History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
<<< Previous Next >>>

Bentham Lecture 2

I. Jeremy Bentham was definitely from a later generation than Hume and Kant. Born in 1748, almost ten years after Hume's Treatise, he lived well into the nineteenth century, dying in 1832. He published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1789, nine years after it was completed.

Although he was philosophically acute, including in such areas as the philosophy of language, Bentham's interests were primarily in law and politics. He viewed these institutions with the eye of a reformer, keen to see what solid arguments could be given for legal institutions without relying on unfounded intuition, and common law notions. He was famous for the remark that the idea of natural rights is ``nonsense on stilts''.

II. The Principles begins with this famous passage: ``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.'' (IPML, Ch. 1, para 1) Here Bentham announces the essentials of both his ethics and his psychology. Human beings are only motivated by considerations of their own pleasure and pain. His psychology is thus that of egoistic hedonism. But what we morally should do is another matter. The morally appropriate course of action is always whichever one would achieve the greatest total pleasure, taking everyone into account. His ethics, therefore, is universalistic hedonism.

This combination creates an obvious practical, if not theoretical, problem. If the only psychologically possible acts for agents are those that will realize their own pleasure, then what can be the force of holding that, nonetheless, what they morally ought to do is what would realize the greatest happiness for all? Something seems required to take up the slack between the individual's happiness and the happiness of all. This is precisely the role Bentham reserved for legal and political institutions. By shrewd legislation and administration, political officials can structure incentives so that individuals find that their own happiness lies on the same path as that of the happiness of all. [Compare this with Hutcheson and Butler. If an apt epigram for them was ``what God hath joined together (self-love and benevolence) let no man rend asunder'', Bentham's might be ``what God or nature hath left asunder, let man join together.''

III. One way of beginning to get the flavor of his position is to examine what he means by ``the principle of utility''. Recall that among the eighteenth century writers we have been reading, such as Hutcheson, Hume, Butler, and Kant, `principle' refers to something that is realized in a person's psychology. So Butler's principle of reflection is the psychological faculty for self-reflective disinterested and dispassionate self-criticism of one's other psychological principles. And for Kant, a subjective principle of the will is the maxim on which a person actually acts or intends to act.

Here is what Bentham says about what he means by the principle of utility:

``The principle here in question may be taken for an act of the mind; a sentiment; a sentiment of approbation; a sentiment which, when applied to an action, approves of its utility, as that quality of it by which the measure of approbation or disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed.'' (IPML, ch. 1, para 2, note)

Now this is actually quite complicated. He doesn't say that this principle is one that approves of acts in proportion as they tend to produce happiness. Rather, it approves of utility ``as that quality of [the action] by which the measure of approbation of disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed.'' That is, it approves of approving of actions on the ground of their utility.

One thing should already be noted here. This ``second-order'' approval of approving of acts on the basis of their utility apparently assumes that the ``first-order'' approval of acts is itself open to some kind of rational control. The person who holds (has?) the principle of utility favors favoring acts that promote utility---he favors using the utility of acts as a measure for favoring acts. He favors this measure as a rational basis for favoring acts and policies.

IV. This already suggests something that becomes clearer in other passages, viz., that Bentham believes, as against writers such as Hutcheson and Butler, that in ethical discussion and debate it is insufficient simply to cite one's own conscience or moral sense:

``The various systems that have been formed concerning the standard of right and wrong … consist[,] all of them in so many contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the reader to accept the author's sentiment or opinion as a reason for itself.'' (IPML, ch. 02, para 14)

Bentham believes that any intellectually respectable ethical view regarding must appeal to some further justification that is external to itself, some further ground or standard from which it can be derived. [Note how radical a rejection this is of all the philosophers listed above, with the possible exception of Hume, and even he would strenuously object.] And he believes that the only possible such standard is the general happiness. Let us see how he gets to this conclusion.

V. The best way to understand Bentham's position, I think, is to represent him as fundamentally concerned to explain what ethical thought must be if it is to be expressible in discussion and debate of a certain kind, viz., discourse that is:

  1. clear and sensible,
  2. non-coercive,
  3. about a common issue, and
  4. useful in directing action.

Briefly, Bentham's position is that these criteria will be realized only if acts are approved on the basis of their utility. Therefore, for these reasons, he approves approving them on this basis--he asserts the principle of utility.

A. Clear and sensible speech and thought. Bentham apparently makes the radical claim that the proposition that an action ought to be done is meaningful only if it is taken to mean that the action will promote utility: ``When thus interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong, and others of that stamp have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.'' (IMPL, Ch. 1, Para 10) And: ``Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.'' (IMPL, Ch. 1, Para 1) And finally: ``When a man attempts to combat the principle of utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself.'' (IMPL, Ch. 1, Para 13)

Fully to see what he means we will need to examine his other criteria of ethical discourse. For reasons that will be clearer in a moment, he is taking it that one can only put forward an ethical opinion as entitled to the assent of others if one doesn't simply express one's own feeling, but refers also to some ground for that feeling. An intellectually respectable ethical opinion must have both (recall the complicated formulation of the principle of utility). Thus Bentham asks a person who advances other principles: ``let him examine and satisfy himself whether the principle he thinks he has found is really any separate intelligible principle; or whether it be not a mere principle in words, a kind of phrase, which at bottom expresses neither more nor less than the mere averment of his own unfounded sentiments; that is, what in another person he might be apt to call caprice.'' (IPML, Ch. 1, Para 14, No. 3)

So, to make moral claims that are not simply unfounded expressions of personal feeling, one must refer to some ``external standard''. Bentham seems to believe that it is the standard which then gives the `ought' claim its real meaning for discussion and debate.

B. Non-coercive. This becomes a little clearer with the second criterion. About someone who proposes that ``his own approbation or disapprobation, annexed to the idea of an act, without any regard to its consequences, is a sufficient foundation for him to judge and act upon'', Bentham says, ``let him ask himself whether his sentiment is to be a standard of right and wrong, with respect to every other man, or whether every man's sentiment has the same privilege of being a standard to itself?'' (IPML, Ch. 1, Para 14, No. 4)

``In the first case'', he adds, ``let him ask himself whether his principle is not despotical, and hostile to all the rest of the human race.'' (IPML, Ch. 1, Para 14, No. 5)

His point is that if someone proposes something as an ethical opinion entitled to the respect of others without having any justification for it in some standard that is external to his ethical opinions (i.e. to his assessments of acts and characters), then he proposes to judge others who do not share it by an opinion that they must regard as capricious.

The moral seems to be that non-coercive ethical debate is possible only if participants assume an intellectual obligation to justify their opinions by standards that do not require others already to hold one's own favorite ethical opinions---i.e. by some nonmoral standards. Liberal moral debate is possible only on such terms.

C. About a Common Issue. Without appeal to a morally uncontroversial standard as ground for moral opinions, the only alternative to despotism is a relativism that disables genuine debate.

``In the second case [i.e. when the discussant who offers his own ethical opinion, ungrounded in some morally uncontroversial external standard, proposes not to judge others by this standard, but to permit them to use their own], [let him ask himself] whether it is not anarchical, and whether at this rate there are not as many different standards of right and wrong as there are men? … whether all argument is not at an end? and whether, when two men have said, `I like this', and 'I don't like it', they can (upon such a principle) have any thing more to say?'' (IPML, Ch. 1, Para 14, No. 6)

D. Useful in directing action. If the other criteria establish the need for an external, morally uncontroversial standard in support of moral opinions, what if someone offer something about an action which was uncontroversially true, e.g., that the action would reduce taxes, but leave it at that without any comment on whether this would benefit or harm people. While this might satisfy the other criteria, Bentham asks the proponent of such a principle, ``let him say whether there is any such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it; if there is, let him say what that motive is, and how it is to be distinguished from those which enforce the dictates of utility; if not, then lastly let him say what it is this other principle can be good for.'' (IPML, Ch. 1, Para 14, No. 10)

While there are many uncontroversial facts about actions, the only ones that can motivate human beings are those that concern the act's consequences for people's happiness.

VI. We can see the argument for the principle of utility proceeding in two major stages, therefore.
  1. A, B, and C taken together are supposed to establish the need for an external, morally uncontroversial standard for assessing actions--a standard that can be applied by ordinary empirical means without assuming shared sentiments.
  2. D assures that the only such standard that can play a role that enables moral discussion actually to be effective in directing collective action is the principle of utility.

<<< Previous Home Next >>>
Bentham Lecture 1   Bentham Lecture 3