Utilitarianism and its controversies according to Jeremy Bentham

As on 6 June 1832 Jeremy Bentham died, I would like to grasp this opportunity to briefly talk about him and Utilitarianism, as he was the real father of this important ethical theory and I always like to discuss it anyway.

Yes, Bentham founded the modern Utilitarianism, but this vision was not completely new: the idea was born in the Ancient Greece within the Sophistics, where good was conceived as useful and bad as harmful.

Once again, in the modern age, Machiavelli carried out an utilitarian vision, where he identified the criteria of political and moral action as based on utility or absence of utility.

Utilitarianism is a rational moral theory and not related at all with normative ethics: Bentham has lived between two ages, the Enlightenment and Positivism, therefore he was a really dynamic intellectual highly influenced by the ripe enlightenment and by the best period of Positivism, before it descended into the scientism and the absolute faith in reason.

Bentham wrote in 1823 An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, where he explained his vision of Utilitarianism: there is no absolute concept of good and bad, but only of useful and useless and this is subjective and purely formal as it does not matter what we like, what matters is just the fact that it gives us pleasure.

The criteria to judge the moral action are these and what must be done is to increase the utility to the highest number of individuals: to some extent, Utilitarianism knows no ethics, it is just based on personal utility almost in economic and mathematical terms as we quantify the common good by summing everyone’s personal utility and highest the number is better it is.

The main features of Bentham’s Utilitarianism were the monism, therefore the fact that there is a single criterion to judge the moral action (as mentioned, the personal utility) and it is a theory which is consequentialist and theleological because it judges actions by the consequences they have and the final aims and not by a specific abstract principle, which is the deontological approach.

A wrong assumption of Bentham and his vision of ethics was that he put what it is really good for us and what our preferences are at the same levels: I can like cocaine as preference as I feel it gives me pleasure, but it is harming me, therefore my preference is something which can annihilate me or damage me.

Utilitarianism, in Bentham, is in my opinion superficial and to some extent also “oppressive” as it treats human beings as numbers, it disregards quality and just considers quantity and it makes me think that if the utility of the majority can be granted by making a minority live worse this can be acceptable.

Liberalism and Utilitarianism are not synonyms in Bentham and only in John Stuart Mill they will become it, when the focus on education to what makes us pleasure becomes a new criterion.

Developments in economic theory and game theory, such as the Pareto’ efficiency and the Nash Equilibrium, will introduce new models where utility is seen as something achievable by everyone even if without maximising it: cooperation becomes the key to achieve utility through which every individual can benefit.

In the XX  century an Hungarian economist, and Economy Nobel prize laureate, John Harsaniy will correlate Utilitarianism to Game Theory, called Preferences Utilitarianism, where he isolates harmful behaviours.

I could continue on Utilitarianism for too long, as there are my things to say, many examples to give to understand this moral theory and many other thinkers to discuss and I am sure that we will have the chance to do it again.

What I can say on Bentham to conclude is that he was politically really active, and had also radical positions on civil and political rights, so we can accuse him of not having gone in depth enough, but of hypocrisy, because he really believed in what he thought and on individual freedom, he just was not able to better explain it.

– Riccardo Grisanti


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