Practical Application of Bentham’s Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is based upon the idea that all humans are governed by two sovereign masters-pleasure and pain. The theory is descriptive as well as prescriptive in nature. On one hand, it describes how actions of human beings are aimed towards maximising the pleasure and minimising the pain, and on other it prescribes or advocates such actions. In this article, the implication of this concept will be discussed by way of certain examples. If we see the application of Benthamite version of Utilitarianism over real life situations, we see a clash of values. This clash is parallel to the objective idea of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. To understand the practical nuance of this theory, let us examine it in the background of two examples.

Mr. X v. Hospital Z, is one of the cases where this theory was applied from a collective perspective. The values that clashed were ‘Right to privacy’ of the patient and ‘Right to be informed’ of the relative concerned. The court observed that ‘Right to be informed’ overrides the ‘Right to privacy’ of the patient. It favoured the right which is inclined towards the public interest. The objective was to uphold the values which ultimately maximize the pleasure of the public.

Bentham’s idea is only quantitative and not qualitative. According to him, no activity is inherently just or unjust. However, certain acts such as good artistic music are considered to be superior in quality as compared to act such as habitually consuming liquor. This can be further understood by taking example of item dances in Bollywood and classical dance forms. It has been found that the item dances are more pleasurable to the majority as compared to classical dance forms. The dilemma that arises here is because the state has limited resources and can promote only one of them. In such a situation which dance form should the state promote? Benthamite version of Utilitarianism would certainly opt for item dances because the majority derives more pleasure out of it. It can be concluded that according to Bentham there exists no qualitative difference between different pleasures or pains. It only justifies one pleasure over another by choosing the act which the majority finds more pleasurable.

Moreover, one inherent flaw of the theory is that events like Genocide can be justified under it. For instance, if the majority feels that minority is causing disruptions and eliminating them would bring peace, such elimination is justified under Bentham’s theory.  Also, removal of racial, ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group, will be justified because the idea of making the entire population ethnically homogeneous might please the majority.

These practical nuances of Benthamite version of Utilitarianism delineate the bitter fact that if the majority finds pleasure in oppressing a minority section of society, it is justified in doing so. Hence, these examples call for a proper analysis of Utilitarianism as advanced by Bentham in light of making room for qualitative differences as well. This theory was critiqued on this basis and the aspect of qualitative differences in different acts was addressed by John Stuart Mill, whose theory will be discussed in the forthcoming posts.

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