The Greatest Principle of Happiness: UtilitarianismJune 27, 2021
If you visit University College London, you might be surprised to find Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) or what is left of his body in a glass case.
He sits on his knees with his favorite cane he calls “Spotted” and looks at you. His head is wax. His real head was formerly exhibited, but was later embalmed and placed in a wooden box. Bentham thought his real body—he called it an autoikon—would make a better monument than a statue. So when he died in 1832, he left instructions on what to do with his body. Although Lenin’s body was embalmed and placed in a private mausoleum for display, Bentham’s idea never gained much traction.
Bentham’s other ideas were more practical. For example, let’s take the idea of a circular prison, the panopticon. He described this prison as “a machine that grinds down bandits and makes them chaste”. The sentry tower in the middle allowed a few guards to spy on the large numbers of inmates who didn’t know if they were being watched. This design principle is also used in some modern prisons and even a few libraries. This was one of many projects he had done for social reform. Far more important and influential than this is Bentham’s theory of how we should live. According to this idea, also known as Utilitarianism or the Greatest Happiness Principle, the right thing to do is the thing that will bring the most happiness. While not the first to propose this approach to morality (Francis Hutcheson, for example, had done so before), Bentham was the first to describe in detail how it could be applied in practice. He wanted to adjust the laws of England in such a way as to enable them to bring greater happiness. So what is happiness? This word is used in different ways by different people. Bentham’s answer to that question was pretty straightforward. Happiness is about how we feel. It is the absence of pain and pleasure. More pleasure or more pleasure than pain means more happiness. According to him, human beings are simple. Pain and pleasure in this life given to us are our greatest guides. We pursue pleasurable experiences and stay away from painful things. Pleasure is the only thing good in itself. We want whatever we want because we believe it will bring us pleasure or help us avoid pain. For example, you don’t want an ice cream just because it’s a good thing to have. The purpose of ice cream is that it will most likely give you pleasure when you eat it. Likewise, you try to avoid burning yourself, as it will be painful.
How do you manage to emulate happiness? Think of a time when you were truly happy. How did you feel? Can you rate your happiness? For example, was it a happiness of seven or eight or ten points out of ten? I remember one day when I took a water taxi to leave Venice. I felt nine and a half, maybe even ten points of happiness that day. While the driver was speeding, the splashes of water splashed from the lake wet my face, while my wife and children were laughing in excitement, the sun had set against a magnificent view. It is not strange at all to score such experiences in this way.
Bentham firmly believed that pleasure could be measured, that different pleasures could be compared in the same units, on the same scale. The name he gave to the method he used to measure happiness was “Happiness Calculus”. The first step was to find out how much pleasure a certain action would give him. Take into account how long the pleasure will last, how intense it will be, the possibility of causing other pleasures. Remove some of the pain your actions may cause. What remains is the value of happiness that the action will lead to. Bentham called this the “benefit” of action, which also means usefulness, because according to him, the more pleasure an action brings, the more useful it is to society. This is why his theory is known as utilitarianism. Compare the utility of one action with scores of other possible actions and choose the one that will bring the greatest happiness. It’s pretty easy.
So what are the sources of pleasure? I guess it’s better to enjoy something pleasing like reading poetry than playing a childish game or eating ice cream, right? Not for Bentham. It didn’t matter how the pleasure was produced. To him, daydreaming was tantamount to watching a Shakespeare play if it made you equally happy. Bentham gives poetry as an example with the thumbtack game, which is one of the games of his time that does not require attention. The only thing that mattered was the pleasure. If the rate of pleasure is the same, so is the value of the action: on the utilitarian view, the game of thumbtacks is as morally valuable as reading poetry.
Immanuel Kant argued that we have certain duties, such as “not to lie” that apply in all cases. However, Bentham believes that the rightness and wrongness of what we do should be reduced to possible consequences. These may vary according to circumstances. Lying isn’t always wrong. There may be times when lying means doing something right. All things considered, if you lie