Bentham and Mill: The Utilitarian Movement

Two of the most important political thinkers impacting the 19th century were Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who represent the first outstanding figures of the utilitarian movement. Their influence, like the influence of Darwin was already being felt in the political world by the time of the American Civil War, but in America the full impact of their thought was not felt into later, though the political tendencies they represent are archetypically American.

Jeremey Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was born more than a century before the American civil war and died the year after De Tocqueville visited America. He is credited with being the founder of Utilitarianism, a movement whose most famous exponent is John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s father was a lawyer, and Bentham was a child prodigy—brilliant from his youth. Like others we have studied, Bentham studied but quickly became disillusioned by the law, preferring legal theory and philosophy to the daily drudgery of legal practice. He never married, lived alone, and after his father’s death was able to devote his life to scholarship. [1]

Enlightenment Skepticism. Bentham was deeply influenced by Hume’s skepticism about religion and knowledge and by Bentham’s political theory. He was an empiricist, connecting all knowledge to sense impressions, a nominalist, denying the reality of universal concepts, a hedonist, building his ethical theory on pleasure, and inclined to distrust tradition, as is characteristic of Enlightenment figures. His movement towards utilitarianism began while listening to the lectures of the British jurist, William Blackstone, who was a defender of the common law and natural law traditions. He came to believe that there is no natural law apart from human decisions, making him a forerunner of what is called “Legal Positivism,” that is that all law is man-made.

Bentham was deeply influenced by the French Enlightenment and embodies many of its fundamental ideas. He was deeply skeptical of tradition, optimistic about the powers of human reason, confident of the human capacity to structure a better society, and saw no need for religious faith in building a human life. He believed in the Enlightenment ideal of progress, which is achieved by a consistent process of rationally seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

Egoistic Hedonism. Underlying Bentham’s work is an “egoistic hedonism.” The primary motive of human action is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. He rejects any kind of fundamental social relationship between people, and embraces what might be called, “modern radical individualism.” Communities are merely combinations of individuals seeking their own self-interest. The identity of a community is simply the sum of the interests of the individuals that compose it. For Bentham, human beings are “social monads” bound together by passing hedonistic encounters of self-interest motivated by natural desire and restrained by rational calculation of interest and human law.

One can stop here and reflect that Bentham rejects the entire classical picture of human beings as embedded in a family and society and emerging from the influences of that family and society. He fails to see how much his views are formed under the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers and community to which he himself belongs. He ignores the facts of the way in which human beings are in fact formed, preferring a radical individualism in which human beings are monads, cut off from one another, joining in social relationships for the purpose of achieving their own pleasure. In such a view of human nature, human beings become radically individual and human striving is to be solely constrained by the power of the state. It is the limitations and ultimate danger of this particular view of human nature and society that is the constant subject of this series of blogs.

Utilitarian Principle. Given the radical individualism Bentham accepts, he believes that societies can only be wisely structured around the “utilitarian principle” that the approves an action, social structure, or political decision based upon whether it increases or decreases the pleasure of the parties impacted, in other words whether it effects the greatest happiness or good for the greatest number of those impacted by the decision.

Utilitarian Calculus. Bentham created a “utilitarian calculus,” a potentially quantitative way in which a utilitarian might calculate the correct decision on the basis of what we might call “a reductive utilitarian calculus” consisting of the intensity, duration, certainty, and propinquity of the anticipated pleasure or avoided pain. On matters of social consequence, the task was to calculate the anticipated results for the greatest number of people. As a radical individualist, Bentham does not believe that there is any “Group Interest” or “Common Good” separate from the goods of individuals, which for social decision making are simply added together and averaged for the purpose of public policy.

It is this aspect of what might be called “Simplistic Utilitarianism” that is most subject to criticism. On practical grounds, such a calculus is impossible not just for individuals, who often do not know or understand what is in their best interests, and for societies, who are even less subject to such a reductive calculation. More fundamentally, the calculating the good of individuals and then the good of mass numbers of people in a modern society is practically impossible. It is also theoretically impossible. Human beings are simply not subject to such a reductive analysis as Bentham proposes. Human beings are inclined towards rapidly changing ideas of what might bring them pleasure and human freedom makes such a calculation impossible.

Bentham did not originate the fundamental ideas of utilitarianism, which he took from Hume, Hutcheson, and others, but he was its most brilliant and systematic popularizer and employed the method as a part of his pollical and social critiques of the status quo in England and Europe. The culture, history, traditions, and existing social structures of a society all must be judged and modified strictly according to the utilitarian principle. Denying traditional morality and natural law, Bentham was left without a theoretical basis to deny the application of power to any social issue, a position that would be further embedded in American jurisprudence by Oliver Wendall Holmes and the “legal realist” movement we will look at in subsequent blogs.

John Stewart Mill

John Stuart Mill’s life (1806-1875) spans the period before and immediately after the American Civil War. Mill’s father became a follower of Jeremy Bentham shortly after Mills’ birth. Mill was early indoctrinated into the thought of Bentham and the Utilitarian principle. At seventeen, he attended Bentham’s lectures and founded the “Utilitarian Society.” Mill was rigorously educated under the care of his father, and studied law under the Benthamite legal thinker, John Austin. In adulthood, after a brief period of rethinking his commitments, he became the primary and still most famous and influential follower of Bentham and defender of the Utilitarian principle. He was never a professional philosopher, but employed his entire life by the East India Company.

In his early twenties, Mill suffered a “mental crisis” in which he was forced to confront the danger of the “dissolving effect” of analysis on reason and human happiness. Mill’s father, whom he loved and respected, neglected the moral and emotional side of his son’s education, making reason his religion. Mill was to say that Bentham and his father made Utilitarianism into a “a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy, a religion.” [2] He was left without emotions and moral sentiments important for a balanced human life. He recognized that there were problems with his education and with the views of Bentham and his father. When he emerged from the crisis, Mill defended a more moderate form of utilitarianism than Bentham. There have been questions about the exact nature of Mill’s relationship with the Anglican church and with Christian faith. There are those who believe he was an agnostic. Others believe that he had a friendly relationship (which he did) with the Anglican church, having a close friend who was an Anglican priest, giving generously, attending frequently, and near the end of his life taking on some small responsibility. [3]

Rejection of Bentham’s Moral Calculus

Mill rejected Bentham’s moral calculus formula, which Mill felt was impossible for reasons already mentioned. Fundamentally, Mill rejected Bentham’s quantitative approach for a qualitative approach that judges pleasures according to their “higher” or “lower” quality. One cannot simply judge pleasure as a generic concept according to a fixed formula. A moment’s reflection shows that Mill is correct. Is there any kind of commensurability between the pleasure of eating a good meal, watching a baseball game, playing a game of cards or chess, winning a court case, reading a great novel, discovering a cure for cancer, solving a social problem, and contemplating the Eternal Goodness, Beauty, and Justice of God? How could one compare them in such a way as to judge between them? Obviously, the task is impossible.

Rejection of Totalitarian Majoritarianism

Mill also recognized that Bentham’s formulation of the Utility Principle was subject to misuse by majorities to create a form of majoritarian tyranny.  Mill formulated his version of utilitarianism with a strong ideal of the importance of human freedom and liberty, which liberty states are not to infringe upon to the maximum extent possible. His work, On Liberty will be the subject of another blog. In my view, Mill is correct in this fears that the utilitarian principle can and sometimes is used in ways that actually undermine the kind of liberty that both Bentham and Mill are trying to defend. Mill’s formulation is more humane and sensitive to the human person than is Bentham’s formula but both suffer from the defect inherent in the principle itself. The principle is best conceived as a principle of decision among policy alternatives, not an ultimate principle of political decision per se. In other words, lacking a notion of the common good that is beyond a calculation of individual self-interest, there is not overarching notion of the Common Good to guide policy makers.

A Christian Utilitarianism?

In Utilitarianism, Mill defends his doctrine against religious objections in a most original and profound way:

If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other. If it be meant that utilitarianism does not recognize the revealed will of God as the supreme law of morals, I answer that a utilitarian who believes that whatever God has thought fit to reveal on any subject of morals must fulfill the requirements of utility in a supreme degree. But others besides utilitarians have been of the opinion that the Christian revelation was intended, and is fitted to inform the hearts and minds of mankind with a spirit which should enable them to find for themselves what is right, and incline them to do it when found, rather than to tell them except in a very general way, that we need a doctrine of ethics, carefully followed out to interpret to us the will of God. [4]

There is a great deal in this section of Mill’s Utilitarianism, with which a Christian can agree. Mill is correct that the human race was created for happiness, and a Christian can accept this postulate with the provisothat relationships with God, other human beings, and creation are all grounds for human pleasure and the achievement of the kind of happiness human beings were created to enjoy.

Christians would also agree that God did not create human beings as “automons” who mindlessly follow a set of prescribed rules. This, in fact, is the exact critique Jesus made of the religious leaders of their own day, who substituted obedience to a set of rules for service to God and others in love. Both Kantian conception of duty and the Utilitarian concept of maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number of people can be incorporated into a functional Christian approach to politics and morality, which requires Christians to act in wisdom and love towards God, themselves, their community, and the world.


We will return to Mill when we look at his defense of individual liberty in On Liberty. For now, it is enough to remember the basics of his approach to morals and public policy, and to internalize the truth that is embodied in the utilitarian principle: those who must make political decisions are often forced to make decisions in unclear and morally difficult circumstances. In such circumstances, the choice between options may boil down to which choice has the maximum potential to increase human happiness and minimize harm.

The utilitarian impulse also reminds policy makers and those who implement policy that there are limits to what can be accomplished, however worthy the goal. The inevitable limitations on the power of government and policy makers forces utilitarian calculations concerning how much power and political capital should be spent on any given initiative given the likely potential of the initiative to increase human happiness or avoid human suffering.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Much of this blog as it relates to Bentham is based upon “Jeremy Bentham” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (downloaded November 30, 2021).

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V; Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968). I have relied on the introduction for the quotations from Mill.

[3] See, Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (Oxford England: Oxford University Press, 2018.)

[4] John Stewart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York, NY: Bobbs Merrill, 1967). 28.

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