The Principle of Utility A. Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)

There are two main people that talked about the principles of utility and they were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. First off I’ll talk to you about Mr. Bentham. It is helpful to see Bentham’s moral philosophy in the context of his political philosophy, his attempt to find a rational approach to law and legislative action.

He argued against the “natural law” theory and thought that the classical theories of Plato and Aristotle, as well as notions such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative, were too outdated, confusing and/or controversial to be of much help with society’s ills and a program of social reform. He adopted what he took to be a simple and ‘scientific’ approach to the problems of law and morality and grounded his approach in the “Principle of Utility.”

The Principle of Utility

1. Recognizes the fundamental role of Pain and Pleasure in human life.
2. Approves or disapproves of action on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure brought about (“consequences”).
3.Equates the good with the pleasurable and evil with pain.
4.Asserts that pleasure and pain are capable of “quantification”-and hence of measure.

As with the emerging theory of capitalism in 18th and 19th Century England, we could speak of “pleasure” as “pluses” and “pains” as “minuses.”

Thus the utilitarian would calculate which actions bring about more pluses over minuses. In measuring pleasure and pain, Bentham introduces the following criteria: Its intensity, duration, certainty (or uncertainty), and its nearness (or fairness). He also includes its “fecundity” (more or less of the same will follow) and its “purity” (its pleasure won’t be followed by pain & vice versa). In considering actions that affect a number of people, we must also account for their extent.

As a social reformer, Bentham applied this principle to the laws of England– for example, those areas of the law concerning crime and punishment. An analysis of theft reveals that it not only causes harm to the victim but also, if left unpunished, it endangers the very status of private property and the stability of society. In seeing this, the legislator should devise a punishment that is useful in deterring theft.

But in matters of “private morality” such as sexual preference and private behavior, Bentham felt that it was not at all useful to involve the legislature.

Bentham also thought that the principle of utility could apply to our treatment of animals. The question is not whether they can talk or reason, but whether they can suffer. As such, that suffering should be taken into account in our treatment of them.

Here we can see a moral ground for laws that aim at the “prevention of cruelty to animals” (and such cruelty was often witnessed in Bentham’s day.) (Cavalier) John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” For Mill, it is not the quantity of pleasure, but the quality of happiness.

Bentham’s calculus is unreasonable – qualities cannot be quantified (there is a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures). Mill’s utilitarianism culminates in “The Greatest Happiness Principle.”(Cavalier) If I am asked what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer.

Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. (Cavalier)

The principle of utility tells us to produce the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness, making sure that we give equal consideration to the happiness and unhappiness of everyone who stands to be affected by our actions. The principle of utility can be applied in two different ways. The first is to apply it to individual acts. How are we to do that? Well, we might ask ourselves every time we act which of the options open to us will maximize happiness, but Mill did not recommend that procedure because it would be much too time-consuming.

Since we know that lying, stealing, and cheating will rarely maximize happiness when everyone is taken equally into account, the sensible thing to do is avoid such behavior without worrying about the principle of utility. (Barry pg.8) The learning process of Bentham and Mill was very strange and different.

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0


  1. In economic as a social science course Utility can be measure through satisfaction that is derived from such commodity not until when its reaches its maximum peak and this can explain through graph.

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