Module 7: Utilitarianism and Jeremy Bentham Philosophy 240: Introductory Ethics Online CCBC Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA Updated May 2008
This module is meant to accompany Chapter 6: The Utilitarian Approach in Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5 th edition. Module Goals: After completing readings, presentations, discussions, and coursework\ for this module, you will be able to: Identify and explain core aspects of Benthams ethics Apply Benthams ethics in moral decision-making Analyze the usefulness and critique features of Benthams ethics Synthesize Benthams ethics with other theories in the academic study of ethics
We have moved from Platos absolutist ethics to Aristotles, and discovered that the latter allows for as many different kinds of lives as there are different kinds of people, provided certain provisions are maintained, namely the balance of virtue. However, it seems that, among other problems with the Aristotelian doctrine of the golden mean, balancing virtues to become a good person does not necessarily help us make decisions about how to behave in specific situations. Jeremy Bentham attempts to provide us, via his Utilitarian perspective, with a framework to aid us in our decision-making in any and all morally significant situations.
Jeremy Bentham (February 15, 1748–June 6, 1832) was an English jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He was a political radical, and a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law. He is best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism, for the concept of animal rights, and his opposition to the idea of natural rights. Bentham's position included arguments in favor of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the end of slavery, the abolition of physical punishment (including that of children), the right to divorce, free trade, usury, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Consequentialism Bentham developed the philosophy of Utilitarianism, which is a form of consequentialism. As mentioned previously, in any theory of ethics we choose, an acts rightness or wrongness will either reside in the nature of the act itself (to some extent Plato and Aristotle belong to this school) or in the results that the act brings about. Utilitarianism focuses on the results an act brings about. The kinds of consequences that determine the rightness or wrongness of an act are directly related to human happiness.
Utility Bentham calls his consequentialist ethics Utilitarianism precisely because he focuses on the utility, or usefulness, of an act in bringing about human happiness. Bentham equates utility with benefit, advantage, pleasure, happiness, and goodness, and also maintains that an act has utility if it prevents pain, mischief, evil, or unhappiness in peoples lives.
Sanctions Bentham not only believed that pain and pleasure give value to our actions but that they are also causes of our behavior. He calls a source of pleasure or pain a sanction. There are 4 types of sanctions: 1.Physical 2.Moral 3.Religious and 4.Political
Law, Punishment, and Justice The law should not regulate private matters. Punishment is bad if it only promotes pain; punishment for a crime should involve rehabilitation so that the crime is not committed again. Bentham advocated a more humanitarian approach to justice, through his emphasis on removing punishment from justice and focusing on rehabilitation.
The Hedonistic Calculus Benthams Utilitarianism emphasizes quantity of happiness. Bentham thought morality could be approached objectively in the spirit of science; that ethical matters could be matters of quantification and solvable with simple arithmetic. In order to provide a level of mathematical precision in moral deliberation – in other words, to quantify the utility of an act – Bentham designed the hedonistic calculus. In the hedonistic calculus, a numeric value is assigned to each alternative in a given situation. Whichever option provides us with the greater number of happiness points, or the least number of unhappiness points, is the action we ought to take.
Criteria of Evaluation Benthams decision-making model, the Hedonistic Calculus, relies on 7 criteria of evaluation to help assign number values to options: Intensity Duration Certainty or Uncertainty Propinquity or Remoteness Fecundity Purity Extent.
For Bentham, moral dilemmas are problems of calculation involving the addition and subtraction of pleasurable and painful consequences, and no act is absolutely right or wrong in and of themselves – it depends on the utility, or consequences, of each alternative.
To Cheat or Not to Cheat Consider a case that frequently arises in everyday life. Imagine that one student, who is involved in a committed, long- term romantic relationship, is presented with the opportunity to have sex with another student who is not their romantic partner. The individual considering acts of infidelity would add up all the pleasures and pains that anyone involved in the situation, no matter how remote, would experience as a result of having illicit sex and would then compare this sum with the total pleasures and pains one would experience by not having sex. The alternative action with the greatest positive total is the morally correct one, according to Bentham.
Making a Calculus Chart What are some possible consequences of cheating? What are some possible consequences of not cheating? Lets make a list of possible consequences for each course of action. Specifically, lets start with the good or desirable consequences of cheating. Take a few minutes to do this on your own paper before advancing. CheatNot Cheat
The desirable consequences of cheating, those conducive to happiness, might look like this: CheatNot Cheat Sex Ego boost Feeling powerful Feeling desirable Excitement Experiencing something new Feeling appreciated A possible new relationship Now consider what the undesirable consequences of cheating might be. Make a list before advancing.
The undesirable consequences of cheating might look like this: CheatNot Cheat Guilt Betrayal of trust Damage to your current relationship Getting caught Diminishing the value you place on sexual acts Ending your current relationship STDs Pregnancy AIDS Now make a list of the possible good consequences of not cheating before advancing to the next slide.
The possible good consequences of not cheating might include the following: CheatNot Cheat Maintaining status quo (no guilt, STDs, pregnancy, shame, etc.) Strengthening your current relationship Maintaining integrity Fostering trust Honoring your commitment Refraining from harming people you care about Now, before advancing, make a list of the possible negative consequences of not cheating.
The possible negative consequences of not cheating might include the following: CheatNot Cheat Regret Sexual tension
Put all these together, and you have a list that looks like this: CheatNot Cheat POSITIVENEGATIVEPOSITIVENEGATIVE SexGuilt Maintaining status quo (no guilt, STDs, pregnancy, shame, etc.) Regret Ego boostBetrayal of trust Strengthening your current relationship Sexual tension Feeling powerful Damage to your current relationship Maintaining integrity Feeling desirableGetting caughtFostering trust Excitement Diminishing the value you place on sexual acts Honoring your commitment Experiencing something new Ending your current relationship Refraining from harming people you care about Feeling appreciatedSTDs A possible new relationshipPregnancy AIDS
Assigning Number Value Now that we have a list of possible consequences, we can assign a numeric value to each of the outcomes with reference to the seven factors of evaluation mentioned earlier: 1) Intensity; 2) Duration; 3) Certainty or Uncertainty; 4) Propinquity or Remoteness; 5) Fecundity; 6) Purity; and 7) Extent.
When I teach the Hedonistic Calculus in face-to-face settings, the class discusses the assignment of numeric value and we get as close to a consensus as possible. Obviously, agreement is not always possible. Here is the chart with numeric values assigned by one of my face-to-face courses:
Cheat -26Not Cheat +21 POSITIVE +35NEGATIVE - 61POSITIVE +28NEGATIVE -7 5 Sex -5 Guilt 0 Maintaining status quo (no guilt, STDs, pregnancy, shame, etc.) -5 Regret 3 Ego boost -7 Betrayal of trust 6 Strengthening your current relationship -2 Sexual tension 5 Feeling powerful -8 Damage to your current relationship 5 Maintaining integrity 3 Feeling desirable -10 Getting caught 5 Fostering trust 4 Excitement -5 Diminishing the value you place on sexual acts 4 Honoring your commitment 2 Experiencing something new -6 Ending your current relationship 8 Refraining from harming people you care about 8 Feeling appreciated -10 STDs 5 A possible new relationship -10 Pregnancy * AIDS
Does this look like your chart? Notice that getting caught warranted a -10; even if the probability of it was considered low, the consequences of it were too negative to warrant anything less than a -10. Also notice that sex, while ostensibly the utmost desirable act at the root of cheating, was awarded only a 5 due to duration, intensity, fecundity and certainty issues. Note, too, that HIV, while deemed to be unlikely, was considered to be so bad that it did not fit the scale. When the numeric values are tallied, we have the option of cheating, with an overall happiness quotient of – infinity, and the option of not cheating, with an overall happiness quotient of +21. Assuming we have used the calculus correctly, it is clear that we should not cheat.
Criticism When Bentham writes that we do in fact pursue pain and pleasure, and hence that this ought to be the basis of our moral judgments, he is committing an is-ought fallacy. It is difficult if not impossible to reliably assign a number value to consequences in a standard, adequate, or accurate way. The Calculus isnt practical. To behave morally, you have to correctly predict consequences. Some goods are simply not commensurate.
Summary Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher, political activist, and social reformer in 18 th and 19 th century England. His theory of justice forbade torture and acts of retribution by governments; instead, Bentham thought the goal of justice should be rehabilitation. Bentham developed Utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism that maintains actions are morally good if they produce good consequences, and are morally wrong if they produce bad consequences. Bentham noticed that we are driven by the pursuit of pleasure and by the desire to avoid pain, and equates utility with happiness and pleasure; hence the ultimate good for Bentham is happiness.
Summary, continued Bentham pioneered the method of ethical decision-making known as the Hedonistic Calculus, which involves approaching matters of ethical deliberation objectively in the spirit of science. By assigning numeric value to our options in the form of happiness points, Bentham thought that moral problems could be reduced to problems of quantification. Bentham said that numeric values should be assigned with reference to seven factors of consideration, namely 1) Intensity; 2) Duration; 3) Certainty or Uncertainty; 4) Propinquity or Remoteness; 5) Fecundity; 6) Purity; and 7) Extent. We can criticize Benthams approach on the basis that he commits an is-ought fallacy, that there is no reliable or objective way to assign numeric value to options, that the calculus is impractical, that we can engage in the calculus and still behave immorally, and that in his emphasis on quantity of good he fails to account for quality of good. If the subject interests you further, consult The Principles of Morals and Legislation by Jeremy Bentham
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