Jeremy Bentham

Start Free Trial

What is the meaning of the passage below? And what is the importance of Utilitarianism? "Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community".

Utilitarians believed that by adding up the degree and quantity of pleasure and pain experienced by individuals as a consequence of an action one can calculate the total moral goodness or badness of that action.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Utilitarianism was a moral philosophy initially developed by Jeremy Bentham (15 February 1748 – 6 June 1832) and elaborated on by John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873). It is important because it attempted to put ethics on a purely rational basis, independent of religion and sentimentality and develop a rational scheme by which one could weigh the relative moral value of choices by calculating how the outcomes of said choices would create total quantities of pain and pleasure for human beings in a given community.

Utilitarianism sees pleasure as good and pain as bad. It attempts to quantify the pleasure and pain experienced by each person and by a mathematical process calculate the total pain and pleasure that would result from an action. For example, it might balance the pain of many poor people starving against the pain of a few wealthy people paying higher taxes to calculate that some forms of wealth redistribution would decrease the total pain experienced by a community.

As an ethical system, Utilitarianism is a consequentialist one. It looks at actions as not having intrinsic moral values but rather believes that the value of an action was grounded not in the intentions of the person acting or in some inherent notions of virtue and vice but rather in the total amount of pain or pleasure caused by that action to the community as a whole.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team