

Pleasures: riches, a good reputation, friendship, knowledge, social affection, relief from pain.

Pain: privation, senses, including diseases, skill, enmity, fear of divine punishment, knowledge and imagination.

He also classified the pleasures and pain as sanctions: physical, political, moral, religious.


If the utility theory were applied to an educational area the teacher could appear on day one and make a secret pact with the class that there would be no lessons and everyone would receive an A. This action maximises utility since nobody would have to do any painful work and everyone would gain pleasurable leisure time. However if the students were doctors they would not learn the required skills and a society of incompetent medics would decrease utility. The same could be said for most other educational spheres. 

Utilitarians are similar to other moralists. They prohibit killing, lying, cheating, and stealing and prescribe helping others, working hard, and performing good deeds.

On the other hand, in the case of a terminally ill patient who is suffering and who gets a friend to poison him, utilitarianism views that as morally acceptable. Since the suffering only affects the patient, and possibly his friend, net utility will increase when he dies. It is the pain and suffering of those involved that determine the ethical course of action for a utilitarian.

It was utilitarian thinking that morally justified the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan. The choice was a certain number of enemy deaths from the bomb and many more allied deaths as a consequence of an invasion by land plus a protraction of the war. The net utility was clear since maximising utility is the determinant ethical factor.


It is a key concept of utilitarianism that moral actions are judged by the results they produce: happiness or unhappiness. This leads to the conclusion that 'the end justifies the means'. How you achieve your objectives does not count, only that they are attained. The goal is to increase the happiness and decrease the misery of everyone involved.

Nevertheless, some object that it is not possible to predict consequences so that it is also impossible to know what the right action is. The utilitarian answer to that is that we can only be held responsible for consequences that are reasonably anticipated. Certainty of knowledge of results is unnecessary and so that does not undermine the utility theory.

Circumstantial vs. Invariable actions

Later philosophers have distinguished between two types of utilitarianism: act utilitarians ask which action in a circumstance will most leads to utility; rule utilitarians which rule when generally applied will lead to maximum utility.

As an example you can consider stopping at a red pedestrian traffic light at 2 am. You look round and there is no other vehicle or person nearby. If you ignore the light and drive on you can save the planet a little petrol and pollution and yourself some time. An act utilitarian would advise running the light.

The rule utilitarian would ask: what if this were a general rule and everyone did it? They answer that if everybody disobeyed traffic rules the net utility would be nil. To maximize utility then always obey traffic rules, not occasionally. The latter would decrease utility and lead to individual decisions on traffic and minor chaos. Act utilitarians perform the action that maximizes the utility; rule utilitarians obey the rule that, when generally adopted, maximizes utility. 

Act utilitarianism believes that selective respect for moral rules improves ethical life. It is the situation which decides. Rule utilitarians hold to the opposite: the rules apply always to everyone, no individual exceptions.

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