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Concept of Utilitarianism by Jeremy Bentham

Socio Legal Corp

Last Updated on August 6, 2023 by Administrator

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher, economist, social reformer, and legal theorist born in London in 1748. Bentham being an individualist, supported the ‘leissez-faire’ a French term, which, if translated, means “to leave alone”; hence this principle means minimum interference of the state in the economic activities of the individual. Jeremy Bentham, in his book ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ published in 1789, developed the principle of “Utilitarianism” also known as the greatest happiness principle is based on morality and ethics. According to utilitarianism, the proper goal of the legislation is to implement the utility principle, or we can say that the proper end of every law is the increase of the ‘greatest happiness’ of the ‘greatest number’. Bentham, in his book, wrote that nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereigns, “pleasure and pain” for Bentham, the concept of pleasure and pain is both physical and spiritual. The principle of utility regards goods as which produces the greatest amount of pleasure and minimum amount of pain and evil as which produces the only greatest amount of pain and no pleasure. He further stated that rights are created by law, not by nature. As all humans seek more pleasure and avoid pain, the pleasure-pain theory explains how people behave i.e., psychological hedonism and how people should behave i.e. ethical hedonism. Thus, the principle of utility means behaviours are right in so far as they promote happiness and pleasure and vice versa. Now by this, we can conclude that the government which provides and promote the greatest number of pleasure and happiness is the best as it does not focus on self-interest or individual happiness rather, it talks about the happiness and pleasure of everyone. He added that government exists because it seeks to improve people’s pleasure, not because of any social contract by this, he rejected social contract theory.

Thus, the Three Generally Accepted Axioms of Utilitarianism are

  • Pleasure, or happiness, is the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  • Actions are right if they promote happiness and wrong if they promote unhappiness.
  • The happiness of everyone counts equally.

Bentham talks about felicific calculus to evaluate both the sovereign quantitatively, and he provided seven criteria, namely; Intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent, examines the concept of punishment and when it should be applied, as well as whether a punishment will cause society to experience greater pleasure or pain. For him, the degree of pleasure of a kid playing on the ground and a person reading poetry is the same. The doctrine of utility is only concerned with the end result, the result in the achievement of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and the motive is irrelevant. 


There is various criticism of the doctrine of utilitarianism few of them are as follows;

  • The nature of man is a complex phenomenon and is not merely limited to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
  • It only talks about the quantitative measure of happiness and pleasure and wholly avoided qualitative validity. 
  • Overlooked human desires and these personal desires should be disregarded for the common benefit of the largest number of men.
  • According to Mill, if time is spent determining the best course of action, the opportunity to take the optimal course of action will have passed.
  • A person’s satisfaction is not a part of any bigger satisfaction. As a result, the process of totalling up the diverse joys of multiple persons becomes difficult because both pain and happiness are essential to and inseparable from the awareness in which they are felt.
  • It is difficult to properly differentiate the pain and pleasure of each and every feeling.
  • Motive is irrelevant.
  • The calculation to determine pleasure and happiness is impossible as the consequences are inherently unknowable, which Daniel Dennett referred to as the Three Mile Island effect. 
  • Rejection of human rights led to the undermined foundation of a free society, as pointed out by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb.
  • Ignored minority interest. 
  • No scope for Gray to create a black-and-white construct of morality either something is wrong or it is right.

The principle of utilitarianism opposes ‘Retributive Theory’ and states that rational punishment is to prevent further crime. It emphasizes formulating better policies and making informed decisions, as the first priority of the government is to maximize the happiness i.e., benefits for the greatest number of people from programs and policies and at the same time minimize the pain i.e., losses and damages. It also helps in formulating policies for the welfare of the maximum number of people with quick implementation. It also supports democracy as a way of making the interest of the government coincide with the general interest.


In the final analysis, after observing the above facts, it can be concluded that utilitarianism provides an alternative to the theories like natural rights, natural law, and social contract theory. Furthermore, it cannot be ignored that there are various laws that are inconsistent with fundamental rights but are constitutionally valid because of maintaining social peace and order in society. Thus, we can say that utilitarianism theory is valuable in formulating specific policies for the well-being of a large number of people but cannot be treated as the end. 

Authored By – Mehak Khan, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies

Edited by Ayush Kumar

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