Based on the assumption that morally right actions are bound to produce the most good, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill reinterpreted Epicurus’ pleasure-centered moral theory in such a way to identify a new set of moral principles that would promote happiness and well-being. As the founder of classical utilitarianism, Bentham argued that since mankind is governed by two powerful masters, namely pleasure and pain, human beings can easily determine what should and should not be done by letting these two forces define what is right and what is wrong (Bentham 6) . Simply put, the principle of utility acknowledges mankind’s subjection to pleasure and pain, making it the basis of a new system whose main purpose is to promote happiness through reason and legislation (Bentham 6). Similarly to Bentham, Mill observed that the extent to which an action is right depends on the amount of happiness it promotes, whereas wrong actions tend to produce the reverse of happiness, meaning that the more one strives to achieve pleasure – intended as freedom from pain – the more ethically right their actions will be, especially if his / her actions end up benefitting the greatest number of people (Mill 5). In an attempt to legitimize his theory, Bentham developed a method to calculate the value of pain and pleasure which relies on certain variables – i.e. duration, intensity, certainty, propinquity, fecundity and how many people will be affected by the action – to help individuals make the right moral decision.

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Fortunately, experience also plays a key role in teaching us the difference between right and wrong, thus allowing us to identify the most beneficial course of action without having to keep track of the aforementioned variables. For example, both human logic and experience dictate that the pleasure of damaging someone else’s property for no reason is significantly outweighed by the pain inflicted on that person. According to Shelley (254), hedonists’ argument that wellbeing can only exist when pain is absent doesn’t hold water. The philosopher points out that in order for hedonism to actually help people be well off, we should first identify the objective goods that make up “well-being”; for instance, we could say that having friends, having money and being loved by someone else are objectively good accomplishments as they all contribute to one’s wellbeing. So what if we didn’t want any friends? Would our decision result in greater happiness or sadness? On the one hand, one could argue that since having friends is an objective good, our decision would make us miserable. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out that according to Bentham and Mill, we are naturally inclined to pursue happiness and pleasure, which means that every decision we make should automatically increase our happiness.

In his critique of utilitarianism, Williams points out that the main problem with Bentham’s moral theory is that it provides apparently obvious solutions to all kinds of dilemmas, without considering that some people are and want to be responsible for their own actions, rather than for the actions of others (Smart and Williams 75). Williams uses a simple and yet clear example to support his claim: George needs money and is offered a job that would require him to conduct research concerning biological and chemical warfare (Smart and Williams 97). George thinks that biological and chemical warfare is wrong; however, the man who had offered him the job in the first place points out that if he refuses the job, a much more ruthless candidate may take it, thus causing it even more damage to society. Now, a utilitarian would certainly advise George to accept the job for this is the only right answer to his dilemma. So what if he refused to work for an organization that he deems morally corrupt? Would it be acceptable for him to listen to his conscience, or should sacrifice his own integrity for the sake of “utility”? George’s dilemma goes to show that some right actions may not produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and that some apparently unethical actions may produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Slavery in the United States is an excellent example of this. Despite slavery being morally wrong, slaves played a key role in promoting economic growth and prosperity in the South, thus contributing to the wellbeing of millions of people. When traders started importing slaves from Africa, Southern farmers were struggling to maximize their productivity as they did not have enough manpower to work the fields. With its fertile soil and dry climate, the South had become an agrarian society, whose members relied on cotton, wheat, tobacco, sugar and rice to earn a living.

In the early 1790s, Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin, a revolutionary machine that separated cotton fibers from their sticky seeds, thus making cotton farming easier, faster and more profitable. While the cotton gin enabled farmers to process large amounts of short-staple cotton in a quick and efficient manner, the cotton still had to be picked by hand. As northern cotton manufacturers’ demand for cotton grew, southern entrepreneurs started seeing slavery as an excellent way to boost their productivity. Both large and small-scale farmers started buying African slaves to work their plantations, thus contributing to the economic development of the entire region. From a utilitarian perspective, slavery was not wrong as the number of people who benefitted from slaves’ labor greatly exceeded the number of slaves who were deprived of their freedom and most basic rights. In fact, one could even argue that many slaves’ lives improved as a result of slavery as many of them came from extremely poor regions to begin with, and were bought by benevolent masters who provided them with food, shelter and protection. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson admitted that while slavery was unjust, its social and economic benefits made it very difficult to decide whether to abolish it or not, for justice was in one scale and social / economic stability in the other. Any utilitarian would have said that since slavery was productive of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the right thing to do was to preserve it. However, slavery is intrinsically unethical, unfair and unjust, especially when it extends across generations.

Similarly to slavery, gay marriage is a controversial issue that cannot possibly be addressed from a utilitarian perspective. On the one hand, reproduction is essential to the survival of mankind, as well as to the correct functioning of society and the economy. If all human beings stopped reproducing all of sudden, it would only take a few decades for mankind to go extinct. On top of that, gay marriage upsets numerous people, especially across the Middle East where religion still governs nearly every aspect of human life and homosexuality is widely perceived as offensive. In view of these consideration, the right action would be to ban gay marriage in order to prevent the greatest number of people from experiencing pain, unhappiness or discomfort only because a limited number of individuals want to marry their gay partners. On the other hand, the arbitrariness of outlawing gay marriage and treating non-reproducing gay couples as second-class couples is absolutely unethical as it would have a very negative impact on a small percentage of the population. It follows that there are situations when only an ethically wrong action / decision can produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

  • Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 2010. Accessed 9 June 2017.
  • Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. 2010.
    Accessed 9 June 2017.
  • Shelley, Kagan. “Well-being as Enjoying the Good.” Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 23, no. 1,
    2009, pp. 253-272.
  • Smart, J.J.C. and Bernard Williams. Utilitarianism: For and Against. Cambridge: Cambridge
    University Press. 1973.