Utilitarianism

by
Glenn Everett, Associate Professor of English, University of Tennessee at Martin



Utilitarianism is a natural consequence of the rationalism of the French
philosophes and the English materialism of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, and gets its
name from Jeremy Bentham's test question, "What is the use of it?" Bentham
(1748-1832), the father of this -ism, conceived the idea when he ran across the
words "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" in Joseph Priestly's Treatise
on Government. This phrase represents the heart of Utilitarianism (or
Benthamism), which attempted to reduce decision-making about human actions to a "felicific
calculus" by weighing the profit, convenience, advantage, benefit, emolument, and happiness that
would ensue from the action against the mischief, disadvantage, inconvenience, loss, and unhappiness
that it would also entail.

Thus described, the philosophy seems to make a good deal of sense. Combined with the
laissez-faire approach to business (the child of David Ricardo and James Mill) and Malthusian
ideas on the increase of population, it constituted the basis of the Philosophical Radical party, which
was responsible for a number of democratic reforms in the first few decades of the nineteenth
century. It was not until the New Poor Law of 1834 (sponsored by the Benthamites) that the
formulaic heartlessness of this philosophy became obvious, as parish relief for the poor (a system
that had indeed broken down as the result of the shift of population following the industrial
revolution) was replaced by workhouses, which quickly became known as "Poor Law Bastilles."
Throughout the century, a wide range of thinkers and political groups opposed utilitarian thought and
the associated classical economics.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) very movingly describes his education under Utilitarian principles in his
Autobiography (1873) and his eventual dissatisfaction with them. To a great extent he humanized
utilitarianism, which had a profound effect upon the socialist movement of the '80s and '90s.

The most important documents associated with the movement are:

Adam Smith , The Wealth of Nations, 1776.
Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789.
Thomas Robert Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.
David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1817.
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1861.
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, 1873.



Selected Bibliography

John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism (text at vt.edu)