Jeremy Bentham Principle Of Utility

Jeremy Bentham His Principle Of Utility, Bentham Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the son of a well-to-do English lawyer and was himself trained for the bar. He did not practice law, however, but devoted his life to study and writing. He traveled considerably, and was influenced much by French thought. His works were mostly translated into French.

Bentham, although not primarily an economist, influenced the development of economic thought so considerably, and in such an interesting way, that even a brief history of the science must discuss his contributions. Between the years 1787 and 1798 he published that part of his work which is most signifi­cant to the economist, thus following Adam Smith by about a decade and preceding Ricardo. In addition to his publica­tions, however, he was personally acquainted with James Mill and with Ricardo, and through both he influenced the thought of John Stuart Mill as well as others of their circle.

Although he published a work on Political Economy, Ben-tham's chief contributions to Economics lie in what he added to the philosophical, ethical, and psychological basis for the science. He was essentially a social philosopher, and was more interested in government and law than in economics.

Probably we should class as most fundamental in Bentham's thought his hedonistic psychology. He thought that individual actions are motivated by desire for pleasure and dislike of pain, and governed by a calculated balancing of pleasures and pains. The process of motivation, as he saw it, is somewhat as follows: feelings of pleasure or pain, or both, control the emotions and "will"; the will then refers to the understanding, which calcu­lates a balance and decides; then action follows. This is rational hedonism.

In order to maintain this position, Bentham had to believe that pleasures and pains are measurable, and he so held. But he saw the necessity of allowing for various "dimensions" of pleasure, and he admitted certain limitations or difficulties. Thus he said that pleasures differ in intensity, with degrees ranging from the faintest pleasurable feeling, which is equal to unity. Other differences lie in duration, certainty, propin­quity, purity (degree of mixture with pain), fecundity (reacting to increase capacity for enjoyment), and extent (number of individuals participating). In this classification one sees sug­gestions of some of the phases of utility mentioned by Jevons and others, and of the idea of "time preference."

As to the difficulties or limitations, Bentham himself ques­tioned whether the feelings of different individuals are com­parable, but concluded that we must assume that they are. Then there is the question, Can pleasures be so qualitatively different that they cannot be compared in quantity? Bentham resorts to the solution of a "common measure" or denominator in the shape of money!

The question as to different rates of variation in pleasure according to differences in the amounts of wealth or money possessed, was also raised, and Bentham came near to stating a law of diminishing utility. At one point, he says that we will come nearest to the truth by assuming that the individual's pleasure intensity varies with the amount of money he has.

In his Principles of the Civil Code, he argues that the happiness of an individual is not in proportion to his wealth, and that the greater the disproportion between two masses of wealth, the less probable an equal disproportion between the quantities of happiness enjoyed. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that he formulated the law, and he does not appear to have seen the significance of what we now call marginal utility.

Proceeding from this sort of a psychology, Bentham formu­lated that utilitarian system of ethics and government for which he is best known. The idea that men are governed by pleasures and pains, becomes the idea that they are governed by the "principle of utility," and that the state should act — or refuse to act — accordingly.

A utilitarian can assume that individuals desire pleasure, and that pleasure is "good" for individuals in an absolute sense. Or he can assume that individuals desire to survive, and tend so to act that their survival is aided. Bentham made the first assumption. Later utilitarians, as will appear in a subse­quent chapter, under the influence of evolutionism, adopted the second assumption and made survival the test of "good­ness." Bentham's utilitarianism is, accordingly, a hedonistic utilitarianism, which holds that that is "good" for the indi­vidual which gives him the greatest happiness. The test of greatest happiness decides what he ought to do, determining the difference between right and wrong. The words used by Bentham to indicate this test are "benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness," and they are thus taken to be virtually synonymous — a dubious assumption.
But Bentham goes beyond this conclusion, and derives from it a social ethics and a principle of government. (1) He be­lieves not only that the principle of utility governs what indi­viduals ought to do, but also what they shall do. (2) He believes, moreover, that society is just an aggregation of individuals, and that government should therefore be guided by the same principle. Indeed, the community, he states, is a fictitious body, and the common interest can be understood only by under­standing what is the interest of the individual. In fact, the interest of the community is merely "the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it," and the only way to ascertain that interest is to add individual A's pleasure-minus-pain to individual B's pleasure-minus-pain, and so on. This is the way to the greatest good of the greatest number.

Following up this line of thought, we find Bentham reaching two conclusions of great importance in the development of economic thought. One is that "natural rights" do not exist. The other is the doctrine of laisser faire. He scoffs at the idea of natural rights, saying that rights depend upon the laws. He says the "social contract" is a fiction. He holds that all govern­ment is perpetuated by habit, after having been established by force.

All this furnishes the basis for his individualism and for his advocacy of laisser faire and free competition. We find Bentham making the celebrated statement that in order to increase the national wealth or enjoyment, the general rule is that "nothing ought to be done or attempted by government." His rule of government is, "Be quiet."

First, government action in economic matters is needless, because (a) the wealth of society is just the wealth of the indi­viduals who compose it, and (b) no one knows the individual's interest so well as the individual himself. (It is not surprising to find Bentham at another point, saying, "There is no true interest but individual interest" — a concept which is second only to the pleasure-pain calculus as the basic element in his thought, and one which raises a vital question for all social scientists.)

Second, he argues, government action is not merely inex­pedient, it is pernicious. It involves restraints upon individuals, and "pain is the general concomitant of the sense of restraint, wherever it is experienced." Government subsidies and aids also involve taxes, "and taxes are the product of coercive laws applied to the most coercive purpose."

Bentham went so far as to argue that competition should be allowed almost unlimited freedom, for the reason that the distress caused to various individual competitors would be more than offset by the benefits of others, the tendency thus being toward the greatest good of the greatest number. In this connection, we note that Bentham criticized Adam Smith's concession that government should fix maximum rates of interest.

It must not be inferred from the foregoing simplified sum­mary of Bentham's position either that he was an unqualified extremist, or that his thought was free from inconsistencies. In leading up to his dictum concerning government, "Be quiet," he specifically calls it the general rule which applies "without some special reason." He grants that some "agenda" by the state are allowable, as for example the granting of patents to inventors. He recommends as the best tax, escheats on estates which lack near relatives, and favors taxes on bankers and stock brokers. Above all, he recognizes the greatest happiness of the greatest number as being the proper aim of legislation, thus making a place for a "general interest." Let us see where this thought may lead.

Adam Smith had assumed that individuals in following their own interests are led (perhaps as by a divine hand) uncon­sciously so to act as to make for the public good — at least in economic matters. Bentham, however, broke away from this optimistic "nature philosophy." He sought to make utilitari­anism a rational principle which would serve to guide the law maker — a principle which would be consciously adopted and universally applied. This idea seems to involve the assumption that the individual ruler or legislator can rise above his own self-interest, and can both conceive of the general interest, and perform all the complicated pleasure-and-pain bookkeeping required to strike a balance for his "community."

Of course, Bentham would preface any such talk by saying "if there is to be any government regulation." But is it not fair to ask the question, if the ruler can have such an "aim" as Bentham grants (and can carry out the difficult processes involved in attaining it), why stop at patent laws, and the like? Why not go ahead and have complete social planning? Bentham reduced happiness largely to terms of quantities of pleasure. He thought that the greater the equality in the "masses" of wealth possessed by individuals, the greater the chances of equality in happiness. These ideas not only prepare the way for a sort of mechanical quantitative treatment of social problems; but also they suggest a simplification of the ruler's problem and the possibility of maximizing human happiness by a process of regimentation and control over wealth distribution — although these would have been most repugnant to Bentham.


Then comes in the ethical aspect of his "principle of utility" — one that most scientific economists would avoid — and with the "ought" comes the normative program! We may find in Bentham's thought traces of the following steps: first, the con­clusion that the largest quantity of net pleasure is good and ought to govern individual action; second, men do in fact calcu­late pleasures and pains and act on that basis; third, prejudices, sinister interests, and ignorance may prevent the best balance; fourth, the next step may easily be the establishment of a social ought, involving legislative "aims," duties of rulers to act for the "general interest," and suggestions for equalizing wealth distribution, as by taxation. He thought of the principle of utility as determining an "object" — the object of a rational system which is "to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law."

As a matter of fact, there was much of the reformer in Ben­tham. He believed that education of the individual is required in order to improve his calculation of pleasures and pains, and suggests laws to inflict pain on individuals who act so as to cause more pain to others than pleasure to themselves. This line of thought contains a strain of idealism which is not easy to reconcile with Bentham's underlying materialism, and shows that his extreme of individualism could easily lead into the other extreme of societism. In the last analysis, it was leading him away from laisser faire.

For example, while he regarded government as coercion and all coercion as bad, his quantitative balancing of pleasures and pains involved a choice of evils, and the maximum pleasure might be attained by government actions designed to reduce the pains of many at the expense of increased pains for a few.

Such were the expressed ideas, and some of the implications and tendencies of what came to be known as "Benthamism." These deeply influenced a considerable group of liberal thinkers or "philosophical radicals." To a large extent, the effects were negative, in that the Benthamites centered attention on legis­lative reforms in the shape of abolishing harmful restrictions and outworn legal and political institutions which constituted the great social problems of their time. They had much to do with repealing the prohibitions against labor combinations and the corn laws, and with the improvement of the poor laws. But, as will appear later in discussing John Stuart Mill, their thought also led to suggestions of positive reforms.

While Bentham accepted the economics of Adam Smith, rejecting only Smith's proposal to regulate the interest rate, Benthamism was very different from Smithianism.

In the first place, it casts out the "nature philosophy," and substitutes rational tests for metaphysical assumptions.
In the second place, it is more purely hedonistic, and goes further in basing economic action upon rational choices as against instincts and emotions.

In the third place, it mixes ethics and moral philosophy with economics, and tends to turn the latter into a sociology.

Bentham will ever hold a memorable place in the history of economic thought as one who dealt a great blow to the nature philosophy, who developed rational utilitarianism as the basis for a more positive freedom in economic life, thus influencing John Stuart Mill, and who suggested the idea of degrees of utility and their measurement to Jevons.