To understand Bentham’s moral philosophy we need to grasp three things:

  • First, he thought pleasure was the only intrinsic good, and pain the only intrinsic evil;
  • Secondly, he thought pleasure could be measured by the felicific or hedonic calculus (two words for the same thing);
  • Finally, Bentham believed all of us were equal, so no-one was to count for any more in the calculus – your hedon and mine were the same objective measure (like weight in kilograms).
Below you will find a hyperlink to an Oxford lecture on the felicific calculus, which argues that Bentham sees “Nature place us under the dominion of utility; we are moved to act by the prospect of happiness/pleasure and aversion to misery/pain. This isn’t – as it is in Hobbes – built on any particular physiological-cum-psychological theory; it is a brute, deep fact about human beings that utility decides what we do and what we ought to do.

In Bentham, pleasure is (almost always) treated quantitatively; values are a matter of how much happiness or misery is produced; and the calculus tells us how to estimate that.”

1. According to Bentham, what are the causes of human action? What is the principle of utility?

According to Bentham, pleasure and pain govern not only how human beings act but also how human beings ought to act. The principle of utility or the principle of utilitarianism : I ought to do that act which will bring about the greatest happiness (pleasure) for the greatest number of persons (the community).

2. Explain what Bentham means by the principle of asceticism. Is this principle related to the principle of sympathy and antipathy? Why does Bentham think that these principles lead to inconsistent application and undue punishment?

The principle of asceticism is the inverse of the principle of utility: I ought do that act which will bring about the least happiness (pleasure) for the greatest number of persons. The principle is not consistently used because it opposes the natural influences of pleasure and pain. The principle of sympathy and antipathy is the reliance on feelings for conscience for moral decisions. We judge an action as right or wrong on the basis of how we feel about it or our intuition or conscience. Since our feelings are not objective, they tend to be inconsistent and involve emotional application.

3. Can pleasure be quantified? Explain whether you think the use of the hedonistic calculus for the individual and for society is feasible.

Bentham attempts to quantify pleasures in the hedonistic calculus. Some of the factors are quantifiable such as duration, certainty, and extent, but most of the factors are not quantifiable. There may well be different kinds of pleasures and threshold of pleasures. Propinquity can be established by indifference curves in Economics but this would be an attempt to quantify feelings.

4. What does Bentham mean when he explains that motives are neither bad nor good? Why doesn’t Bentham think that evil motives can be productive of over-all good? Explain his analysis of motives.

Bentham does not think motives or intentions are an exception to his result based theory. For Bentham, motives can only be considered good or bad based on their results of being productive of happiness or unhappiness … (“Beauty is as beauty does”). When we look at motives which are said to be bad, the motives are so named as to include the effects as “packed in with” or as being part of the motive. Thus, the motive is named by its effects. Consider Russell’s conjugation: “I reconsider, you change your mind, and he goes back on his word.” Motives considered apart from the effects are neither bad nor good in themselves.
Here is an Oxford Lecture on pleasure and the felicific calculus.







Past Questions

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