April 3 2013
The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number
In the ethical debate, a divide has long existed between two models. One school of thought, notably Immanuel Kant’s Deontology, emphasizes the importance moral motivation, the other, represented by Consequentialism, emphasizes the importance of the outcome. Consequentialism is distinguished from the deontological model as it holds that the ultimate rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct is found in the consequences, or effects, of one’s acts. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism that recognizes happiness as the ultimate end of all individual and communal acts. Happiness for the Utilitarian is the maximization of pleasure and the absence of pain; it is fundamental to our nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Taking this aspect into consideration, Utilitarianism proposes that the moral ‘ought’ should be intended to maximize happiness from the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham, one of Utilitarianism’s most famous advocates, defines the principle of utility, or the greatest happiness principle, as one which …approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. (Bentham, 65)
To live in accordance to the greatest happiness principle, Bentham has outlined the sources of our pleasures and pains, ranked them, and provided a process by which to calculate the total pleasure or pain of any given action. According to Bentham all of our pleasures and pains comes from four sanctions, or sources: the physical, the political, the moral, and the religious, which cover all pleasures and pains that issue from the “ordinary course of nature,” the governing body of a community, the individual or other community members, and a supernatural higher power, respectively. The physical, political, and the moral sanctions are all grounded in the present, whereas the religious sanction could also occur in the after-life. Any given pleasure or pain can derive from any one of these sources. Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus is a quantitative measure, by which one can calculate and weigh pleasures and pains of all individuals affected by a given action, and assess which choice made would maximize happiness for the greatest number. Bentham proposes seven characteristics that can be used to evaluate and rank pleasures and pains: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and extent. Giving a pleasure or pain a value in accordance with these characteristics is necessary for calculating the positive or negative consequences of one’s actions.
Bentham divides pleasures and pains into the simple and the complex. Simple pleasures and pains are not necessarily base, they are simple because they are concerned with one very specific element. Simple pleasures therefore range from the pleasure of smelling to that of memory. Simple pains range from the pain of excessive cold to that of awkwardness. The complex pleasures and pains are not fundamentally on a different level, but rather they are amalgams of multiple simple pleasures and pains. This quantitative approach has been criticized for being reductive both for defining human life as the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain, and for reducing these pleasures and pains to a base, almost animalistic, level. In his essay on Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill addresses some of these criticisms. Although Mill accepts Bentham’s model, he gives more importance to the qualitative aspects of pleasures and pains than to the quantitative. Mill distances himself from the bodily, Epicurean nature of Bentham’s pleasures and pains and makes a distinction between superior and...
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Williams, Bernard. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge University Press, 1973.
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