Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jeremy Bentham and the Felicific Calculus

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

In Fragment of Government (1776) and An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Jeremy Bentham set about attacking the basis of English law as that which had no logical or scientific foundation. In his opinion the Law rested on not one but a multiplicity of foundations (E.g. the Bible, tradition, conscience). This meant that the law/morality was nothing more than a set of subjective truth-claims with no objective basis or validity to them.

So Bentham sought to introduce a means (or criteria) for validating and securing ethical behaviour; one which could also serve as the basis for a system of Law and Government. He also wanted a more democratic form of government as he felt that anything would lead to an attitude of servitude and dependency amongst the common people, something open to abuse by those in power.

The Pleasure/Pain Principle

"Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure." (Jeremy Bentham)

Bentham begins An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by defining human nature as something fundamentally driven by a pleasure/pain principle. He argued that by observing nature it could be reasonably demonstrated that humans naturally seek pleasure, and naturally seek to avoid pain. On the basis of this he believed morality (and the laws derived from this) could be grounded in what he believed to be a fundamental and 'objective' truth of our existence: The maximising of pleasure; the minimising of pain!

So according to Bentham a good politician or judge would be one who introduced laws based on what would be to the greater advantage of most people. In other words, they would work to ensure life is happy and pleasant for the greatest number of people.

The Hedonic Calculus (aka Felicific calculus)

In order to avoid the accusation of subjectivity, Bentham devised a means by which to calculate pain and pleasure 'units'. Operating like a mathematical equation, pain and pleasure units would be measured and assessed according to seven criteria:

1. The intensity of any pleasure or pain.

2. The duration of any pleasure or pain.

3. The certainty or uncertainty of experiencing any pleasure or pain.

4. How long will it take experience the effect.

5. The chances of the same good thing being repeated.

6. The chances of the opposite effect occurring.

7. The number of people who will be affected.

"Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may either say that it is one that ought to be done... One may also say, that it is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action." (Jeremy Bentham)

Some criticisms

Although there is naturally some ‘weighing up’ of things before we act, it should be noted that a degree of subjectivity is involved in making these calculations. Although humans naturally incline towards pleasure and away from pain (objectivity), any calculus is concerned with actions that are yet to occur. This means we are ‘measuring’ probabilities rather than objective certainties. To try and measure the intensity of any pleasure or pain also means we need to quantify these experiences, which again involves a degree of subjectivity. Finally the calculus fails to take into account the nature of pleasure and pain involved, which is something John Stuart Mill would criticise Bentham for in his derivative works.


Utilitarianism Part 3: John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

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