Writing assignment 2: Bentham and the principle of utility
The age of Enlightment was a period of fierce debate about morality. It witnessed the emergence of many schools of ethics, including utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, an English moral philosopher, was the founder of the utilitarian school. His philosophy argued that the right act or policy was that which would cause "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Not only did he criticize different moral theories, he also suggested a complete Utilitarian code of law.
Bentham stated that the human being is governed by two masters: pain and pleasure. By pleasure, he means benefit, advantage, good and happiness and by pain he means evil, mischief, inconvenience, and unhappiness. The principle of utility acknowledges these two masters and makes them the ground from which it is derived. Hence, “by the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which appear to have augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question” (Bentham, 1.2). Thus, the utilitarian principle seeks to avoid pain and achieve pleasure.
In order to assess if an action is right or wrong, people should take into consideration whether it increases utility or diminish it. The distinction between right or wrong is certain according to Bentham; an action is right if it augments happiness, “at least that is not a wring action” (Bentham, 1.10). And when assessing an action, a person should only consider its consequences, not the action itself or the motives behind it. Furthermore, a person should not take into account one’s own happiness solely, but that of others as well. In this way the principle of utility is altruistic, it seeks to benefits the greatest number of people.
The principle of utility has a normative purpose. Bentham rather suggested it as the solid ground for laws in society. The government should promote actions...