NOTES on Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): An Act is Right or Wrong According to Its Consequences


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): The Father of Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham is the father of utilitarianism. He was aware of the bad results of the Industrial Revolution: child labor, sweat shops, poor wages, bad working conditions, long hours, crowded living quarters, and often an early death for the laborer. As a reformer, he wanted to correct these conditions and bring about human happiness. Because of his concern, he invented utilitarianism.

According to Bentham, an act is right or wrong according to the amount of happiness or misery it brings to Humankind. An act that causes much happiness for many people is right; an act that causes much misery for many people is wrong. (A strength of utilitarianism is that the happiness of everyone must be considered; it’s not fair to consider only your own happiness and not the happiness of other people affected by your actions.)

Bentham is a hedonistic utilitarian. He made no qualitative ranking of pleasures; to him, only the quantity of pleasure mattered. If you receive much pleasure from reading Perry Mason books and none from reading Shakespeare, Bentham would say by all means to read Perry Mason books.

Bentham is also an act utilitarian, which means that he advocated calculating the amount of happiness or misery each act you are thinking of performing will bring into the world before you do it. To aid people in performing this calculation, Bentham invented what he called the hedonistic calculus.

In using the hedonistic calculus, one must calculate the happiness and misery likely to result from an act according to these seven factors:

  1. Its intensity. Some pleasures and pains are very intense. On a scale of 10 to -10, a sexual orgasm might rank a 10 (if you’re lucky), while an untreated toothache might rank a -10 (if you’re unlucky).
  2. Its duration. An orgasm doesn’t last very long; an untreated toothache can last a very long time.
  3. Its certainty or uncertainty. A pizza party with friends will almost certainly be pleasurable; a pizza party with a group mostly composed of people you don’t know may or may not be pleasurable.
  4. Its propinquity [nearness] or remoteness. Eating a pizza is immediately pleasurable; exercising so that you can lose five pounds requires waiting for pleasurable results.
  5. Its fecundity. Education can be pleasurable. The more you learn about a subject, the easier it becomes to learn more, and the more pleasure you take in pursuing your education. On the other hand, a pizza party is over in a couple of hours and that’s it. (However, you may meet your future husband or wife at a pizza party.)
  6. Its purity. Sitting down and reading a good book will not result in any pain the next day. However, a drunken night on the town will probably result in a hangover the next morning.
  7. Its extent. A pizza party can provide pleasure to many people; sitting at home alone and reading a good book will provide pleasure to only you.

After assigning a number for the pleasures and pains likely to be the result of the act you are contemplating, you can add the figures and determine whether it is good or bad. For fun, use the hedonistic calculus to determine which of two acts you ought to do tonight.

Remember the following point: In determining what you ought to do, you have to perform the same calculation of pleasures and pains for each person likely to be affected by your act. Add all the results together, and then you will know which of two acts you ought to perform.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

This is John Stuart Mill’s description of utilitarianism: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By ‘happiness’ is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by ‘unhappiness,’ pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

Mill was very much influenced by Bentham; however, Mill did modify Bentham’s version of utilitarianism.

For example, Bentham’s hedonistic calculus does have a drawback: It takes a lot of time. (Can you imagine the President of the United States performing a hedonistic calculus to decide whether to veto a bill affecting millions of Americans?) Fortunately, Mill modified utilitarianism to include the use of rules. In an emergency situation, you may not have time to sit down and perform the hedonistic calculus. If you can follow a rule instead of performing the hedonistic calculus, you can act immediately.

After all, according to Mill, we have the whole history of Humankind behind us and so we don’t need to perform a hedonistic calculus to determine whether murder and theft are likely to result in pain or pleasure. Our past experience says that these acts will result in pain. I am in agreement with Mill here. I believe that the addition of rules is an improvement to utilitarianism.

Mill made another modification to utilitarianism; he introduced a qualitative ranking of pleasures. One problem with Bentham’s hedonistic calculus is that it doesn’t explain what to do in the event of a tie. Mill solved that problem by pointing out that some pleasures are better than others. In case of a tie, one would do the act resulting in a higher pleasure. In addition, simply recognizing that some pleasures are better than others is an improvement, in my opinion, on Bentham’s version of utilitarianism.

In a famous passage, Mill wrote, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

This quotation alludes to Mill’s way of determining which pleasures are best: We ask the competent judges — the people who have experienced both pleasures. If they are not in agreement, then we take a vote and let the majority decide.

In Mill’s words, “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 moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.”

Mill’s use of the qualified judges, however, points out a problem with Mill’s ranking of pleasures: Sometimes the majority can be wrong. There is another problem with this ranking of pleasures: If we rank pleasures, then we are saying that something other than pleasure determines whether an act is right or wrong. However, utilitarianism stated that pleasure is the sole criterion.

By taking into account the quality of pleasures, Mill allows for ideals. You can decide to forsake an immediate pleasure in order to pursue an ideal. For example, you may decide to skip dessert for a few weeks in order to lose a few pounds. And you may decide to study philosophy tonight instead of watching TV.


Bentham and Mill have discovered part of the answer to our search for a good ethical system. Consequences are important in determining an act’s moral worth; also, we must not consider only our own happiness — the happiness of other people must be considered as well as our own.

However, utilitarianism does have some bad consequences: It can approve as moral some actions that all of us would consider immoral. For example, utilitarianism was used to justify the enslavement of blacks in the pre-Civil War south. Slavery was bad for the blacks and resulted in much misery for them; however, utilitarians argued that the use of slaves made the economy viable and thus resulted in much happiness for the white majority. In other words, the happiness of the white majority outweighed the misery of the slaves and thus slavery was acceptable according to utilitarianism.

An ethical system that leads to such results must be rejected or further modified.

Bentham and Mill are the two major proponents of utilitarianism in history. Bentham was an act utilitarian and a hedonistic utilitarian. Mill modified Bentham’s version of utilitarianism by introducing the use of rules and the recognition of qualitative distinctions in pleasures; Mill is a rule utilitarian and an ideal utilitarian.


The quotations by John Stuart Mill that appear in this essay are from his Utilitarianism.

To learn more about Utilitarianism, read Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.


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1 Response to NOTES on Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): An Act is Right or Wrong According to Its Consequences

  1. Pingback: Moral Patterns and Moral Decisions | From guestwriters

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