This article was originally written for an Ethics class.
In this work, specifically in chapters 1 to 4, Jeremy Bentham formalizes the basic principle of utility concerning legislative power. In the first chapter, he defines principle utility as a principle that approves of actions increasing the subject’s happiness or decreasing the subject’s pain. The subject is an individual in the initial sense. The utility of a group of people is the sum of their individual utilities. After arguing for the impossibility of any other principle and setting up a process with which one can refute opposing claims, he moves to talk about different principles deeper in the second chapter. Namely, he presents three variations: asceticism, sympathy, and antipathy. After showing their ineffectiveness in use in government, he finally describes possible sanctions in chapter 3 and offers a computation of this utility value in chapter 4.
Overall, Jeremy Bentham’s work is very methodical, which was pleasant for me, although not in all cases, as discussed later. I sincerely agree with the principle of utility as the only rational principle upon which to decide legislation. No matter how certain I am that this will never be the case, it is something to strive for. I must point out one specific quote from the work. At one point in the first chapter, J. Bentham writes: “…the rarest of all human qualities is consistency.” Truer words have never been written. This quote shows that he writes about what ought to be, aware of the imperfections of humans. The argument that asceticism can function only on an individual level or within a small group, thus making it inapplicable to legislation, was sufficient for me. I had an issue with the definition of asceticism, though. Arguments against sympathy and antipathy were acceptable without any problems, especially the notion that antipathy must be regulated by the legislature, not introduced by it. The third chapter was on point. I agree with the specification of the four types of sanctions – physical, political, moral, and religious. Each of the categories has its place, and none can be removed. While the attempt to formalize value computation was good in intent, I found it somewhat laughable. Not to say that it is wrong, the core idea is nicely put.
As is quite evident, my main issues are with the definitions. While I applaud the attempt to be this specific and methodical, almost mathematical, the result is sometimes unconvincing or vulnerable to disagreement. First, I would like to mention my issue with the definition of utility itself through pleasure and pain. While I agree that pleasure and pain are the most basic motivators of human behavior, I must disagree with the typical reduction of pleasure to happiness. I take issue with the pursuit of happiness in human life. The call for happiness does not always lead to an overall net increase in pleasure over time. Sometimes, we must not go for happiness to prolong our current state of (possibly insufficient) happiness. In our time, we see that happiness has no limit. It is not sustainable to follow happiness at all times. The second major issue I take with the work lies in the fourth chapter. The variables influencing the value of pleasure and pain are well stated, but the algorithmic description of the computation seems unnecessary. It cannot be seriously used and does not improve the understanding of the author’s point.
Overall, this work was quite pleasant. It is well-readable, well-constructed, and enjoyable to read for such an early work. Jeremy Bentham does an excellent job of defining everything from the bottom up, which is admirable. His methodical style works well with the themes in his work. One of the two issues I take with his work is mainly because his work had already influence for around 200 years, and now different issues are present in our time, making the critique simple. The other issue concerns the author’s naivety, where he seems overly hopeful and unaware of the reality of human limitations, even though his quote about human consistency was on point.