Last Updated 14 Nov 2022

An Analysis of the Philosophy of Utilitarianism by Bentham and Mill

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Although Bentham and Mill's approach to calculating utility differ quantitatively and qualitatively, both philosophers fundamentally base their theories on the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. Utilitarianism holds pleasure as one's most intrinsically valuable goal, and therefore the avoidance of pain is it's driving force. It is only when evaluating the difference in pleasures themselves that Bentham and Mill conflict. Jeremy Bentham, a 17th century philosopher, drew inspiration from Priestley's idea of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. His application of this later became his principle of utility, which formed 'Utilitarianism'.

Bentham’s idea was that irrespective to any moral code, morality is attained in the majority, not the individual. Regardless of the act, if it amounts to the greatest good for the greatest number of people it is thus morally correct. For example, if ten terrorists happily torture one man, Bentham's hedonic calculation would condone their continuance, on the basis of their greater pleasure.

Here lies the problem, although Bentham may not have advocated any of what society deems to be 'immoral behaviour', his philosophy cannot deny it. This problem is addressed almost a century later by John Stuart Mill, who attempts to place value on pleasure in order to avoid the approval of the aforementioned example. Mill structured his argument in his essay Utilitarianism (1863) around the idea of higher and lower values; the former being pleasures of the mind, intellectual stimulation etc and the latter being pleasures of the body, carnal desires and temptation etc.

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On this premise, Mill points out that “no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base'. He claims that according to his idea of higher and lower pleasures there leaves no room for human beings to dispute, for they should value the goodness of the mind as being paramount. Both Bentham and Mill are hedonist's in the conservative sense, they both seek pleasure as the ultimate goal, but are not the misinterpreted Epicureans' people may claim them to be. For Mill, fleshly pleasures are those of animals or ‘swine', and are therefore lower. It is clear when considering human nature that there must be some moral guidelines, which makes Mill's extended idea of Utilitarianism more conceivable than Bentham's, because it encourages human beings to strive beyond fleshly pleasures.

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