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J.S. Mill
• “The creed which accepts as the
foundation of morals, utility, or
the greatest happiness principle,
holds that actions are right in
proportion as they tend to
promote happiness, wrong as
they tend to produce the reverse
of happiness.”
The utilitarian
Act to promote the greatest
good (happiness) for the
greatest number.
Bentham’s Act
• Jeremy
• 1748-1832
• Philosopher of
ethics & politicallegal theory
• Democrat,
Bentham=s project
• Was to find an objective basis
for moral decision making.
– He rejected notions of “moral sense,”
“right reason,” “fitness of things”
common in his day.
– He found pleasure to be the only
objective good, and pain the only evil.
A Key Assumption:
Psychological Hedonism
• “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.”
» Jeremy Bentham
Hedonistic Calculus:
• Assumes that pleasures &
pains are quantifiable
• Assumes pleasures are equal
• Sets up a simple calculation
that reveals which actions are
the more morally worthy
We can calculate the merits of
any action according to criteria
1. Intensity
2. Duration
3. Certainty or uncertainty
4. Nearness or remoteness
5. Fecundity
6. Purity
7. Multiply 1-6 by number of affected
• “Sum the values of
all the pleasures on
the one side and
those of the pains on
the other. The
balance, if it be . . .
pleasure, will give the
good tendency of the
act . . . if on the side
of pain, the bad
tendency.” J. Bentham
Questioning the
“Quantity of pleasures being equal,
pushpin is as good as poetry.” J. Bentham
But are pleasures really equal?
• Is happiness really quantifiable?
Questioning the
• Is it too much to ask each individual
to calculate each act?
• What is the ideal reach of the theory?
What does it require?
• Does its premise (psychological
hedonism) undermine its ethical
Mill’s Rule Utilitarianism
• John Stuart Mill
• 1806-1873
• Used utilitarian
theory to promote
19th C. social
• Tries to correct
Bentham’s theory
From Act to Rule
“There is no time, previous
to action, for calculating
and weighing the effects
of any line of conduct on
general happiness.
J. S. Mill
Rule Utilitarianism
– Based on past experience &
knowledge, we can determine what
acts in general produce happiness
over unhappiness
– apply the Utilitarian principle to
general rules, or moral codes as a
• i.e. the Ten Commandments
• Or the Bill of Rights
Pleasure Correction
• All pleasures are not equal.
–“No intelligent being would
consent to be a fool.” j. s. mill
• Distinguishes “base” from
“noble” pleasures.
Advantages of
It recognizes the social context of
Best applies when large numbers are
affected by an action.
Highlights a common sense belief
about ethical behavior
Actions should promote positive
Critique of utilitarianism
• How can it be consistently applied?
– Seems to sanction morally abhorrent
• Promotes a kind of cost-benefit
– Ecological ethics, Business Ethics:
Modern slavery, Sale of Organs,
consumer protection
Does Utilitarianism ask
too much?
Issue of knowledge
• How far into the future must we
calculate the consequences?
– How accurate can our knowledge of
the future ever be?
• An ambiguity: When am I moral?
–When I intend to promote GH?
–When I in fact promote GH?
Issue of Self-Sacrifice
• Places the collective above the
• Asks us to subordinate individual
interests for the good of the whole
– Do these facts undermine the core
values of individuality? Self reliance?
Autonomy? Independence?
Questions of Happiness
How is happiness to be defined?
A. By the individual?
This leads to relativism or
B. By some objective standard?
This implies there is another standard
that grounds utilitarianism.