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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians

§ 7. The Hedonic Calculus

Bentham’s views on this point lend emphasis to the importance of his hedonic calculus. If men are always guided by estimates of pleasures and pains, these estimates should be rendered as exact as possible. For this purpose, Bentham analyses the circumstances that have to be taken into account in estimating the “force” or “value” (notions which, for him, are identical) of pleasures and pains. A pleasure or pain, he says, taken by itself, will vary in the four circumstances of intensity, duration, certainty and propinquity. If we consider its effects, we must take into account two other circumstances: its fecundity, or the chance of its being followed by other feelings of the same kind; and its purity, or the chance of its not being followed by feelings of an opposite kind. If more than one person is concerned, then account must also be taken of the number of persons, that is, the extent of the pleasure or pain. If we would estimate the benefit to a community of any particular action, then each person affected by it must be considered separately; each distinguishable pleasure caused by the action must have its value for him calculated in accordance with the six circumstances first mentioned; and each distinguishable pain must have its value calculated in the same way. When this has been done for every person affected, and the sum of all the pains substracted from the sum of all the pleasures, then the surplus of pleasure will measure the good tendency of the act; or, if the pains exceed the pleasures in total amount, then the balance of pain will measure the evil tendency of the act.

This may seem an elaborate calculation, but it gives only a faint idea of the minute detail into which Bentham pursued an estimate of good or evil. The significant feature of his method is that it is quantitative. The same method had been suggested by Hutcheson and others before him; his contemporary Paley used it to some extent; but Bentham was the first to follow it out into all its ramifications by an exhaustive enumeration and classification of every conceivable consequence. His aim was to make morals and legislation as precise and certain as the physical sciences. For this purpose, he saw that quantitative propositions were necessary. He did not stop to enquire whether quantity was applicable at all to pleasure and pain; he assumed that it was; and, perhaps, the assumption was correct. Neither did he seek too curiously for a standard of measurement of these quantities, such as every physical science possesses for its purposes. Even in the exact observations which instruments of precision render possible in the physical sciences, allowance has to be made for the personal equation of the observer. But Bentham almost disregarded the personal equation, even in matters of feeling. He did not adequately allow for the difference of individual susceptibilities, or for the degree in which they change in a single lifetime and in the history of the race; nor did he avoid the fallacy of arguing as if one man’s pleasure were always a safe guide for another. Just as he assumed that men were constantly controlled by intellectual considerations, so here, he also assumes that men are much more alike than they really are: and the two assumptions account for many of the weaknesses, and even absurdities, of his projects.

Later utilitarians have avoided some of these difficulties by laying stress on the importance, in personal and social life, of the permanent objects which are sources of pleasure, rather than upon particular pleasant experiences. Bentham himself, in another work, follows similar lines in enumerating four subordinate ends in which the happiness of society consists. These are subsistence, abundance, equality and security. Subsistence and security are the most important of the four: “without security equality could not last a day; without subsistence abundance could not exist at all.” With subsistence and abundance, law has little or no direct concern:

  • You may order production; you may command cultivation; and you will have done nothing. But assure to the cultivator the fruits of his industry, and perhaps in that alone you will have done enough.
  • Bentham’s treatment of equality is remarkable for certain “pathological propositions” (as he calls them) which he lays down regarding the effect of wealth upon happiness. But the chief care of law is security; and the principle of security extends to the maintenance of all those expectations which law itself has created. Security, one may say, is a necessity for social life and for any moderate degree of human happiness; equality is rather of the nature of a luxury, which legislation should promote when it does not interfere with security. As for liberty, it is not one of the principal objects of law, but a branch of security, and a branch which law cannot help pruning. Rights of any kind, especially rights of property, can be created or maintained only by restricting liberty; “in particular all laws creative of liberty, are, as far as they go, abrogative of liberty.”

    These suggestions point to a better way of estimating value than the enumeration of separate pleasures and pains. But the latter is Bentham’s prevailing method; and he brings into clear light a point which, on any theory such as his, should not be obscured—the difference between the greatest happiness of an individual and the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Even Bentham hesitates, both in his earlier and in his later writings, to assert that it is each man’s duty to promote the happiness of all. How, indeed, can it be so, in Bentham’s view, unless there is sufficient motive to require such conduct? He says that a man is never without motives to act in this direction; he has the social motive of sympathy and the semisocial motive of love of reputation. But a man may have, and commonly has, motives which tend in a different direction and may render those insufficient or powerless. The divergence may be read between the lines of the halting sentences in which Bentham speaks of the coincidences between private ethics and legislation. There is no mental fusion between the two classes of motives (the selfish and the social); there is no natural identity between the courses of conduct to which they tend; the identification of self-interest with public interest can only be brought about artificially by means of superadded pleasures and pains, especially the latter. These are the sanctions of the principle of utility, which Bentham reduces to four: the physical, the political, the popular (or moral) and the religious. The physical sanction results from natural law, and is exemplified by the headache that follows intemperance: it sanctions prudence, but not benevolence. The popular sanction results from the ill-will of society in any of its non-political expressions; it is often a powerful deterrent, but it is apt to be variable and inconsistent, and it has no exact correspondence with public interest. On the religious sanction, Bentham does not rely. There remains the political sanction, the rewards and punishments employed by society organised as a state. But rewards count for little. The whole weight of the doctrine that general happiness is the rule of right and wrong for individual conduct thus rests upon the penal law; it is the “duty-and-interest-junction-prescribing principle.” And this principle, also, is found to be imperfect. Even when punishment is neither groundless nor needless, there are cases in which it would be inefficacious and others in which it would be unprofitable—by causing more unhappiness than it would avert. In general, it can compel probity but it cannot compel beneficence. Thus, the doctrine of sanctions fails to establish the thesis of utilitarianism that general happiness is the rule of right. And the failure is not covered by the retort: “If the thunders of the law prove impotent, the whispers of simple morality can have but little influence.”

    In the preface to his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham gave a list of the works which he had in preparation or contemplation and in which his great design would be completed. According to this list, works were to follow on the principles of legislation in the following nine matters: civil law; penal law; procedure; reward; constitutional law; political tactics (that is, rules for the direction of political assemblies so that they may attain the end of their institution); international law; finance; political economy; and these were to be followed by a tenth treatise, giving a complete plan of law in all its branches, in respect of its form, including all that properly belongs to the topic of universal jurisprudence. In the course of his life, he dealt with all these subjects, as well as with many others, in separate works. In the more important and complete of his works, he depended on the literary assistance of Dumont and others. But the ideas and the method were always his own. For the exposure of the anomalies of English law, and for the elaboration of a rational and businesslike system to serve as a model for its reform, he deserves almost the sole credit.

    Bentham’s power was derived from the combination in his mind of two qualities—the firm grasp of a single principle, and a truly astonishing mastery of details. Every concrete situation was analysed into its elements and these followed out into all their ramifications. The method of division and subdivision was artificial; but it tended to clearness and exhaustiveness, and it could be applied to any subject. Whatever did not yield to this analysis was dismissed as “vague generality.” Applying this method with infinite patience, he covered the whole field of ethics, jurisprudence and politics. Everything in human nature and in society was reduced to its elements, and then reconstructed out of these elements. And, in each element, only one feature counted, whether in respect of force or of value—its quantum of pleasure or pain. The whole system would have been upset if an independent qualitative distinction between pleasures had been allowed, such as Plato contended for, or John Stuart Mill afterwards attempted to introduce into utilitarianism. “Quantity of pleasure being equal,” says Bentham, “pushpin is as good as poetry.” As regards the principle itself, there was no opportunity for originality: Hume had suggested its importance to his mind; Priestley had shown its use in political reasoning; he picked up the formula from Beccaria; and in his exposition of its nature there is, perhaps, nothing that had not been stated already by Helvétius. But the relentless consistency and thoroughness with which he applied it had never been anticipated; and this made him the founder of a new and powerful school.