Jeremy Bentham on the Utility Principle

Jeremy Bentham

This quotation is one of the clearest formulations of the implications of what has been called Jeremy Bentham’s “Utility Principle,” which forms the foundation of his entire philosophical architecture.

Correspondent to discovery and improvement in the natural world, is reformation in the moral: if that which seems a common notion be, indeed, a true one, that in the moral world there no longer remains any matter for discovery. Perhaps, however, this may not be the case: perhaps among such observations as would be best calculated to serve as grounds for reformation, are some which, being observations of matters of fact hitherto either incompletely noticed, or not at all, would, when produced, appear capable of bearing the name of discoveries: with so little method and precision have the consequences of this fundamental axiom, It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong, been as yet developed.

The Principle in its earliest and most basic form appears in Bentham’s first major work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, where he defined the Principle of Utility as “that principle which approves or disapproves 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.”

The term “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as used as a guide to action (especially legislative action) predated Bentham, who seems to have encountered it in the work of Cesare Beccaria. Bentham spent much of the rest of his life trying to clarify the meaning and implications of this concept, sometimes called the “Greatest-Happiness Principle.”

One of his most important revisions to this principle (in his own estimation) was based on the insight that the loss of something we have usually causes more distress than gaining something gives us pleasure. He used the example of theft; the pain we feel from being robbed of, say, $100 is greater than the corresponding pleasure we would have if we won $100 in a lottery. This had important implications for Bentham in the stress he placed on the protection of private property. Importantly, however, he also argued that legislation aimed at alleviating of suffering (especially suffering due to loss) was better at producing general happiness than policies aimed at wealth creation.