PHL 212
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic


An Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation (1789)

An Outline

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a London based moral, political and legal philosopher. He was predominantly interested in a comprehensive reform of English legal system which was at the time, to put it in his own words, a "nonsense on stilts". Bentham believed that building a good society is an undertaking that should be founded on a verifiable concept of human nature rather than drawn from a jumble of historical prejudices and religious superstitions. By the same token, his ambition in ethics was to make it really "scientific" and "empirical" as opposed to metaphysical doctrines devoid of any real content. This project was in conformity with the accepted view of the time that all theory must be grounded in empirical facts. The first step in that endeavor was to recognize the true motivating forces of human conduct - pleasure and pain. Instead of preaching abstract moral values ethics should articulate what people really want and anyway tend to do.
This outline covers the following chapters from Betham's work:
ch. I, "Of the Principle of Utility", §§ I- XIV, ch. III, "Of the Four Sanctions or Sources of Pain and Pleasure", §§ I-XII, ch. IV, "Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain How to be Measured", §§ I- VI. The last section on animal rights is a conspectus of a long footnote from chapter XVII, "Of the Limits of the Penal Branch of Jurisprudence".


Chapter 1: Of the Principle of Utility

Empirical Fact:

Bentham begins the ethical part of his book with a blunt statement of total human subordination to pleasure and pain: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure."

Note: Both ancient and modern theoreticians used to ground their ethical considerations on what they conceived as the ideal characteristic of man, be it reason, solidarity, goodness, divine origin or something else. Typically, they would deduce the suitable norm of human conduct from an end superimposed on such an ideally conceived nature. Bentham eliminates any normativism of this kind. Instead of deriving the concept of human nature from the ultimate end of human activity (as Aristotle and Jesus did), Bentham draws the idea of human ends from the way how human nature really functions under the guidance of sovereign factors. "Sovereign" was an important word in Hobbes; it denotes independent, ultimate factors possessing supreme authority.

Realism: Bentham accepts the reality of human desires without any prejudgment. This is the point where the question of human motivation vanishes from his radar.

Note: He was convinced that human nature could be determined solely by means of what human individuals tend to do without mentioning any other defining moment of their humanness. In this respect Bentham sides with Hobbes who has reduced human ends to desires. It is interesting to note that Hobbes has started his account of morality in the same personified manner as Bentham, as if some "Nature hath made" us the way we are, except that he pointed to the different masters of human conduct (aggressiveness and fear). Helvetius taught before Bentham that "physical pain and pleasure are the unrecognized principles of all human actions".

Psychological Fact:

By nature, man is conditioned upon pleasure and pain. This comes down to the claim that we are pleasure-pain organisms. Reactions to these two stimuli go by the following rule: all human beings desire pleasure and the absence of pain.
Note: Bentham obviously regards pleasure and pain as simple and homogeneous sensations. Despite the fact that he distinguishes no less than 14 types of simple pleasures (ranging from sensual to intellectual) he takes them all as of equal value, - in themselves none is better than others. One pleasure could be more valuable only if it yields more pleasure quantitatively. Thus it appears that Bentham pays much more attention to the sheer amount of pleasure than to the quality of the pleasures. He used to say that in terms of satisfaction "the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences". This is certainly the most vulnerable assumption of his hedonism. It is very questionable whether there is any common component in different pleasures that could be quantified as to give one single value apart from the same linguistic designation. It could be just a linguistic coincidence.
Note: Under severe criticism of anti-utilitarians J.S. Mill will have to modify this tenet of the original utilitarianism and to introduce some qualitative distinctions. See below.

Real Factors:

The above mentioned "sovereign masters" (placed on the ruling throne "by Nature") govern us in all actions, locutions and thoughts.
We can defy their domination only verbally and theoretically (like a devil's advocate), not really. Thus an ascet or masochist are equally attracted by the prospect of enjoyment, only that they enjoy self-tormenting an pain.
Ignoring or concealing the fundamental role of pleasure and pain is tantamount to dealing with moral issues in
(1) sounds instead of sense,
(2) in caprice instead of reason,
(3) in darkness instead of light.
Such an approach does not provide a meaningful, rational and educated discourse on these factors of human morality.

Note: One can retort: do we at least occasionally act and say things for the sake of our integrity, no matter whether such an act is pleasant or painful, beneficial or detrimental to our own interests? The utilitarian answer to this question would be that we enjoy our integrity more than benefits that may follow from the adjustment, which rather confirms than refutes the basic principle of pleasure.

Refutation Futile Those who in theory oppose the self-evident statement that we seek out pleasure presuppose its validity in their attempts to refute it (they either enjoy opposing common views or simply enjoy pain). Thus by drawing on considerations that implicitly affirm the priority of pleasure and pain they necessarily end up in inconsistencies. Even the principle of asceticism, overtly opposed to the principle of utility, is in fact motivated by some real or expected pleasures (self-enjoyment).
In general, any refutation of the fundamental role of pleasure stems either from a despotic or anarchical principle of action and both are opposed to the real strivings human nature.
Refutation Misplaced One cannot refute Bentham by quoting Aristotle to the effect that "it is pleasure which makes us do what is base, and pain which makes us abstain from doing what is noble" (EN 1104b 13). Bentham was very well aware that the most "abominable pleasure" could not be reprobated from the principle of utility and that this possibility may impel some people to condemn the main tenet of his ethics. But he was convinced that one cannot embark on the path of malefactors who enjoy inflicting pain if one takes into account all the subsequent consequences of causing pains to others. Potential negative consequences were for him sufficient reason to reconsider some linguistic designations that single out only the abominable pleasure or an overwhelming pain. If we say that a malefactor should have behaved differently, Bentham's question would be "for what?" and we are back at some pleasure as an alternative (ulterior) motive.
Disguised Pleasures The position of utilitarianism could be undermined only if abstaining from base acts or doing what is right despite pains does not make the agent feel better and does not bring more pleasure in the long run. Of course, the inclusion of those very subtle pleasures (like the ones stemming from abstinence) into utilitarian theory requires both a broadening of the initial concept of predominantly physical pleasures and an appropriate education about the true and false pleasures - two things that we miss sorely in Bentham. But his strength was the discovery that pleasurable motives lurked in many unexpected places, often disguised as honorable and noble denials of any satisfaction. In the second chapter of his book Bentham capitalizes on this insight and explicates asceticism just as a complete reversal of hedonism which reprobates "the least particle of pleasure" without realizing that pleasure could be found even in the most severe forms of abstention. In that manner, every attempt to negate our "subjection to pleasures" proves it in some roundabout way.

Normative Direction:

Pleasure and pain determine:
What we ought to do (prescriptions),
What we shall do (predictions).
Human conduct is not defined by abstract theories, transcendent ideas, feelings or conscience.


A. The standard of right and wrong is fashioned upon the fact that pleasure attracts while pain repels. Thus right is what pleases and increases the net amount of pleasure, wrong is what displeases and ultimately amounts to dissatisfaction.

B. The chain of causes (= desires) and effects (= actions) in human conduct follows the same principle: attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain.

  Starting from A and B Bentham develops his theory of morality and his program for a comprehensive social and legal reform.

Bentham formulates the goal of utilitarianism by using a very metaphorical language. But the meaning is clear:
To "rear the fabric of felicity" = to create a setting that would make it possible for people to be happy. Happiness is the sum total of pleasures. (Eudemonism)
"By the hands of reason and of law" = through adequate political and legal measures.
Thus the objective of rearing "the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law" means that pleasures could be manipulated and legally regulated in order to increase the total amount of happiness. (Social Hedonism)
Supposition: It is possible to make people happy or happier than they are by virtue of certain decisions, measures and laws the way it is possible to make them dissatisfied and unhappy by passing a regulation that will have a negative impact on their feelings of contentment.

Link: Pleasures are both the instruments and constituents of happiness; in the former sense actions involving them are "useful" (instrumental) for happiness; in the latter sense pleasures are ends that any rational legislation should set as the goals.


Here the term 'utility' finds its application and justification.
is the foundation of Bentham's moral philosophy:
Positive phrasing
: Utility is the property in any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness.

Negative phrasing:  Utility is the property in any object whereby it tends to prevent mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness.

General definition: Utility is usefulness in producing something beneficial for happiness or preventing its contrary.

Utility = usefulness. Bentham started to use the term "utility" after reading Hume's Treatise on Human Nature in his early years. Going beyond the common meaning of the word in the sense of "usefulness", Hume associated it with welfare and happiness. Bentham then made the next step and took it to denote the idea that actions are right (good = useful) in proportion to their tendency to produce pleasure and ultimately happiness. He was using it afterwards consistently in this unrestricted sense despite the objections of many critics who have complained about the "dangerous" implications of the doctrine that something could be recommended without being supported by any independent standard of right and wrong. There was also another, for Bentham, more serious problem associated with the notion of utility. Usefulness as such does not by itself suggest that its most essential components have something to do with pleasure and overall happiness. In 1822 Bentham himself recognized that "the word utility does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure and pain as the words happiness and felicity do; nor does it lead us to consideration of the number, of the interests affected". In order to underscore that connection he subsequently added the expressions "the greatest happiness" and "the greatest felicity principle" (eventually he even substituted these expressions for the term "utility").
Principle: For Bentham, utility is the normative link between the stated facts of human nature and the propounded "end of human action": "the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question". The transition from the psychological (empirical) observation about the force of pleasure to the moral (normative) injunction about actions presupposes a double bind with the previous elucidation of human condition: (pleasure = attraction; pain = aversion). Based on this Bentham formulates his famous principle:

The principle of utility
demands to approve or disapprove of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question (both individual and collective).

Note: Bentham uses the word "principle" in its double meaning: the beginning of and the foundation for any series of operations, i.e. something (an act of mind, a sentiment) which determines a person's approval/disapproval of actions.


Good is that what is beneficial (useful) in the aforementioned sense.
Bad is what is detrimental or damaging for the person.
Benefit, advantage, pleasure, good and happiness are, for Bentham, synonyms as are, on the opposite side, evil, mischief, pain, and unhappiness.

Benefit Mischief
Advantage Disadvantage
Pleasure Pain
Good Evil
Happiness Unhappiness


Although Bentham does not take into account social relations among individuals, he is aware that our actions have beneficial or detrimental impact on others. He is also aware that the beneficiary of our actions could be an individual or the community at large.

Interest: For Bentham, "interest" is an elementary concept that could not be logically defined since it lacks a higher genus that could be specified by adducing a species qualifying difference. Therefore it has to be exemplified simply by pointing to some empirically verifiable benefits or disadvantages.

Bentham admonishes against elevating community as a hypostasis above and beyond all individuals. Community is a fictitious body apart from its members. Therefore its interest could not be anything beyond "the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it".
On the other hand, Bentham concedes that "the sum of the interests" does not necessarily please all equally, but this is not the reason not to strive to implement it. In real world we go by the cost-benefit analysis


An action is conformable to the principle of utility when "the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater that any it has to diminish it".
Note: The idea of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain based on a cost-benefit analysis harks back to Epicurus. He used to perform such an analysis by weighing the amount of pleasure against the amount of pain created by an action. But unlike Bentham, he stressed the importance of a life-balance and long-term happiness that was conceived rather as the absence of pain than an intensive indulgence to the pleasures of the flesh.

Comment: Bentham was convinced that there was a simple additive continuity between the individual pursuit of personal interests and "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". The underlying assumption was that happiness was just a sum of pleasures of whatever kind.
Ends and Means:

For a legislator pleasures and the avoidance of pain are at once ends and means.

  1. In themselves, pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the ends (intrinsic values).
  2. As incentives and deterrence for actions pleasure and pain appear as means (instruments).
The value of pleasures and pains is equal to their "force" because the effectiveness in terms of consequences determines how much is something worth.


The dictate of utility is an imagined (but material) formulation of the principle of utility which serves as a standard to assess the conformity of individual or governmental actions with the principle of utility.

Decidable Actions:

For every action which is conformable to the principle of utility one can either recommend it (ought) or at least state that it could be done (right). These words are otherwise devoid of meaning.

Meta-Proof Impossible: It is not possible to prove formally the implicatory connection between "it is conformable to the principle of utility" and "it ought to be done". But we do not need that proof as long as we practically go by the principle of utility, namely as long we seek and prefer pleasure and happiness over their opposites.
Note: Bentham was convinced that men embrace the principle of utility "by the natural constitution" of their being.
  Summary of Main Utilitarian Points:
The Pleasure Principle
= the primacy of pleasure in determining human actions. Utilitarianism recognizes the fundamental role of pleasure and pain in human conduct.
2. The Identity Principle = Utilitarianism equates good with the pleasurable and evil with the painful.
= the view that pleasure is the good that need to be sought. Utilitarianism is a Hedonism.
Eudemonism = the view that happiness is the ultimate end of human life. Utilitarianism is a Eudemonism.
The Utility Principle = Utilitarianism approves or disapproves actions according to the amount of happiness brought about.
Consequentialism = the view that the moral value of an act should be judged by its results (consequences). Utilitarianism is a consequentialism.
The Hedonic Calculus = The calculus designed to gauge (by means of cost-benefit analysis) the net value of pleasure springing from an action. Utilitarianism asserts that pleasure and pain can be measured, quantified and compared both with regard to individuals and groups.

Note: The "felicific calculus" (the calculus of felicity) is used as a synonym for hedonic calculus although it has potential to denote a more complex notion of happiness than the initial crude sensualism. But insofar as happiness is just a sum total of pleasures it denotes only a more comprehensive level of calculation, not a different quality. Bentham implicitly recognized the complexity of our sensations, but believed that a simple calculation could resolve possible conflicts and contradictory consequences.
  Chapter 3: Of The Four Sanctions or Sources of Pain and Pleasure
Final Causes:
For humans there are no other incentives to do something "but either pain or pleasure". As motivational forces they operate like final causes. The introductory chapter looked at them from that angle.
Efficient Causes: But pleasure and pain could be viewed as efficient causes as well. Within that perspective Bentham distinguishes four sources of pleasure and pain (the reference to the Aristotelian "source of movement" is unmistakable).
  Thus there are four sources "from which pleasure and pain are in use to flow".
Sanctions: Inasmuch as they give "a binding force to any law or rule of conduct" these sources may be termed "sanctions".
Bentham obviously established an analogy between physical and legal causation.
Sanction Source Time frame
Physical Ordinary course of nature This Life
Political Institutional order This Life
Moral Popular community This Life
Religious Supernatural power This and afterlife
Personality: While physical sources of pleasure and pain are mostly anonymous forces of nature, political and moral sources imply the involvement of certain persons. In the former case the person is an elected official with the authority of dispensing pleasure or pain, in the case of morality it is any human person possessing spontaneous disposition to react with approbation or disapprobation.
Foundation: The physical source is fundamental; it grounds all three other sources.



Chapter 4: Value of a Lot of Pleasure or Pain, How To Be Measured
  In order to be able to choose what is good and beneficial for us or the community at large we need to understand "the force of pleasures and pains". To understand the "force" of pleasures and pains means to understand their "value", which in turn means to assess it in itself and comparatively. The value of a pleasure or pain will be greater or less according to several "circumstances" or dimensions that are of interest. The charts below list those aspects of pleasures that could be measured and estimated in regard to their effects upon individuals and groups:



I What is being measured?

In which regard?

A PLEASURE  (by itself)      



1. INTENSITY = How strong?

2. DURATION = How long?

3. CERTAINTY = How sure?

4. PROPINQUITY = How soon?


These are "the circumstances" which are to be considered in estimating a pleasure by itself (the same criteria would apply to the assessment of a pain by itself).

II What is being measured?

In which regard?




5. FECUNDITY = How many more?

6. PURITY = How free from pain?


Here the value of a pleasure arising from an action is considered with regard to its tendency to lead to subsequent pleasures or pains. But fecundity and purity, as Bentham admits, are not properties of pleasures and pains themselves: they are rather properties of the actions by which they are produced. A previous pleasure will always remain a pleasure; its pleasantness is undeniable no matter what are its consequences. And the same holds true for a pain. As nothing that follows can change the value of previous sensations of pleasure and pain it does not make sense to measure their value after the fact, only the productivity or frugality of the action in question. Of course, absolute purity of a pleasure is indistinguishable from its fecundity, but it seldom occurs. Therefore it is requisite to establish two separate viewpoints that could pertain both to individuals and groups (purity being in fact a certain degree of impurity).

III What is being measured?

In which regard?




7. EXTENT = How many are affected?


What is being measured here is the value of a pleasure with reference to the number of persons to whom it is being extended.


Bentham incorporates all 7 dimensions in the following mnemonic song:

Intense, long, certain, speedy, fruitful, pure -
Such marks in pleasures and in pains endure.
Such pleasures seek if private be the end:
If it be public, wide let them extend.
Such pains avoid, whichever be thy way:
If pains must come, let them extend to few.


Based on all these aspects Bentham formulates the following Maxim:

Act in such a way that your actions produce the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain.

This is a pretty clear guiding principle for individual actions. However, the question why we should act to increase the amount of happiness of other people remains unanswered. Bentham thought that the interests of the individual were so much at one with society that the question of justifying the effort to increase the general happiness did not deserve any special discussion as the general happiness followed automatically from the happiness of all individuals involved. From logic we know that this could be an example of the fallacy known as composition = jumping from what is good for all individuals singly to the the collective good of the aggregate of all individuals. Bentham was aware that these two levels could diverge but he thought that a good legislation was responsible to bring different interests together and to entice the individual to seek general happiness. If pleasure is the good and if happiness consists of many pleasures (or as many as possible) then whatever contributes to increase the amount of pleasures and the number of people affected is to be preferred over alternative actions, other conditions being equal.

Although we act in keeping with utilitarianism by nature, Bentham takes into account different motives for seeking out pleasure and pain.

Motivations for pleasure and pain
Social social (good will)
Social semi-social (love of friends)
Dis-social hatred, resentment
Self-regarding physical desire, love of power

Apparently producing pleasure was, for Bentham, more important than self-realization.

IV What is the general tendency?

What is the general good/evil tendency?






Bentham developed a list of five (or six) steps to measure of all pleasures and pains entailed by an action. The procedure goes like this:

  Take an account of
1 The value of each distinguishable pleasure in the first instance
2 The value of each pain in the first instance
3 The value of each pleasure after the first pleasure
4 The value of each pain after the first pain
5 Sum up all the values for both pleasures and pains (simple tendency)
6 Repeat the same for each person involved (general tendency)

Good Tendency of the Act
General Good Tendency
Take the balance for 5!
Take the balance for 6!

  As actions occur within the complex net of social relations it is necessary to assess not only the tendency of an action but its general good or bad tendency since it pertains to all people whose interests are involved.
Act-Utilitarianism: Bentham's idea that we should determine the character of an action solely by assessing the overall value of the consequences of the 'act' is sometimes labeled as "act-utilitarianism". This type of utilitarianism could have some strange and disturbing consequences. In order to avoid them act-utilitarianism has to be qualified which gives rise to a modified utilitarianism (rule-utilitarianism).



In order to be able to quantify pleasure we need a starting measure - a unit. As any measure it is a matter of convention. For the sake of expediency let us say one util equals 6 minutes of average joy (10 utils = 1 hour) while intensity can vary from 1 to 10 utils.



Find out how good is something for you.

Apply 6 "properties" (standards) and get exact results.

Example: Estimating the value of a pleasure stemming from one action for one person.

Going to a party
10 utils = 1 hour of joy


Based on such a calculation we obtain a good result whenever the total of "utils" is positive.
Note: Take notice that this total is in fact a lump sum of different measures conflated into one figure. A util is a possible standard to measure the duration of a pleasure assuming it has a certain (steady) intensity. But the scales and units for other parameters like intensity, certainty or proximity are of different kind. It is true that the value (the "force") of a pleasure or pain rises or falls depending on their intensity, certainty or proximity, but we cannot strictly speaking measure whether something is certain or near by using the standard for duration. Thus the balance is in a sense a summation of different fruits (apples and oranges). However, the numerical expression is indicative of the force in the same sense as monetary value is indicative of different items in economy.


However, this good typically turns out to be simply what is pleasurable. Furthermore, Bentham does not distinguish qualitatively between different pleasures so that going to a party or reading Shakespeare could amount to the same numerical expression (or even lower for intellectual pleasures).
For Bentham, if something proves pleasurable it cannot be wrong (Hume reasoned in a similar way about taste). This is why the critics of Bentham used to call his utilitarianism derogatively "a pig philosophy". It not only prefers the pleasures of the flesh (= Sensuous Hedonism) but refuses any rank-ordering of pleasures.
Note: Following Bentham's teaching, J.S. Mill tried to save the doctrine by introducing a more subtle treatment of pleasures. In this vein he demanded to "rather be Socrates dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied".




Find out which pleasure/action is preferable. Resolve hard dilemmas by applying an exact comparison.



If the action affects only you follow the best self-interest. (Egoism)
Alanis Morisette calls this interest "sexy tread-mill capitalist".


Otherwise, consider impact on another person(s) as well.
If you do this consistently you are accepting Altruism = The view that we ought to promote interests of others, even to the extent of denying our own desires and aspirations.

Example (a): Comparing two different actions as to the amount of pleasure they will produce for one person:

Action 1/ Drinking Action 2/ Reading


Example (b): Comparing two different actions as to the amount of pleasure they will produce on two persons whose interests are involved (abreviated):

Going to a movie
Visiting Aunt


An action is right if it produces more plesure than alternative actions. The assumption is that we have done the calculus first for each individual.


This goes pretty smoothly as long as only one person is affected (a). Even then the comparison is possible only under the assumption that there is no difference between sensuous and intellectual pleasures.
The situation becomes much more complicated when other persons are involved (b).
The conflict between different options should be decided based on the balance. If we go solely by the total amount of utils (or hedons) we will probably have to give up many personal pleasures. This is obviously too demanding and unrealistic. The type of utilitarianism which accepts the calculus without reservations is in keeping with Act-Utilitarianism. It asks to always prefer altruistic actions and collective benefits over those that simply please us only or only one individual. But we have right to rest or to follow personal preferences. It seems that once we leave the realm of selfish interest we end up in the opposite extreme.




Find out how beneficial an activity is for a community at large.


The guiding principle of action is "the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number". (This principle was formulated initially by the Italian legal theoretician C. Beccaria and Scottish moralist Francis Hutchinson.)

Beyond individual preferences (simple tendency of an action) we can estimate the general tendency of any action by which the interests of a whole community will be affected. The following chart illustrates this type of calculus for several parties involved if I decide to engage myself in a given community service.

Example: Trimming shrubs for elderly people
Measure: 1 hour of joy = 10 utils

















3 Friends






25 Needy

























If positive, the balance in the first row gives the good tendency of my activity upon the whole with respect to my own interests, if it is negative it gives the bad tendency of my activity.
With respect to the total number of individuals directly or indirectly involved the balance (last row, last column) indicates the general good tendency of the activity (or the general evil tendency of the activity).
The calculation that aims at "the greatest amount of happines for the greatest number of people " typically comes down to the notion of the "greatest average happiness" which means very little. In addition, this type of Social Eudemonism could have some strange consequences. For instance, a huge amount of mild happiness barely registered by the majority will outweigh a smaller amount of intense happiness (or misery) that the minority could strongly feel.

Full Account: It is not realistic to expect people to make so elaborate calculations before they judge something or make their decisions.


However, the closer the real calculation comes to an elaborate tally the more accurate it will be. It can be done intuitively or in a shortened way.


The same calculus applies to all denominations of pleasure and pain (common denominations being welfare and discomfort).

Wide Gamut:

There are many other denominations of pleasure and pain:

Welfare Discomfort
Good Evil
Profit Loss
Benefit Detriment
Convenience Inconvenience
Advantage Disadvantage
Emolument Mischief
Happiness Unhappiness

Good = "the cause or instrument of pleasure";
Profit = "distant pleasure or the cause or instrument of distant pleasure ".



In thus broadening the range of pleasures and pains Bentham obviously merges moral, psychological and economic aspects of human actions.


The hedonic calculus is always based on the idea of usefulness and one's own interest. In that sense it does not bring anything new or adverse to the real practice of mankind. The theory of usefulness is useful itself.

Value: The usefulness of the theory becomes manifest when we need to determine the value of something. The value of a property is determined on account of the pleasure of all kinds which it enables a man to produce (and enjoy). It is correlative with the length of time, the certainty and the nearness of its possession.


Intensity, fecundity and purity are seldom taken into account beforehand. Intensity is very subjective and could be properly assessed only at the moment when it is being experienced. We cannot recreate the feeling of something when we do not feel it. As for fecundity and purity, people typically care for what is immediately present and its quality (kind) while putting aside distant consequences.



Find out what do people want. Figure out what will make them happy.


One person - one vote. Democracy.

Example: Polling people about the initiative to raise taxes to improve public education. Hedon is the unit of satisfaction (corresponds to one util). Let's assume that the total number of polled persons was 955.

Do you agree to raise taxes for public education? Poll Results
-4H = This will make me suicidal. 40 = -160H
-3H = This will make me very unhappy indeed. 60 = -180H
-2H = This will make me moderately unhappy. 85 = -190H
-1H = This will slightly displease me. 115 = -115H
0 = This will leave me indifferent. 45 = 0H
+1H = This will make me mildly content. 140 = 140H
+2H = This will make me quite happy. 260 = 520H
+3H = This will make me very happy. 150 = 450H
+4H = This will make me ectstatic with joy. 60 = 240H
Total: + 145H


The total of "hedons" indicates the amount of public satisfaction with the idea. It is not to be confused with the margin of those who are in favor for the initiative.


Democratic procedure could yield wrong results. It allows for the tyranny of majority. This is the main reason why the dogmatic and rigid utilitarianism that considers only the sum total of the tally (Act-Utilitarianism) has to be modified and replaced by a more flexible kind of utilitarianism. The result is Rule-Utilitarianism = the view that we need to follow the existing rules and to adjust to the existing circumstances.


Strengths of Utilitarianism:

  1. Convincing assumptions: preference for pleasure and happiness.
  2. Explains morality as a social extension of natural inclinations.
  3. Transforms difficult moral deliberations into manageable empirical considerations.
  4. Advances flexibility over dogmatic persistence on principles. The stress is on the practices conducive to happiness not on natural rights or norms.


  1. The concept of happiness is not clear. Very vague: equated either with pleasures or with the public good.
  2. Measurements and the units of happiness are arbitrary and subjective.
  3. Disregard for motives and intrinsic values could lead to immoral and unjust consequences.
  4. The social (altruistic) component could be too demanding if pursued strictly.

Profile Of a Utilitarian Man

Commonsensical, down to earth, flexible, tolerant, considerate, advising, materialistic, future oriented, likeable...

Morality According to Utilitarianism

Inclination to Pleasure - Aversion to Pain
Felicific Calculus
Augmentation of Happiness



Based on a note to ch. xvii

"Of the Limits of the Penal Branch of Jurisprudence"


Counter-examples: Gentoo (Hindu) and Mahometan (Muslim) religions do not disregard the interests of animals. On the contrary, these are respected, at least to a certain extent.
Note: Bentham certainly could have found abundant evidence for his contentions in both religions. Unlike the prevailing Christian (and modern Cartesian) prejudices toward animals that still dominate our Western tradition Eastern cultures from the time immemorial prohibit their mistreatment. Animals are protected and venerated in India (even those that people abhor in our culture, like rats and snakes). In which sense could Islam be viewed as an "animal-friendly" culture is not immediately clear. To be sure, Islam prohibits keeping pets (is this a form of respect for animals or a kind of prejudice?) and repudiates cruelty against animals.

Why the interests of animals are not universally recognized? Bentham cannot find any reason. "Allowances made for the difference in point of sensibility." Whose sensibility (sensitivity)? Which difference?
(a) Difference in sensibility among different people (cultures), or
(b) Difference in sensibility between animals and humans?

Could be either (a) or (b), but here probably (a).
In other words, we do not respect the interests of animals because our culture is insensitive to them and because we believe that they are less sensitive than humans (cf. Descartes' contention that animals are "thoughtless brutes")!?

Explanation: Existing laws are the result of mutual fear among humans (Hobbes).
Animals were not able to cause enough fear to force us to respect them.
Note: A contemporary conservative accepts these premises in terms of a social contract, but from them draws the conclusion that animals do not have any rights: "Most rights are based on the ability of people to agree on a social contract, the ability to make and keep agreements. Animals cannot possibly reach such an agreement with other creatures. They cannot respect anyone else's rights. Therefore they cannot be said to have rights." (R. Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought to Be, 1992). Bentham believes that animals have inherent lives as living creatures. These rights are not recognized owing to their lack of power and human arrogance.
Impending Liberation: Animals are placed in the same position toward mankind as the enslaved part of mankind was to the one that was free!? But humans are also animals (although opposed to "the rest of animal creation") and if the enslaved part of mankind is going to be liberated then the whole of animal kingdom can hope for the same destiny.
Humans Animals
Slaves Abused Animals
Abolition Recognition
  Note: The reference to the French people corresponds chronologically to the great proclamations of the French Revolution.
Argument: People gradually realize that the color of the skin is no reason for the mistreatment of different races (for degrading some to the "class of things"). By the same token, people will realize that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the way how the os sacrum (the tailbone) terminates are insufficient reasons to decide whether animals could be tortured or not.
  Grounds for oppression Validity
Humans Skin Color Not anymore
Animals Villosity of skin Should not
Animals Number of Legs Should not
Animals Tailbone Termination Should not


Why does Bentham want to take into account the interests of animals?

Is this in accord with other utilitarian principles?


Bentham concedes that animals are less rational and less sensible than humans. Even though some higher animals possess rudimentary self-awareness they all lack ability to make plans for the future and they are not capable of being anxious because of certain anticipations or overall uncertainty of their condition.

Masters: Bentham states that we are more powerful than animals. Why should we then refrain from abusing them?

Instrumental View:

Why not then treat animals just as means and objects? After all, Bentham allows killing animals for nourishment or as protection against those that can cause some harm or annoyance.


(1) We are "the better for it" (after eating animal meat) while for animals to be eaten by humans certainly is not worse than the fate that usually awaits them "in the course of nature".

(2) We have the right to kill those animals that molest us. If we do not our living conditions will deteriorate ("we should be the worse for their living"). If we do this it is never the worst thing that could happen to them (in fact, Bentham says that "they are never the worse for being dead", which is a very harsh statement).

The death we inflict upon animals is in fact quicker and less painful than a natural one.

  Note: It is interesting to note that Bentham does not mention any other use of animals for purposes other than nourishment. Does this mean that he would not approve the use of animal labor or protective power? It is unlikely that he would oppose drug testing and lab experiments on animals.
Clarification 1: Bentham obviously does not mean that the lives of beasts are equally valuable to those of human beings even though he conceives of both as animals and struggles to find the "insuperable line" between them. Still, humans do not have animals at their unlimited disposal.
Argument: Question: Why the interests of animals should not be recognized?
Answer: No reason. They should be recognized.
Objection: How can we recognize animal interests if we eat them?
Answer: No contradiction. Eating animals does not exceedingly aggravate their condition. And it improves our well-being. Therefore we can kill them for food.
Note: This argument is in keeping with the logic of utilitarian calculus.
  Question: Can we torment animals?
Limitation: Answer: No! We are not permitted to abuse animals.
Line: What if we are something much higher, something entirely distinct and qualitatively better? But where to draw that "insuperable line" which allegedly separates humans from animals? Along with the faculty of reason and articulate speech. Granted.


But the lack (or a rudimentary presence) of reason or of discursive ability is not the decisive point. If animals are said to be "less rational" and "less sensible" than humans this still implies that they are to a certain extent endowed with intelligence and sensitivity. In truth, a full grown dog or horse is more rational than a month old infant and we do not kill infants to satisfy our needs.


We are not permitted to torture animals even if they are entirely deprived of intelligence. Why? Torture causes suffering and we are not permitted to cause unnecessary suffering.

Clarification 2: Bentham does not imply that the pleasures and pains of animals are the same as ours. Still, the feelings of animals matter. This is how he reasons in order to make a case for animal rights:


(1) Many animals are capable to feel well-being or discomfort.
(2) Our actions can affect the welfare of animals.
(3) We should take into account the well-being of all parties involved.

(C) Therefore, the welfare of all sentient creatures should be taken into account and respected.

Question Benefit for us Benefit for animals Answer
Are we permitted to eat animals? We are better off if we feed on them. Being eaten by us is less painful than by predators. Yes! This improves our nutrition.
Are we permitted to kill animals? We are better off without some that molest us. This death is not the worst thing for them. Yes! This improves our living conditions.
Are we permitted to torment animals? Some people might have sadistic pleasure. This suffering is unnecessary and does not benefit them. No! The suffering of animals surpasses natural pain.


With this last conclusion Bentham has become one of the first theoreticians who have recognized the rights of animals not because the disregard for animals could ultimately have negative impact on us, but simply because their interests should be respected per se.
Note: Bentham himself kept rats and pigs as pets.


"Animals do not have an exclusive right to get stuffed."

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