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Bentham, The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University Jeremy Bentham, "Happiness Is the Greatest Good" 

Abstract:  Bentham supports the principle of utility with the hedonistic or felicific calculus: a method or calculating the right thing to do by means of a quantitative scale.

1. According to Bentham, what are the causes of human action?  What is the principle of utility?

2. Explain what Bentham means by the principle of asceticism.  Is this principle related to the principle of sympathy and antipathy?  Why does Bentham think that these principles lead to inconsistent application and undue punishment?

3. Can pleasure be quantified? Explain whether you think the use of the hedonistic calculus for the individual and for society is feasible.

4. What does Bentham mean when he explains that motives are neither bad nor good?  Why doesn't Bentham think that evil motives can be productive of over-all good?  Explain his analysis of motives.


1.  According to Bentham, what are the causes of human action?  What is the principle of utility?

According to Bentham, pleasure and pain govern not only how human beings act but also how human beings ought to act. 

The principle of utility or the principle of utilitarianism :  I ought do that act which will bring about the greatest happiness (pleasure) for the greatest number of persons (the community).

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2.  Explain what Bentham means by the principle of asceticism.  Is this principle related to the principle of sympathy and antipathy?  Why does Bentham think that these principles lead to inconsistent application and undue punishment?

The principle of asceticism is the inverse of the principle of utility: I ought do that act which will bring about the least happiness (pleasure) for the greatest number of persons. The principle is not consistently  used because it opposes the natural influences of pleasure and pain.

The principle of sympathy and antipathy is the reliance on feelings for conscience for moral decisions.  We judge an action as right or wrong on the basis of how we feel about it or our intuition or conscience.  Since our feelings are not objective, they tend to be inconsistent and involve emotional application.

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3.  Can pleasure be quantified? Explain whether you think the use of the hedonistic calculus for the individual and for society is feasible.

Bentham attempts to quantify pleasures in the hedonistic calculus. Some of the factors are quantifiable such as duration, certainty, and extent, but most of the factors are not quantifiable.  There may well be different kinds of pleasures and threshold of pleasures.  Propinquity can be established by indifference curves but this would be an attempt to quantify feelings.  

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4.  What does Bentham mean when he explains that motives are neither bad nor good?  Why doesn't Bentham think that evil motives can be productive of over-all good?  Explain his analysis of motives.

Bentham does not think motives or intentions are an exception to his result based theory. For Bentham, motives can only be considered good or bad based on their results of being productive of happiness or unhappiness.. ("Beauty is as beauty does.") 

When we look at motives which are said to be bad, the motives are so named as to include the effects as "packed in with" or as being part of the motive.  Thus, the motive is named by its effects. Consider Russell's conjugation: "I reconsider, you change your mind, and he goes back on his word."

Motives considered apart from the effects are neither bad nor good in themselves. 

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Recommended Sources

"Ch. 25. "Happiness is the Greatest Good" by Jeremy Bentham": The reading selection from Bentham's Introduction to the principles of Morals and Legislation upon which the above notes are based.
Decision Sciences: How the Game Is Played
National Science Foundation. An introductory overview of utility and game theory, including a discussion of its limitations.
Jeremy Bentham
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. An excellent encyclopedic overview of Bentham's life and thought.

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