Utilitarianism talks about political obligation from an absolutely distinct view. No divine theory to tell people to follow the king because he is the face of god, no Marxist theory to convert political obligation into social obligation. The utilitarian theory postulates that as human activity is essentially based on the element of utility evolved, likewise man takes into account the happiness and sorrow accruing from obeying the orders of the state and the political obligation depends purely on the element of utility inherent in it.

Utilitarianism is a significant school of thought, which also provides a solid base for political obligation as a mixture of ethical and political principles. A precise definition of utilitarianism acceptable to all cannot be given. It dominated the English political thought from middle of the 18th century to the middle of nineteenth century. David Hume was the founder of the utilitarian concept but it was Jeremy Bentham who made it so much popular. He came into contact with James Mill, Malthus and Ricardo, and brought into existence the group of thinkers whom today we call utilitarians. They firmly believed that all men invariably make all efforts for getting happiness because they were of the opinion that pleasure only is good and the action is right if it produces greatest happiness and the state is expected to make this greatest happiness reality.

Meaning of utilitarianism

Utilitarianism explains that humans intend to do only such tasks by which they can get pleasure or happiness. Pleasure provides a strong motive to the actions of an individual. According to the Encyclopaedia Americana, utilitarianism is “a principle or doctrine of ethics proclaiming that(only) what is useful is good, ad that usefulness(utility) can be rationally determined; and the political, economic, and social theories and policies are based on this theory.” Francis Hutcheson enunciated this idea in a more concrete form and defined it as ‘greatest pleasure of the greatest number’. Mill coined the term utilitarianism and this term was enunciated as the criterion of every action of the state based on utility.

Maxey says- “political institutions and public policies were not to be rated to be good or bad related to some visionary, and always arbitrary, conjecture of human rights and obligations, but more or less beneficial according to some fixed standard of utility in human affairs. By their fruits, not by their ideology should be judged.” The standard o futility was the satisfaction or happiness of the individual. Utilitarian is very much pragmatic and moreover it promoted morality as it judges the actions of an individual on the basis of outcome, if the action brings happiness to people, it is considered good and vice versa.

As far the legal aspect of utilitarianism is concerned, it postulates that all men aspire to be happy but the means applied by them to promote happiness are often contradictory. Persons may differ in their thinking and their way of getting of happiness, here comes the need of government. Certain actions are harmful to public happiness and those actions should be considered crimes and appropriate punishment should be awarded to the persons committing such crimes. After all, utilitarianism is about ‘greatest happiness of greatest number’.

From political point of view, utilitarianism supports democracy. The reason is obvious, it is impossible to get consensus on a particular way of getting happiness as people differ in their ideologies, so to get the happiness of greatest number, democratic majority rules. From ethical point of view, it works on the assumption that man is a sentient, emotional and sentimental creature who aspires for achieving happiness and avoid pain, is the solid base of utilitarianism.

Utilitarian thinkers and political obligation

Jeremy Bentham

Although David Hume is considered as the founder of utilitarianism but the real founder of utilitarian school of political philosophy was Jeremy Bentham. He condemned the English utilitarianism based on the hypotheses like natural law and natural rights and provided a novel pedestal to the classical liberalism which is termed as utilitarianism. He coined the term utility, no doubt that Hume and other thinkers also used the term ‘utility’ before Bentham but none of them could do it in scientific way. He himself confessed that he picked up the term from priestly.

According to Bentham, “utility is that property in any object whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness or to present the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” Bentham states that the principle of utility originates from the feeling of pleasure and pain. So everything is values in the terms of pleasure and pain. He also states that man should not take into account only his happiness but also the collective happiness of the greatest number of people. He felt that everyone is equal in society irrespective of his status and position in the society, so he was the supporter of individualism.

Bentham has mentioned two types of pleasures- simple and complex. Simple pleasures are in sense, wealth, skill etc while simple pains are involved in enmity, ill name etc and complex pain and pleasures arise out of these in one form or the other. He favoured voluntary nature of political obligation, he believed that the compulsion of political obligation fluctuated according to the intensity of utility intent in it. In other words, obligation is directly proportional to the utility. He also believed that if resistance to sovereign has utility, it was worthwhile and justified but not in the other case. For example, if sovereign makes unjust laws and enforces them with compulsion then it’s justified to go against sovereign as it has more utility and it will bring happiness to greatest number of people.

In the end, Bentham’s explanation is good enough but little ambiguous as people’s perception of pleasure varies from person to person and place to place. His theory of utility is based on wrong psychology. According to him, people are selfish and self centered and they only care for pleasure which is not always true and theory talks about ‘maximum happiness of maximum people’, here quantity has been taken care of but the quality has been ignored, which is to appropriate. Thus, utility as the basis of political obligation, as propounded by Jeremy Bentham, is illogical and impractical.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart mill was the son of James mill who was an intimate friend of Jeremy Bentham. He developed a deep attachment for utilitarianism and he was the greatest thinker of utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism, as propounded by Bentham, faced criticism by many critics, to reply to those criticisms, john made several amendments in utilitarianism. In fact, the utilitarianism enunciated by john mill is entirely different from that of Bentham.

Basically, john accepted the principles of Bentham but he made several changes in it. John mill defines utilitarianism as “the creed which accepts at the foundation of more utility on the greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended  pleasure and the absence of pain, by unhappiness is pain and absence of pleasure.” He modified the narrow concepts of utilitarianism to save it from the critics but he was so much engrossed in it to defend it that he almost murdered it.

The first modification mill made in utilitarianism was that pleasure differed not only in quantity but in quality too. In the words of mill,” it is better to be a human being satisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool and pig is of a different opinion, it is because they know their side of the question. The other party to the question knows both the sides.”

Bentham considered self interest as the basis of greatest happiness of greatest number whereas for mill, it is the interest of all. He is if the opinion that self regarding and other regarding should go together. It is quite clear that the attitude adopted by mill is superior to that of Bentham. Bentham said that all persons perform actions in order to obtain happiness and avoid pain. But mil propounded the concept of good life as something more than life devoted to pleasure. For him, moral ends are above happiness. Mill believed that sense of moral obligation could not be explained in terms of principle of utility. While Bentham accepted just external sanctions for constraining the individuals to promote general happiness, mill has mentioned both internal as well as external sanctions. He believed that internally every man possessed a feeling for the happiness of others and the maximum pleasure and joy accrue from collective pleasure. In other words, no one can get maximum pleasure only by his own happiness, the only way to get it is to make everyone happy. Bentham’s scope of utility was limited, he did not take liberty into concern but mill believed that liberty is necessary for utility. Everyone should enjoy liberty. The last thing mill modified was democracy can only be considered ideal form of government only when people had requisite character, i.e. there be a majority and they should agree on certain principles.

In the end, it’s visible that Mill’s modification advanced the concept of utilitarianism. He pleaded that it is the quality of pleasure not the quantity which should be the basis of political obligation. So his conception of utilitarianism is acceptable over that of Bentham.  


Vibhor Bajaj 
on 10 January 2017
Published in Students
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