CHAPTER 1 UTILITY ( Bentham's Theory of Utility )

Updated: Sep 2, 2020



Bentham's Theory of Utility

Bentham' s book ' The Theor y of Legislat ion' is a masterpiece in the field of law. Bentham's objective is to educate the legislators and to provide them with a sound philosophy broad-based on the theory of Utilitarianism. Legislation is a science and an art . It i s a science as it contains certain basic principles to do good to the community and it is an art when it provides for the various means to achieve the good. The objecti ve of the legi slator mast be to do publi c good. He may base his reasons on general utility. Utility is the basis of Bentham's theory. The principles of utility form the basis of his reasoning, On an analysis of the principles of utility, we find that all our ideas, judgements and determinations spring from certain motives: pleasure and pain.


It is the duty of t he moralists and t he legislators to make a great study of these two concepts pleasure and pain. Utility is an abstract term. It expresses some propensity or tendency of a thing to prevent some evil or to do some good. Evil is pain or the cause of pain. Good is pleasure or the cause of pleasure. Hence, anything which conforms to this utility, brings happiness to the individual. The legislat or must have the objective to augment t he tot al sum of the happiness of the individuals that form the community.

Utility is the first principle-the first link in the chain. The legislators reasoning for making a particular law, must be based on this principle.


Utility has a commendable logic behind it. In making law, the legislator must calculate or compare the pleasure or the pain that it brings about. Her e pl easure & pai n are used i n t he or di nar y meani ng i . e. , what everybody feels when put in a situation it is the experience of the peasant and the prince, the unlearned and the philosopher. Utility as a principle has its essence in the virtue and the vice. Virtue is good as it brings pleasures, vice is bad as it brings evil. Moral good is good as it brings pleasure to the man, Moral evil is bad as it brings pai n to the man. The legi slat or who beli eves in t he t heory of ut i li ty, fi nds, in t heprocess of l aw-maki ng, a number of t hese virt ues and evil s, that the proposed law may bring about. His objective must be to bring more virtue, He must also distinguish pretended virtues and evils from the real virtues and evils. These are t he facets of the concept of ut i l i t y and based on t hi s exposition Bentham develops his philosophy of utilitarianism. His works 'the theory of legislation' and 'Introduction to the principles of Morals and Legislation', form a manual of instructions to a legislator. A knowledge of these, makes the legislator appreciate the moral and legal philosophies of Bentham and also to get an insight into the sociology of law.


Ch. 1-2 Objections to Utility

(a) Bentham is rightly called the Partriarch & the chief exponent of the theory of utilitarianism. His principle of utility, based on pleasure & pain-is applied by him, to explain the basis of political obligations; it is the end objective of Govt. and legislation. Man obeys the law and lives in a politically organised society for it is the best way of securing his interests and happiness. In fact, political life is based on the principles of utility. Hence, Laws, the measures of the Government, political institutions and rights are to be judged and justified according to the principles of utility. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the basi« of utility.


(b) Objections : Though this theory is sound and practicable some objections have been raised.

i) Some trifling objections may be raised based on verbal difficulties. These are not substantial, but still require careful attention.


ii) The l anguage used to explain the result of ut il ity is virt ue. But this is objected to on the ground that Virtue' is generally understood as opposed to utility. According to Bentham this is not correct. Virtue is the sacrifice of a less interest to a greater, from a doubtful to a certain definite interest. Hence, the place of virtue is secured. If a person calculates badly, and at a wrong result, the mistake is not that of arithmetic but the man. This is true in respect of virtue.


iii) It is commented that the principle of utility is only a revival of epicureanism (Phiosophy of Epicure, Greek philosopher : who tought pleasure was the chief good). This is not true, according to Bentham. The epicurian doctrine had damaged the basis of morals & moral values. It was a dangerous concept, and, has nothing to do with utility.

iv) What is utility is judged by each person and hence, it is objected that it loses its force. Bentham points out that man is a rational being and hence, must have this faculty otherwise he would be an idiot.


v) The next object ion is put on the basis of the rel igious pr incipl e; the will of God; it is universal, sovereign and decides the good and evil. Hence, it is the onl y rule. Bentham answers this by saying that the will of God is expressed by man by presuming what it would be. That is why revelations or gospels are different. Hence, this objection is not correct.


vi ) The next obj ect i on i s t hat when ut i l i t y i s t o be f ol l owed i n politics, there would be a difference. The aim of good morals is different from the aim of politics. Bentham answers saying that the ultimate aim of both is securing happiness.


vii) The next objection is, that which is useful may not be just and honest. This is not so. The collective idea is important.

viii) Lastly it may promote opprtunism in people because under a contract a person can commit a breach for his own advantage. This is also not true Bentham sa ys. It i s the util it y of contr act which is the force to it, riot the agreement itself.


Alternative :

There is no alternative to the principle of utility. What is the substitute? Bentham asks, is it a (1) despotic principle or (2) a capricious principle on the feelings of individuals ? Hence, utilitarism is the best and the only solution Bentham claims.

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