Bentham’s theses: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.” (466)
1. descriptive thesis = psychological hedonism
A descriptive thesis is a thesis about how things actually are (e.g. what our psychology actually is, what motivates us to act.)
2. prescriptive thesis = ethical hedonism
A prescriptive thesis is a thesis about how things ought to be (e.g. how we ought to act, as opposed to how we actually do act. Sometimes these are two different things!)
Three utilitarian principles
1. consequentialist principle (466) a prescriptive thesis: we ought to judge actions (morally evaluate them) based on the results of those actions
2. utility principle. How does Bentham argue for this? The result we should focus on in judging actions is overall utility (happiness, pleasure, pain reduction, benefit, etc.) (466-7. Note: part of this argument is an argument against Hume’s moral sentiment theory.)
3. impartiality principle “the greatest good for the greatest number” (466)
Each person “counts as one and no more.” (469) We should judge an action by whether or not it brings about the best possible results for all who are affected by the action.
Why should we care about the greater good? (468)
These principles, utilitarians say, give us the standards for right actions, for both individuals and societies. These standards are concrete and measurable, not abstract and metaphysical.
Objection 1: a “doctrine worthy only of swine”
John Stuart Mill attempts to answer this objection: Human beings are capable of pleasures much more sophisticated that those of swine. And some kinds of pleasure are more valuable (470)
Bentham denies this: “the game of pushpin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”
What is his point?
Objection 2: calculating utility: see Bentham’s “hedonic calculus” (467)
Do you see any problems for this calculus? One might be: how well can we predict results? (How well are we able to calculate here?)
Objection 3: the problem of justice
In general, sometimes utilitarianism seems to require us to commit injustice. In fact, utilitarianism seems to (occasionally) require us to commit injustice even while punishing crimes.
Utilitarian justifications for punishments:
See 468. When is punishment justified for Bentham? When is it not?
In general, if the punishment rehabilitates or deters, or makes society safer, it is justified.
Note that “justice” (righting the wrong!) is not a utilitarian justification!