Bentham and Mill are proponents of classical utilitarianism, a moral theory underpinned by two elements, consequentialism and hedonism. Utilitarianism, derived from the word utility meaning usefulness, holds that the merit of an action is to be judged only by the extent to which its outcome or consequence is useful or increases welfare of the individual or wider society, (Barber.,p.52). According to Bentham and Mill the most useful outcome in any situation is always hedonic; that is one that produces the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of pain. Thus, according to Bentham’s ‘Principle of Utility’ (ibid.,p.183) and Mill’s ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’, (Cottingham.,p.512), we ought, through every action at both individual and societal level, seek to increase pleasure and minimise pain as a means to improve human welfare. Bentham and Mill however, offered competing conception of happiness.
Bentham, though not the first utilitarian, is credited with articulating the first comprehensive theory. An influential writer and legal and social reformer, Bentham was driven by a ‘respect for science and horror at gratuitous social inequality’, (op.cit.,p.85) and saw utilitarianism as useful to the development of a rational and scientific moral and social policy. For Bentham self interest manifest by the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain drives human behaviour. Bentham held that this understanding could be harnessed to benefit society in general by ensuring that everyone’s self interest was served by doing exactly that which results in the greatest overall happiness. Both individual and societal interests should coincide exactly in a well ordered society; for example; my self interest in not stealing protects me from punishment and contributes on a societal level to greater happiness through a reduction in crime rate.
To this end Bentham developed a ‘felicific calculus’, (ibid.,p.183), or happiness calculator, against which the value of pleasure or pain to an individual could be quantified. Bentham listed six variables of pleasure, including intensity and duration, likelihood of occurrence and repetition and likelihood of generating the opposite sensation and provided guidance for calculating the sum benefit or loss of welfare to society to guide legislation. Bentham categorises ‘several simple pleasures and pains’ (ibid.,p.186) of which the pleasure of sense is pre-eminent and strangely includes malevolence, followed by detailed sub-categories of the sensory pleasures including taste, intoxication, health and sex. By extrapolating the cumulative experience of individuals, predictions of the total value of pleasure to the population and value of potential legislation could be made. Apart from variance in the intensity or duration of pleasures or pains Bentham’s reckoning assumes both are easily quantifiable. Barber illustrates using a ‘hedon’, (Barber.,p.75) a metaphorical unit of pleasure, to compare consumption of a bar of chocolate worth 20 hedons with shutting one’s hand in the door worth 30. As pain lasts longer than the pleasure of chocolate eating, in this case pain cancels out any pleasure.
Bentham neither justified nor defended his theory suggesting its truth be ‘undeniable by anyone who understands it’, (ibid.,p.54). It was not well received, deemed crude, favouring the baser physical pleasures in life over the distinctly human pleasures. Described as a ‘doctrine worthy only of swine, (Cottingham.,p.512) by promoting pleasure as the end point rather than valuing the act underlying the pleasure, it seems ‘to strip us of our dignity’, (op.cit.,p.67 ). By including piety on his list of pleasures Bentham reduces it to an end in itself whereas religious piety is regarded by believers as worthwhile not because of the pleasure it produces but because it has an intrinsic worth and like other