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Bentham and Mills on Utilitarianism

By natcas Mar 28, 2006 1882 Words
As an American society statues and laws are placed before us to set a standard of morality and justice. But what truly determines whether an action is moral or immoral? As I analyze the works of Jeremy Bentham, in his "Principle of Utility," Alongside John Stuart Mill, on "Utilitarianism," we will better understand what the foundations of morality are in accordance to their writings. Furthermore, through their standards of utility I will analyze the situation proposed as to whether cheating on your income taxes can be justified as morally right or wrong in the eyes of the utilitarian.

In his Work, Jeremy Bentham states Utilitarianism as "that principle which approves or disproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have augmented or diminished the happiness of the party whose interest is in question." Plainly stated, Bentham defines utilitarianism as the ethical rightness or wrongness of an action directly related to the utility of that action. Utility is more specifically defined as a measure of the goodness or badness of the consequences of an action. J.S Mill later expands Bentham's definition of the term by saying utility "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness." Mill defines happiness as "the absence of pain." Mill further states that there are different levels of pleasures. He states that "some pleasures are of higher quality than others and thus more desirable." Mill states that, if all pleasures are equal and the only difference is in their quantities then human beings and lesser beings (such as a "pig" ) would receive gratification from the same sources of pleasure. Whereas Bentham's utilitarianism makes no distinction between different beings and assigns the same pleasure to all members of the community, Mill separates human beings and lesser beings, which have pleasure that is of different category and worth. Mill gives an example by saying, "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." In comparing the two, one can see that Bentham and Mill agree that utility is measured by the result of happiness (or absence of pain) of an action.

The next firm foundation of utility, according to Bentham, is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by the performance of an action. He states, "The interest of the community (the sum of the interest of several members who compose it) is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals." He supposed that social policies are properly assessed in light of their effect on the general well-being of the majority of the population that is involved. In a utilitarian philosophy the effects of an action is to be meticulously calculated for the greater good of the masses. Mill later describes the "perfection of utilitarian morality" with the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth. In this "rule" he alludes to the section in the Bible where Jesus claims that we should "do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself." In saying this he states that "laws and social arrangements" should place their happiness of every individual "as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole." It can be said that maximum utility results when the following process is undertaken: 1) analyzing the majority (level of happiness experienced by people) after each action made. 2) Summate the levels of happiness experienced in each case. 3) And lastly, compare the results. The one that can be said to lead to the greater amount of total pleasure or happiness is the superior alternative.

Perhaps the difference between the two can be that Bentham believes in a precise calculation of the utility of each possible action in a given situation. This precise calculation is achieved through different criteria which are as follows: "1)Pleasure minus pain 2)Intensity 3)Duration 4)Fruitfulness 5)Likelihood" The first criteria, of pleasure minus pain, refers to whether the pain produced by the decision is worth the happiness produced. The second, being intensity, refers to the resulting strength. Duration, as the third criteria, relates to the length of time the experience lasts. The fourth factor of fruitfulness refers to the long-term results of the pleasure. And finally, likelihood determines whether it is likely the choice will result in the presumed effect. Through careful calculation of these factors, Bentham believes it is possible to come to select the greatest choice, thus bringing pleasure to the most amount of people. Mill, on the other hand, does not oppose the very nature of calculating utility, but merely the effort and time it would take to calculate the decision made. Mill believes that decisions are superiorly made through the application of rules that have been calculated ahead of time. He states, "We shall examine presently of what nature are these considerations; in what manner they apply to the case, and what rational grounds, therefore, can be given for accepting or rejecting the utilitarian formula."

With the afore mentioned foundations of Utility, can the following given circumstance be said to be morally right in the eyes of the Utilitarian: Suppose you have a dear friend who needs $1000 for her mother's medical bill and, if not treated, her mother will die and the pain of her family will be enormous. Suppose further that the only way to help your friend is to cheat on your income taxes that will never be audited. You believe that the money will not affect the IRS greatly because the government wastes billions of dollars anyways. You do not tell your friend how you got the money so that her and her family can experience enormous happiness.

In deciding whether or not to cheat on your income taxes, a utilitarian must evaluate both sides of the overall welfare of the people affected by this action and the consequences of the action taken. In this case, the people affected would be (on one side) your friend, her mother, her family, and yourself, also (on the other side) the US government. The next step taken by Utilitarians would be to measure the pleasure and pain which would be caused by cheating on your income taxes. The consequences that can relatively be calculated, on the side of your friend, if the action is not taken can be: 1)the mother will have pain and die 2)your friend and her family will suffer enormous pain 3)you will suffer alongside your friend. And the pleasure would be the opposite. On the other hand, the consequences for the government, in your eyes, will be minimal since you will not be audited: 1) they will be oblivious to the fact that they should have received $1000 more 2) the government usually wastes billions of dollars. However, the true consequences of cheating on your taxes can be said to: 1) break the law of paying your taxes in their entirety 2) bring you pain if you are caught 3)effect the budget of a certain program that your money would have gone to. In this case, from the eyes of the person cheating on the income taxes, the greater pain would be to deprive their friend of the money at the present time. However, according to Mill, utilitarianism must be qualitatively weighed. This requires for one to consider, not only, the amount of pain and pleasure, but also the quality of each pain and pleasure. Mill states, "According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, the ultimate end, is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quality and quantity."

A flaw in utilitarianism, is that nothing is really said to be absolute. Every circumstance is relative to each person. What one person may consider to be morally right and just and of good quality, may not be the same for another. Mill suggests that to distinguish between different pains and pleasures a person who has experienced both sides of pleasure and pain should be able to measure and choose which result concludes in more happiness. In this particular case, many things can result from cheating on your taxes. For example, the $1000 that you withheld from the government could have gone to help a school in a poor community, therefore causing pain to the teaching staff that will not receive the money they deserve, or the students who will not receive appropriate supplies. Another result can be that one less item can be bought to support the nation in a fruitless war, which will bring happiness to those who oppose war. In such a case, there really is no way to be able to determine the direct result of what one's income taxes will benefit, so it is very arduous to weigh the quality of pain and pleasure in each side of the circumstance. With the previously given examples it is no wonder why Mill states, "It is often affirmed that utilitarianism renders men cold and unsympathising; that it chills their moral feelings towards individuals" due to the fact that an individual can not calculate the measured unhappiness of each action. Therefore because we do not have the time to calculate accurately in every instance, Mills supposed, we properly allow our actions to be guided by moral rules most of the time, which in this case would be the laws set forth by the government. As Mill stated we should be able to "rely absolutely on ones feelings and conduct, and to oneself of being able to rely on one's own, that the will to do right ought to be cultivated into this habitual independence." Plainly stated, if one feels that it is morally wrong to cheat on your taxes, because it is a direct violation of the laws given by the government, then we must rely on those feelings to make the morally right decision to not cheat on the taxes. Therefore it can be concluded that the action of cheating on your income taxes to help a friend in need can not be accepted as morally right. Though the intentions may be noble, and may be meant to bring quantitative and qualitative happiness, the action still remains morally wrong and can bring about even more quantitative and qualitative unhappiness. In such a case, the conclusion will always be met with some sort of pain. Mill stated that "neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous to pleasure." So alongside the pain caused by an action to cheat or not cheat on your taxes will always bring alongside a pleasure.

In conclusion, the utilitarian foundations as stated by Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill altruistically put the happiness of others or of the majority ahead of the individual. As stated by Mill, "in the long run, the best proof of a good character is good actions" and such actions place the masses over the mutually exclusive. So through the works of Bentham and Mill, a greater perception has been given of what the foundations of utilitarianism truly are.

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