An Evaluation of Utilitarianism

An Evaluation of Utilitarianism

There are several practical and analytical difficulties in Bentham's theory of welfare measurement, some which he recognized and some which he ignored.

One of the many problems that Bentham had to face was that of "interpersonal comparisons" of utility. One man's happiness, to paraphrase an old cliche, may be another man's poison. The fact that different individuals have different tastes, different incomes, different goals and ambitions, etc., makes compari­sons of utility (gained or lost) between individuals illegitimate by any objective criteria. Bentham admitted this difficulty, but he felt that such comparisons must be made, or else social reform is impossible. His welfare theory is there­fore subjective (i.e., normative) in content.

Another problem in Bentham's welfare theory concerns the weighting, if any, of qualitative pleasures. Do pleasures of the mind, for example, receive more or less emphasis than pleasures of the body? Bentham was unable to resolve this question, although he was aware of the difficulty. Like so many later economists, he resorted to money as the best available measure of utility, although money measures do not always register qualitative changes unambiguously.

One shortcoming of Bentham's welfare theory of which he was apparently un­aware concerns the logical pitfall that economists call the fallacy of composition. The fallacy asserts that because something is true of a part, it is therefore true of the whole. In reference to Bentham, there may be a logical fallacy in the assertion that the collective interest is the sum of the interests of individuals. While the as­sertion may be true in some instances, it is not necessarily true in all.

A simple example may serve to illustrate this point. It is presumably in the general interest of American society to have every automobile in the United States equipped with all possible safety devices. However, a majority of indi­vidual car buyers may not be willing to pay the cost of such equipment in the form of higher auto prices. In this case, the collective interest does not coin­cide with the sum of the individual interests. The result is a legislative and eco­nomic dilemma. In other words, Bentham's basic assumption regarding wel­fare measurement may lead to inaccurate estimates of the general welfare.

On purely philosophical grounds, Bentham's view of human nature is es­sentially passive: people are "pushed" about by the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Hence there are no "bad" motives or "moral" defi­ciencies; there are only "bad" calculations regarding pleasure and pain. Bentham did not think it wrong to make a bad calculation; it may be stupid, but presumably stupidity can be corrected by education. Indeed, the utilitari­ans placed a great deal of emphasis on education as a means of social reform.

Utilitarianism is also overly narrow in its approach to human behavior. Lit­tle or no room is given to behavioral motives other than the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. But Bentham felt that the felicific calculus was a useful, if unoriginal, theory, despite its inherent difficulties. Individual pleasure-pain calculations may be made unconsciously, and yet they exist, Bentham affirmed. "In all this," he charged, "there is nothing but what the practice of mankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly comformable to" (Principles of Morals and Legislation, p. 32).

Bentham's search for an exact, quantitative measure of utility was bound to prove futile, of course. Even to this day, welfare economists have never been able successfully to solve the problem of interpersonal utility comparisons in such a way as to derive truly objective criteria on which to base welfare decisions. Nev­ertheless, the influence of Bentham's philosophy was carried over through James Mill, a fellow utilitarian, to his son, John Stuart, particularly in the area of social reform. Even more important for the history of economic analysis, the felicific calculus provided a starting point for Jevons's more profound insights into the marginal-utility theory of consumer behavior.

Bentham's influence on economic policy was especially profound in the first decades following his death, when Edwin Chadwick and John Stuart Mill held high the banner of utilitarian reform. His approach to economics remains influential even today, however, having served to inspire contemporary exten­sions of neoclassical theory into such areas as the economics of crime and the economics of franchise bidding (see the Notes for Further Reading at the end of the chapter). In a general sense, Bentham proved to be the master innovator of institutional and administrative reforms designed to alter economic incen­tives in compliance with the general will.