In this essay, I want to discuss two philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham and present a critique of their versions of utilitarianism. According to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, it defines utilitarianism as “the system of thought which states that the best action or decision in a particular situation is the one which most benefits the most people “To further understand the concept, I feel that it’s necessary to study the background of two philosophers as well. Mill grew up accepting a strict form of education up until he was around the age of 20 when he went through a mental’ crisis and became apathetic about utilitarianism. He continued to intellectually believe in the legitimacy of the ideas of utilitarianism but was no longer interested in promoting it. He believed that his father’s method of education was too analytical and ignored the development of his emotional self. He became less of a “manufactured man”, produced to his father’s specification, and began to form his own ideas, considering his father’s views to be narrow and doctrinaire. After this, Mill decided to develop a new version of utilitarianism that did not conflict with his newly discovered attitude.
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Jeremy Bentham was born into a rich family ,educated at Westminster school and then advanced his studies at Queen’s College, Oxford. He was initially a lawyer but was soon, however became disillusioned with the law, with his experience, he soon started criticizing laws, suggesting and devising methods for improvements of the law system. Instead of practising the law, he decided to write about it.Bentham was closely associated with the doctrine of Utilitarianism but this was only the starting point of a radical critique of society, through which he aimed to evaluate the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs. Bentham founded a group of intellectual philosophers called the ?Philosophical Radicals’, or simply the ?Benthamites’, of which James Mill became a prominent member. It was in this publication that much of J. S. Mill’s work was presented. By the 1820’s Bentham had become a widely respected figure both in Britain and other parts of the world and many of his ideas continue to be at the centre of academic debate.
Bentham’s work is still considered to be the true basis of the utilitarian philosophy. His most influential works, in terms of how much they influenced the Victorian reform, are An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), widely considered as the founding document of British utilitarianism, and Constitutional Code (1830-41) He believed that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as to determine what we shall do”(p. 225)#. He believed that one situation is better than another if it involves a greater amount of pleasure than pain, or a lesser amount of pain than pleasure. The more pleasure there is in the world, the better, and Bentham did not care how this pleasure is produced. He notoriously said that ?pushpin’, a simple pub game, was as valuable as poetry as long as they provide equal amounts of pleasure. Along with this idea of pleasure and pain as sovereign masters Bentham introduced what he called the principle of utility. This principle is based on the fact that “every action should be judged right or wrong according to how far it tends to promote or damage the happiness of the community” (p. 29)#. Basically, the morally right action should be determined by judging which will maximise total happiness – the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Bentham suggested that legislators and individuals involved in government should weigh the pleasure that certain actions would bring to all affected by them before making a decision. He had six criteria for evaluating the pleasure-pain relationships of an action in a method termed the ?felicific’ or ?hedonic’ calculus: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity and purity. Bertrand Russell gives a good example of what this means in practical terms: “It is to the interest of the public that I should abstain from theft, but it is not to my interest except where there is an effective criminal law. Thus the criminal law is a method of making the interests of the individual coincide with that of the community; that is its justification”#. In short, Bentham’s belief was that all individuals should pursue their individual happiness on the condition it does not undermine the happiness of the community.
J.S Mill resonates with Bentham on many aspects but differentiated himself to form a more sensitive version of utiltarianism. Mill argued that “Pleasure is the only thing desired; therefore pleasure is the only thing desirable”#. He believed that there were different sorts of pleasure: higher and lower, with higher being more desirable than lower pleasures. Bentham’s, and others’, simplistic forms of utilitarianism put all pleasures on an equal level, and are criticised because they ignore the subtleties of human existence. They reduce life to a “stark calculation of animal-like pleasures, with no concern for how these pleasures are produced”#. Mill’s idea and theory of differing levels of pleasures meet this criticism and he believes that “it is better to be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig; and it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool”#. He defines higher pleasures as intellectual pleasures (which pigs are not capable of) such as learning, and lower pleasures as physical, or sensual, pleasures, the desires that human beings share with animals. Mill believes that intellectual pleasures are more valuable and argues that “it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures…” (Utilitarianism, 1861). Despite Mill’s contention that humans are motivated to act in a way that appeals to their more elevated faculties, it would appear that on a daily basis people relinquish their higher faculties to the immediate gratification of lower faculties in moments of temptation. This occurs when pleasures come into conflict with each other. Take for instance, a person desires to enter into a long term, monogamous relationship that fosters love and security. Yet that person simultaneously desires physical relationships with many people that s/he is attracted to. Frequently the person who wants the long-term relationship abandons that goal in a time of temptation for a one-night stand. They discard the higher pleasure (the relationship) for the fulfilment of the lower pleasure (sex). Mill believes that this common occurrence develops from an individual’s inability to realize the higher pleasure. They come to enjoy inferior pleasures precisely because they can no longer enjoy the higher pleasures or because they do not have the access to them. He believes that the purpose of all human life is to pursue happiness and avoid pain and that everything else that is desirable is a means to these ends. The question often asked about utilitarianism, ?Why maximise happiness?’, then is really just about what makes happiness desirable. Mill offers an analogy to explain this: the only way to prove that an object is visible is to demonstrate that others can see it. He claims that the only evidence to prove that happiness is desirable is that others desire it. Another area that Mill was more sensitive to than Bentham was that of individual moral rights. Bentham believed that the only ?real’ rights a person had were legal rights and that individual moral rights conflicted with happiness and excellence, Mill, on the other hand, thought that individual moral rights are a necessary means to maximise the happiness of a community. Mill reckoned that rights are constituent of the most basic social utilities fundamental for human welfare because human culture cannot prosper if society as a whole does not grant protection for individual rights. As a result, rights are essential to the utility principle, as they must be uphold and preserved for sentient beings to take pleasure in anything else. As a result of his willingness to distinguish in value between different types of pleasure, and his view that the pleasures of the intellect are the most valuable, Mill has been called an “eudemonistic” utilitarian. Alternatively, he could be seen as a “stratified” hedonistic utilitarian, since he retains Bentham’s emphasis on pleasure or happiness, but “stratifies” the notion of pleasure or happiness based on differences in quality between the various types of pleasure.
Both Mill’s and Bentham’s ideas of utilitarianism contain many interesting concepts, but also several flaws. One major problem is with Bentham’s ?hedonic’ calculus as it concentrates on the consequences of an action rather than the motives. According to his theory, if a person were to commit an act for the wrong reasons, or even a wrong act, it would be perfectly acceptable as long as its consequence is long term pleasure for the greatest number of people. For example, is it reasonable to sentence thieves to death to stop other thieves from robbing people? Although Bentham believed that punishment (pain) should be balanced by a reduction of pain, this account should still be held questionable even if it produces an overall promotion in net value of happiness. Even if one accepts ?hedonic’ calculus as a method for assessing ethical behaviour, there is still the further problem of defining happiness itself. Bentham’s ?hedonic’ calculus seems to be simply his own personal desires rather than a revelation of any objective criteria.
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Mill’s theory of higher and lower pleasures is also problematic. The suggestion that intellectual (higher) pleasures are of greater value than sensual (lower) pleasure leads us to question whether the argument is objective truth or subjective opinions of Mill’s. The latter, in my opinion, is more likely as it is not surprising that he, as a well known intellectual, would defend the merits of intellectualism and believe that these pleasures are of intrinsically more value than merely physical ones. Another fault in Mill’s theory is that it basically allows the majority to trample over the needs and desires of the individual in order to obtain ?the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, even though much of his work was concerned with the ?tyranny of the majority’ and the rights of the individual. This leads to questions about dealing with minority groups in society such as whether a group of Muslims, native to the country, should be denied the right to build a mosque to worship in, simply because the majority do not follow that faith? The majority may not always be right, but according to Mill’s (and Bentham’s) theory, it is their needs and desires that are most important and must be provided for.
Utilitarianism is an interesting system and both Bentham’s and Mill’s versions offer sensible guidelines for the individual and for legislation. They can, however, only be understood as guidelines due to their shortcomings. I personally prefer Mill’s version as he bases his ideas on the degrees and quality of pleasure which can be experienced, not just on the quantity. Bentham’s simplistic view does not fully comprehend the diversity of human emotion and the effects it has on moral judgements. They both, however, rely on consequences to aid in a moral decision – this being the major flaw in both versions – but it is impossible for one to predict the full implications of ones action before proceeding without using some kind of time-travelling device! Mill’s views may be more sophisticated than Bentham’s, but are still based around the principles Bentham introduced and therefore still contain many of their basic imperfections. But Mill never tried to claim that his version was perfect, as Nigel Warburton in Philosophy: The Classics says: “…he does not believe a theory such as utilitarianism can be prove to be true”#. Utilitarianism is essentially a system based in belief, not in the supernatural, but in the reliability of science to dictate the difference between right and wrong and make our moral decisions for us.