Theory of Utilitarianism

One of the theories in jurisprudence that takes into account the inherent nature of human beings is the theory of Utilitarianism proposed by Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher, economist and theoretical jurist born in 1748. He says that all humans are governed by two sovereign masters – pleasure and pain. Thus, all human actions are taken with the objective either of enhancing pleasure or diminishing pain. The direct purpose behind any action may not appear to be the maximisation of pleasure or minimisation of pain, but if we persistently look for the real purpose and follow the chain of reasoning, we would discover that they lead back to these two indicators.

The question now arises, what is utility in relation to these two indicators? Utility is the tendency to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. The principle of utility approves of all actions having the tendency to augment pleasure and disapproves of all actions having the tendency to diminish happiness of the party in question. Bentham was a firm believer of the fact that if we are designed to act in this way, then it is just for us to conform to the principle of utility.

Bentham did not limit himself to the individual and extended the same idea to the collective. Thus, any state policy or action which resulted in increasing collective pleasure was deemed to be just, while any state policy or action which diminished collective pleasure was deemed to be unjust. In other words, utilitarianism advocates for the greatest good of the greatest number.

Merits of this theory

The inclusive nature of this theory is evident from the fact that collective pleasure is calculated with each individual taken as a unit. Everyone is counted in the calculation, and it does not allow marginalisation of any person or community by distancing them from the calculation.

Also, no pleasure is worthier, nobler or more valuable than another and everyone’s pleasure is given equal importance. All reasons for an action are equally valid as long as they provide pleasure. This makes the theory objective and adds to it an egalitarian charm.

Additionally, this theory combines the element of the essence of human existence and justice.

Demerits of this theory

Bentham’s idea of utilitarianism is quantitative and not qualitative. The only distinction between pleasures or actions can be made quantitatively, on the basis of the total pleasure derived. He makes no distinction between pleasures or actions qualitatively, meaning that no activity is inherently just or unjust. This becomes problematic since certain acts, like appreciating a good book, seem to be superior in quality to others, like abusing drugs. He does not take into account the intrinsic nature of the activity.

Bentham does not take into account different magnitudes of pleasures for an individual either. Each person is taken as a unit – experiencing either pleasure or pain. The fact that two individuals may not experience the same amounts of pleasure is not accounted for.

Bentham does not provide any conception of individual rights or liberties. Thus, Benthamite utilitarianism justifies majority rule and oppression of minorities. If the majority finds pleasure in oppressing the minority, the utilitarianism theory would justify the oppression. Genocide, ethnical cleansing, riots, persecution, etc., would be found valid in such a circumstance.

This is an examination of the theory of utilitarianism as explained by Jeremy Bentham. In our next post, we shall be doing an analysis of how other philosophers have interpreted this theory.

[This blog is authored by Sreelakshmi S., V year student at National Law University, Jodhpur under the guidance of Professor S.K. Kaushik].


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