Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from World: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill

Moral Thinkers and Philosophers from World: Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill


  • Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility.
  • Classically, Jeremy Bentham defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but quality of pleasure.
  • Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. This view can be contrasted or combined with virtue ethics which holds virtue as a moral good. Some believe that one’s intentions are also ethically important.
  • Egoism, utilitarianism, and altruism are all forms of consequentialism, but egoism and altruism contrast with utilitarianism, in that egoism and altruism are both agent-focused forms of consequentialism (i.e. subject-focused or subjective). However, utilitarianism is held to be agent-neutral (i.e. objective and impartial).
  • Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. Ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with ethical utilitarianism, which holds that a moral agent should treat one’s self with no higher regard than one has for others (as egoism does, by elevating self-interests and “the self” to a status not granted to others). But it also holds that one should not (as altruism does) sacrifice one’s own interests to help others’ interests, so long as one’s own interests are substantially equivalent to the others’ interests and well-being.
  • Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them, assuming that their actions do not infringe on the equal rights of others. It is also the idea that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by Aristippus, a student of Socrates.

Jeremy Bentham

  • At the outset of the nineteenth century, an influential group of British thinkers developed a set of basic principles for addressing social problems. Extrapolating from Hume’s emphasis on the natural human interest in utility, reformer Jeremy Bentham proposed a straightforward quantification of morality by reference to utilitarian outcomes. His An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.
  • Bentham’s moral theory was founded on the assumption that it is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit and that the kind of consequence that matters for human happiness is just the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
  • He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, we arrive at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.
  • The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action.

James Mill

  • A generation later, utilitarianism found its most effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised by his father, the philosopher James Mill, on strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his life to the defence and promotion of the general welfare.
  • Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861) is an extended explanation of utilitarian moral theory. In an effort to respond to criticisms of the doctrine, Mill not only argued in favor of the basic principles of Jeremy Bentham but also offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. 
  • Mill fully accepted Bentham’s devotion to greatest happiness principle as the basic statement of utilitarian value. But he did not agree that all differences among pleasures can be quantified. On Mill’s view, some kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings also differ from each other in qualitative ways, and only those who have experienced pleasure of both sorts are competent judges of their relative quality. This establishes the moral worth of promoting higher (largely intellectual) pleasures among sentient beings even when their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower (largely bodily) pleasures.
  • What motivates people to do the right thing? Mill claimed universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions in eliciting proper conduct from human agents. But unlike Bentham, Mill did not restrict himself to the socially-imposed external sanctions of punishment and blame, which make the consequences of improper action painful. On Mill’s view, human beings are also motivated by such internal sanctions as self-esteem, guilt, and conscience. Because we all have social feelings on behalf of others, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. Even if others do not blame or punish me for doing wrong, I am likely to blame myself, and that bad feeling is another of the consequent pains that I reasonably consider when deciding what to do.

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides” (Book: Utilitarianism by Mill)

  • It seems to directly contradict utilitarianism. If somebody holds that pleasure is the only good, and pain is the only evil, then in what sense can Socrates dissatisfied be better than a pig satisfied? The latter seems to clearly have more pleasure than the former.
  • His argument suggests that there is quality of value that is higher in the pleasure of the former over the pleasure of the latter. Basically Mill contends that a highly cultured person is a happier person, a person who gets more pleasure out of life than an airhead–even if such a person experiences a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction as a result of being educated and cultured.
  • The being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify.
  • The lower people might think they have it better, but that is only because they are not actually able to compare the two states whereas the higher person can compare them and knows he/she has it better.

On Liberty

  • John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is the classic statement and defence of the view that governmental encroachment upon the freedom of individuals is almost never warranted. A genuinely civil society, he maintained, must always guarantee the civil liberty of its citizens—their protection against interference by an abusive authority.
  • The tyranny of the majority is especially dangerous to individual liberty, Mill supposed, because the most commonly recommended remedy is to demand that the recalcitrant minority either persuade the majority to change its views or learn to conform to socially accepted norms.
  • The proper balance between individual liberty and governmental authority, he proposed, can be stated as a simple principle: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
  • Although society has a clear responsibility for protecting its citizens from each other, it has no business interfering with the rest of what they do. In particular, anything that directly affects only the individual citizen must remain absolutely free. No society is truly free unless its individual citizens are permitted to take care of themselves.

The Subjection of Women

  • One of John Stuart Mill’s last and finest literary efforts was written in support of a political cause of which he had long been a leading champion. The Subjection of Women (1869) offered both detailed argumentation and passionate eloquence in bitter opposition to the social and legal inequalities commonly imposed upon women by a patriarchal culture.
  • Mill pointed out, the domination of men over women—like conquest or slavery in any other form—originated in nothing more than the brute application of physical power. Mill argued that reliance upon physical strength and violence should not be tolerated.
  • Although it is often claimed that male domination over women is a purely natural expression of biological necessity, Mill found little genuine evidence for this. Any conventional social discrimination, made familiar by long experience and social prevalence, will come to seem natural to those who have never contemplated any alternative. The appearance of voluntary submission by women is even more misleading, on Mill’s view, since it could as easily reflect enslavement of mind and feeling as genuine sentiment.
  • Efforts to secure suffrage for women had been a major issue of Mill’s own service in the British Parliament.

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