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The consequences of our actions are important and we should weigh these up when we consider what we should do.

But some philosophers have taken this idea even further, claiming that outcomes are the only criteria by which the moral worth of an action should be judged.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) was the father of Utilitarianism, a moral theory that argues that actions should be judged right or wrong to the extent they increase or decrease human well-being or ‘utility’.

He advocated that if the consequences of an action are good, then the act is moral and if the consequences are bad, the act is immoral.

Central to his argument was a belief that it is human nature to desire that which is pleasurable, and to avoid that which is painful. As a self-proclaimed atheist, he wanted to place morality on a firm, secular foundation. At the beginning of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:

“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 to determine what we shall do.”

It is because of this emphasis on pleasure that his theory is known as hedonic utilitarianism. But this doesn’t mean we can do whatever we like. Importantly, for Bentham, it is not just one’s own happiness or pleasure that matters.

He notes, “Ethics at large may be defined, the art of directing men’s actions to the production of the greatest possible quantity of happiness.” The moral agent will perform the action that maximises happiness or pleasure for everyone involved.

 

 

Can we measure happiness?

Bentham defended an objective form of morality that could be measured in a scientific way. As an empiricist, he came up with a way to ‘weigh’ or quantify pleasures and pains as the consequences of an action.

He called this set of metaphorical scales the ‘hedonic’ or ‘felicific calculus’, allowing a rational moral agent to think through, and then act on, the right – moral– thing to do.

The ‘hedonic calculus’ is used to measure how much pain or pleasure an action will cause. It takes into consideration how near or far away the consequence will be, how intense it will be and how long it will last, if it will lead on to further pleasures or pains, and how certain we are that this consequence will result from the action under consideration.

The moral decision maker is meant to act as an ‘impartial observer’ or ‘disinterested bystander’, to be as objective as they can be and choose the action that will produce the greatest amount of good.

Do the ends justify the means?

There are some practical applications of utilitarianism. For instance, if you’re a politician in charge of making decisions that effects a large group of people, you should act in a way that maximises happiness and minimises pain and suffering. In this way, the hedonic calculus supports a welfare system that reduces unfair outcomes by redistributing wealth and resources.

Yet there are tricky aspects to the theory that must also be considered. Contemplate the saying “the ends justify the means” – what immoral action may be justified by (predicted) good consequences?

This is where ethicists start to ask tricky questions like, ‘would you kill Hitler?’. And if you answer ‘um, sure, because that will prevent a LOT of deaths’, then they will ask, ‘would you kill baby Hitler?’. You can see how it starts to get complicated.

Bentham’s theory relies on accurately predicting outcomes, and as such holds the moral agent accountable for moral luck. One might intend to do a good deed, but if an unpredictable result occurs, leading to a negative outcome, then they are still to be held morally responsible.

Visit Bentham in London

His theories were popular at University College London (UCL), where Behtham’s followers called themselves ‘Benthamites’. Among these were James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill. J. S. Mill (1806 –1873) worried that Bentham theory was too hedonistic as it did not prioritise the ‘higher’ pleasures of the intellect. He added the criteria of ‘quality’ to Bentham’s calculus in order to create ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ quality pleasures.

A final, fun fact: Bentham willed his body to be preserved and displayed at UCL after his death. A visit to the philosophy department will see him in a busy hallway, merrily seated in a glass fronted mahogany case.

Join the conversation

Does the moral value of your action depend on its outcome?