Jeremy Bentham - Felicific Calculus

Jeremy Bentham - The Felicific Calculus

Bentham's attempt to measure economic welfare in the scientific sense took the form of the felicific calculus, or summing up, of collective pleasures and pains. As early as 1780, in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (p. 30), Bentham described the circumstances by which the values of pleasure and pain were to be measured. For the community, they consist of the following seven factors:

1 The intensity of pleasure or pain
2 Its duration
3 Its certainty or uncertainty
4 Its propinquity or remoteness
5 Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind (i.e., pleasure followed by more pleasure, or pain followed by more pain)
6 Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind (e.g., childbirth has a low index of purity because it represents a mixture of pain and pleasure)
7 Its extent, that is, the number of people who are affected by it

Bentham recognized that the fifth and sixth circumstances are not inherent properties of pain or pleasure itself but only of the act that produces pleasure or pain. Consequently, they enter only calculations of the tendency of any act or event to affect the community.

Calculations of Welfare

Bentham also carefully spelled out the mechanics by which welfare calculations were to be made. "To take an exact account, then, of the general tendency of any act, by which the interests of the com­munity are affected," he exhorts, "proceed as follows":

Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it: and take an account,
1 Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
2 Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first in­stance.
3 Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.
4 Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain and the impurity of the first pleasure.
5 Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.
6 Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be con­cerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of degrees of good tendency... in regard to... the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act... if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency with respect to the same community (Principles of Morals and Legislation, pp. 30-31).
Probably anticipating criticism of the impracticability of his welfare theory, Bentham admitted that he did not expect the felicific calculus to be followed pursuant to every moral judgment or legislative enactment. But he enjoined legislators and administrators always to keep the theory in view, for as close as the actual process of evaluation comes to it, the nearer it will be to an exact measure.