What is the prevailing utilitarianism looking at?

Essay No. 5 by Rude Franziska Sozialswiss. Bolzano high school

“Nature has placed mankind under the rule of two sovereign masters - suffering and joy. It is up to them alone to show what we should do as well as to determine what we will do. "

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): from: An Introduction to the Principles of Morality and Legislation (1789), Chapter 1: On the Principle of Utility


Yes, it is probably one of the many problem children of philosophy, be it in Bentham's time or still today: ethics. How many have struggled to establish convincing principles for morality? A general moral law that can be applied in every possible situation is not just developed at the breakfast table.

According to the motto “The world belongs to the brave”, Jeremy Bentham, generally known as a representative of utilitarianism, started such an attempt. Before I go into more detail about his quote above, let me briefly mention his utilitarian way of thinking. The goal of utilitarianism can be summed up briefly as creating the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number. It is a consequentialist ethic that places the consequences of an action in the foreground as a standard of morality. Whether this is the right approach for evaluating an action can of course be debated.

But now to Bentham's quote, which of course should become the focus of this journey of thought. In order to take a more targeted position, some terms should be analyzed more precisely beforehand.


Bentham names nature as responsible for the existence of consequentialist ethics. She put the pendulum of sorrow and joy in front of people, which is now, so to speak, the clock of morality. Following the swing of the pendulum, humans perform certain actions - according to Bentham. But is it nature that has given us this principle, or is it not rather humans themselves who like to use the consequences of an action as a yardstick? Because don't we too often weigh up whether an action is worthwhile at all if the benefits are not promising? So one could also say that nature has given man the disposition to orientate himself towards the consequences of an action, since man naturally strives for happiness and avoids pain.



A big word that Bentham uses here, which probably wants to express how strongly and influential he feels the "sovereign master sorrow and joy". Because rulership means that man is subject to something and cannot oppose it. As an example, think of a king who rules over a people. The people do not have the courage to oppose the king for fear of the consequences. Lo and behold - a good example of Bentham's statement. The people protect themselves from the “master” suffering by obeying the ruler, knowing the consequences of a possible wrong action, and behave accordingly to drive the pendulum in the direction of joy. So it becomes clear that by rulership Bentham means a power that puts people under so much pressure that he doesn't even think about opposing it.

But there is a difference between the king and this moral principle. The ruling king really does exist. You can see it, hear it, you could theoretically “touch” it. He can really act when a popular person resists or does not obey rules.

But what about the moral principle that says that suffering and joy always dictate the action? Does that really exist? No - it is there in our imagination and we could actually oppose it. Of course, however, it seems pleasant to be able to hold on to a principle that dictates how we should act. But that actually shows that we do not see this principle as a ruler that we HAVE to follow, but as a support that we WANT to hold onto. That is why I am of the opinion that rulers are not necessarily the most appropriate choice of words, as they tend to have negative connotations.


"Sovereign master"

Furthermore, regarding the concept of domination in this context, it must be said that Bentham's consequentialist attitude cannot really be regarded as sovereign. Because morality, which evaluates an action on the basis of its consequences, can never establish a uniform principle. Because you cannot clearly predict how a person should act for any action. In every situation, the possible consequences are different and a person must always weigh up how to evaluate the consequences of the action.

A typical example of this is: "But I only meant well!" My mother tidied my room because she knows I don't have much time at the moment. However, she did not know that in the middle of the chaos there were also important documents on my desk. She took a big bag and threw everything into it that seemed unimportant to her. After all, she just wanted to help me, and she thought she'd give me a pleasure.

You have to agree with Bentham that my mother was guided by the sorrow-joy pendulum at that moment, but it is far from being said that these masters are sovereign. Because at that moment she assessed her action very differently than I did. She thought she was making me happy, but in reality she made my pendulum swing in the direction of pain more than ever.

The presence of the pendulum cannot be denied here, but its sovereignty can. What is missing here is a general rule. You orient yourself to the consequences of an action, but you have no fixed principles as to which actions you should carry out. Because the problem lies in the subjective evaluation of everyone. What is good for me doesn't necessarily have to be good for someone else. For example, my mother has a hard time assessing which action is causing me joy or sorrow.

This is an aspect that Immanuel Kant, a follower of deontological ethics [1], paid very close attention to. He had a very clear principle by which he judged action: For him, the only thing that counted was “good will”. The consequences of a particular action were irrelevant to Kant. As long as an action is guided by goodwill, then it is also to be assessed as good. It should also be added that Kant did not mean acting out of an inner inclination, but out of duty. An action, Kant continues, is good when I - in the sense of my execution - feel that it is worth striving for as a general legal validity for everyone. With this principle nobody has to weigh up whether the consequences of his action are worth striving for, it is about carrying out an action in the interests of everyone and out of good will.


"Suffering and Joy"

According to Jeremy Bentham, these two components are therefore the great masters "who show people what to do and who determine what they will do". As clear as the two terms sound, they are at the same time inscrutable. What is sorrow What is joy Two questions to which you could probably dedicate your own essay.

Nevertheless, to briefly take up the terms, I would like to point out that Bentham is here pointing to his utilitarian streak. The hedonistic happiness calculation is a method that mathematically calculates joy and sorrow against each other and the sum of the two is supposed to give me an answer that guides me to act. The mathematician's heart beats faster! It finally shows that philosophy doesn't really need it, but that mathematics can solve all of this on its own? Well, if that were as easy as it sounds. In theory, that sounds pretty good. But let's look at the practice: My boyfriend and I want to go on vacation together, but suddenly my mother falls ill. She wants me to stay with her.

According to the happiness calculation, I can now clearly calculate whether I should still fly or whether I should stay at home. I appreciate the direct and indirect suffering as well as the joy of everyone involved - that is me, my mother and my friend - and finally I receive a sum for the joy and for the suffering. Where there is a surplus, that should now be the master that I should obey. But wait a minute - you rediscover the error in the system: It is again a subjective assessment of the situation. I judge not only my (in) indirect joy, but also that of my mother and that of my friend. In addition, the question arises, what is suffering for my mother and what is joy?

So no accolade for mathematics after all. The pocket calculator has to leave the field, the individual has to rely on his personal moral standards.

It has to be said that utilitarianism ("the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number") has several weaknesses. Because who can tell us what is the greatest possible happiness? Is it really right to promote happiness for the big picture when part of it falls by the wayside? Can't you try to compromise?

But does that mean that Bentham completely missed the target with his quote? Personally, I would say no. Because even if we sometimes don't admit it, we really often let ourselves be guided by the foreseeable consequences of an action. School is a good example: the majority of students are driven to study by grades. It is the greed for good grades and the fear of bad grades. The pendulum should flip from suffering to joy, for which one is also ready to do something. But, of course, there are also those who are not influenced by the consequences. They do not endorse Bentham's code of morality.


This problem leads us to the next section of the quote:

"It is up to them alone to show what we should do as well as to determine what we will do."

For me, this premise almost goes in the direction of the question: “Is man free?”. I don't want to go into the question, of course, but I want to show why it occurs to me.

Chapter [2] from Bentham's quotation probably already gives the reader the hint that the composing philosopher uses the usefulness of an action as a yardstick for moral justifiability. Bentham says what he is almost obliged to do as a utilitarian is that the joy and suffering - as a result of an action - provide the guide for morality. Where we can expect a happy episode, we go after it, but we try to avoid what could bring us closer to suffering. Even laypeople may agree to this because of their everyday ethics. So that sorrow and joy show us what to do, I would also agree with this premise.

The second part (“how to determine what we're going to do”) makes me wonder a lot more. While this phrase is coherent with the idea that Bentham sees joy and sorrow as two rulers, wouldn't that mean that we should follow them always and in every situation?

This is where I bring a gunman into play. Please, Mr. Bentham, will you explain to me what rulers he has placed himself under? The hedonistic luck calculation is unlikely to have a positive balance either ... and yet the gunman decided to shoot 10 people.

I agree with Bentham that joys and sorrows do show us what to do. But unfortunately, even they cannot achieve so much that everyone adheres to them. Anyone who - plain and simple - does not care about the principle of usefulness cannot be influenced by the consequences of their actions. Of course, the gunman's act is not to be judged as good, but it shows that nature has not anchored the consequentialist thought in each of us. So I disagree with the statement that suffering and joy also determine what we will do. Each of us has the opportunity to oppose the should-suggestion.

So why can an individual not try to escape pain and instead give up happiness? I think this hook is at a very specific point in the quote:


"It's up to you ALONE"

Bentham obviously sees humanity as solely benefit-oriented. The human being as a machine that has only one goal: the greatest possible benefit. It seems to me that Bentham overlooked the fact that individuals can also be guided emotionally. Let's take a class that is currently planning their graduation trip. A hotel, the right flight and all day trips are planned. If it weren't for the price! This is too high for two classmates, they cannot ride. According to Bentham, for whom the sum total of happiness is important, the matter is clear: for the majority of the class, the journey means great joy, the suffering of those who cannot go with it hardly matters. Nevertheless: The class is looking for a different goal. Why, Jeremy Bentham will wonder? The happy balance was positive ...

The class, however, has chosen a compromise, as nobody should do without happiness. Even if the rest of the students were no longer lucky, the emotional level did not allow two comrades to be left behind. Besides, can you even measure happiness? Can anyone tell what is the greatest happiness?

One point of criticism of Jeremy Bentham's quote would be that he rules out that there are other influences besides joy and suffering that move people to determine actions.

What do I mean by that?

I think that Bentham's statements - albeit with small points of criticism - have hand and foot. As an attentive observer of society, one can say that people mostly act in a benefit-oriented manner. He has always done that, looking at history. In the past, however, the individual still did it to increase his or her chances of survival, today this sometimes happens out of selfishness. Joy and sorrow, or happiness and pain, are two qualities that inevitably accompany people throughout their lives. Therefore, the thought is completely understandable and possibly also given by nature that actions are assessed and carried out according to whether they increase or decrease joy. Because who voluntarily renounces joy and happiness?

However, one should never disregard the fact that people are also emotional and not only make rational decisions. As with many rules and guidelines, such as road traffic, there are moments when there are more priority influences.

As a result of the above, I would - without wanting to underestimate his philosophical achievement - rewrite Bentham's quote a little:

“It is human nature to want to orientate oneself to the principle of joy and suffering - as a result of an action. It shows what we should do and, in conjunction with other factors, determines what we really do. "


[1] The consequences of an action are not relevant. It is important to develop a generally applicable law according to which every action can be evaluated.

[2] Chapter 1: On the principle of utility