Utilitarianism Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism 12 November 2012 philosophicalinvestigations.co.uk

Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism
12 November 2012
Questions asked of any moral theory
• Derivation: How is the value or norm (idea of
goodness) derived?
• Application: How easy is the norm to apply to
real world situations?
• Realism: How realistic is the theory in its view
of human nature?
• Motivation: How does this theory answer the
question: why should I be moral?
Acronym D.A.R.M learn and apply to any theory
12 November 2012
Learning Objectives:1. To understand the ‘greatest happiness
2. To understand the similarities and
differences between Bentham and Mill.
3. Understand the distinction between Act and
Rule Utilitarianism.
4. Discuss how appropriate these labels are
for Bentham and Mill.
5. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of
12 November 2012
Lesson aims
• To understand the principle of utility.
• To be able to explain the significance
of the hedonic calculus.
• To be confident applying Jeremy
Bentham’s utilitarianism theory.
• To understand what ‘Act Utilitarianism’
12 November 2012
Utilitarianism: a brief introduction
• A teleological theory. But, what does
this mean?
• Teleological theories look at the
consequences- the results of an actionto decide whether it is right or wrong.
• Consequentialist theory- someone who
decides whether an action is good or
bad by its consequences.
12 November 2012
Three possibilities
Act Utilitarianism
•Jeremy Bentham
•Hedonistic (pleasure
•Focus on actions
12 November 2012
Rule Utilitarianism
•Rules create the
greatest happiness
Preference Utilitarianism
•Peter Singer
•Maximise people’s
first choices
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
• He was concerned with
social and legal reform & he
wanted to develop an ethical
theory which established
whether something was
good or bad according to its
benefit for the majority of
• He called this the principle
of utility.
• Utility = the usefulness of
the results of actions.
12 November 2012
Bentham: main points
• Bentham equated happiness with pleasure and the
absence of pain.
• This was an empirical observation - people desire
pleasure and seek to avoid pain.
• His scientific mind led him to believe that the study
of ethics could be undertaken in a practical way,
carefully measuring the possible consequences or
outcomes of an action before deciding which choice
to take.
• Bentham’s theories led to extensive social reform
affecting Parliament, criminal law, the jury system,
prisons, savings banks, and cheap postage.
• Bentham believed in equality: all people “to count as
one and no-one as more than one” when making
laws. His hedonic calculus was especially helpful in
determining how to measure different amounts of
12 November
Principle of Utility: deriving the norm
Often expressed as
“the greatest good of the
greatest number”
Good = happiness or pleasure. So, an act is right or
wrong according to the good or bad results that results
from the act and the good act is the most pleasurable.
Quantitative= focuses on the greatest number.
12 November 2012
Principle of Utility: applying the norm
• The theory is based on ancient hedonism
(pleasure seeking), which pursued physical
pleasure and avoided physical pain.
• Moral acts= maximise pleasure/ minimise
pain    utilitarian calculus.
• So, an act = moral, if it brings the greatest
amount of pleasure and least pain.
• Problem: suppose I think pain is good and
pleasure bad, like the Puritans or Da Vinci
Code flagellant?
12 November 2012
Bentham: applying the norm contd
• The principle of utility aims to promote happiness
which is the supreme ethical value.
“Nature has placed us under the governance of
two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.”
An act is ‘right’ if it delivers more pleasure than pain
and ‘wrong’ if it brings about more pain than
• Simple equation 
Happiness = pleasure minus pain.
12 November 2012
Problem: Are happiness and pleasure the
• “Actions are right in
proportion when they tend to
promote happiness, wrong
when they tend to produce
the reverse of happiness.”
• According to Bentham's
theory, the rightness of an
action entirely depends on
the value of its
consequences. That is why
the theory is also described
as consequentialist.
• Problem: are happiness and
pleasure the same thing?
12 November 2012
Exercise: think of four features
of hedonism (pleasure-seeking)
12 November 2012
Historical basis in Greek philosophy
• Utilitarianism  a Hedonistic theory.
• This is based on the idea that ‘good’ is defined in
terms of pleasure/ happiness.
• Greek Philosophers-- Plato and Aristotle both argued
that ‘good’ equated with the greatest happiness (BUT
eudaimonia is a richer idea = flourishing).
• While Epicureans stressed pleasure as the main aim
of life.
• Pleasure is NOT the same as happiness, as happiness
results from the use of reason and cultivating the
virtues to produce eudaimonia or flourishing.
• It is only if we take pleasure in good activities that
pleasure itself is good.
12 November 2012
Exercise: You have 30 happiness points
to distribute across nine things.
• Draw four columns marked “activity, my
score, average score, happy/sad?”
• Put these nine in the first column: clothes,
family, sport, religion, romance, study,
money, freedom. Allocate your points in col2
• Work out class average for col. 3.
• If that average is imposed on you, will you be
happy or sad (compare col 2 and 3)?
12 November 2012
Problem with utilitarianism
• What does this exercise suggest might
be a problem with utilitarianism? (Think
of Government policy on health,
• See Jonathan Glover’s quote (on this
site, go to utilitarianism/evaluative
12 November 2012
Bentham’s hedonic calculus
Helps us choose the good thing to do and work out the
possible consequences of an action.
P.R.R.I.C.E.D = acronym.
• Purity – how free from pain is it?
• Remoteness – how near is it?
• Richness*– to what extent will it lead to other
• Intensity – how powerful is it?
• Certainty – how likely it is to result in pleasure?
• Extent – how many people does it affect?
• Duration – how long will it last?
12 November
* Note:2012
Bentham calls richness
Now: apply this to euthanasia
• Bentham's Hedonic Calculus can be used to weigh up
the pleasure and pain caused by two courses of
action - in this case, helping someone to die, or not
doing so.
• Bentham would consider the Intensity of the pain
and its Duration. He would have to weigh that
against the number of people affected (Extent), and
consider whether keeping someone alive would lead
to other pleasures (Richness). He would also need to
add up the amount of other 'pains' the patient would
face e.g. loss of dignity (Purity), and consider the
chances that there' might be a cure or treatment in
the future (Certainty). The pain is immediate, while
possible future benefits are Remote.
• In most cases, the degree of pain is so great that
Bentham's theory would support euthanasia.
12 November 2012
A theory of Motivation
• According to Bentham, the key
psychological motivation is pleasure
and avoidance of pain.
• Duty was not important, as in Kantian
• Rules are not important, as Mill
Q. what’s wrong with putting pleasure at
the centre of your ethics?
12 November 2012
Exercise: write an answer to these points
Are all actions only good because they have good results?
Suppose a surgeon could use the organs of one healthy patient to
save the lives of several others. Would the surgeon be justified in
killing the healthy patient for the sake of the others? NHS decisions?
Suppose an assault is committed that is thought to be racially
motivated. Riots are brewing that may result in many deaths and long
term racial antagonism. You are the police chief and have recently
taken a man into custody. Why not frame him? He will be imprisoned
if found guilty and this will result in peace and safety. Only you, the
innocent man and the real criminal (who will keep quiet), will know
the truth. What is the morally right thing to do? Similar to the case of
Rachel Nickel’s alleged killer, Colin Stagg, convicted though innocent
You are an army officer who has just captured an enemy soldier who
knows where a secret time bomb is planted. If it explodes it will kill
thousands. Will it be morally permissible to torture the solider so that
he reveals the bomb’s location?
If you knew where the soldier's children were, would it also be
permissible to torture them to get him to reveal the bomb’s
whereabouts? Similar to US Government policy of rendition (removing
terror suspects to countries that torture) following 9/11.
12 November 2012
• What are the strengths and weaknesses
of Bentham’s consequentialist act
utilitarian theory?
12 November 2012
Wrap up Bentham
• On the piece of paper/ post it note, write one thing
you have learned today…
• Could be a concept you are now familiar with.
• Or, a new key term in your vocabulary.
• A theory that you are more confident in
• Developed an academic/exam skill.
• If nothing, be honest.
But say why you feel nothing.
12 November 2012