`Remarks on Bentham's Philosophy'

By John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill (J.M. Dent ed.), Utilitarianism, On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government, Everyman's Library, 1993 (new ed.).

About the correctness of the greatest happiness principle

No proof indeed can be given that we ought to abide by these laws [ie other moral principles]; but neither can any proof be given, that we ought to regulate our conduct by utility. All that can be said is, that the pursuit of happiness is natural to us; and so, it is contended, is the reverence for, and the inclination to square our actions by, certain general laws of morality.(p. 430; cf. Utilitarianism, ch. 4)

Poor Understanding of Other Philosophers

The greatest of Mr Bentham's defects, his insufficient knowledge and appreciation of the thoughts of other men, shows itself constantly in his grappling with some delusive shadow of an adversary's opinion, and leaving the actual substance unharmed. (p. 431)

Mr Bentham was more a thinker than a reader; he seldom compared his ideas with those of other philosophers, and was by no means aware how many thoughts had existed in other minds, which his doctrines did not afford the means either to refute or to appreciate. (p. 445)

[cf. similar remarks in `Bentham']

Overlooking the importance of character and motives

Now, the great fault I have to find with Mr Bentham as a moral philosophy, [...] is this: that he has practically, to a very great extent, confounded the principle of Utility with the principle of specific consequences, and has habitually made up his estimate of the approbation or blame due to a particular kind of action, from a calculation solely of the consequences to which that very action, if practised generally, would itself lead. [...] It is not considered (at least, not habitually considered,) whether the act or habit in question, though not in itself necessarily pernicious, may not form part of a character essentially pernicious, or at least essentially deficient in some quality eminently conducive to the `greatest happiness'. [...]
When the moralist thus overlooks the relation of an act to a certain state of mind as its cause, and its connexion through that common cause with large classes and groups of actions apparently very little resembling itself, his estimation even of the consequences of the very act itself, is rendered imperfect. (p. 432-3)

Science of law

What Bacon did for physical knowledge, Mr Bentham has done for philosophical legislation. Before Bacon's time, many physical facts had been ascertained; and previously to Mr Bentham, mankind were in possession of many just and valuable detached observations on the making of laws. But he was the first who attempted regularly to deduce all the secondary and intermediate principles of law, by direct and systematic inference from the one great axiom or principle of general utility. [...] Mr Bentham was the first who had the genius and courage to conceive the idea of bringing back the science to first principles. (p. 433)

Omission of conscience in the list of motives

In his list of motives, though he includes sympathy, he omits conscience, or the feeling of duty; one would never imagine from reading him that any human being ever did an act merely because it is right, or abstained from it merely because it is wrong.

Defective theory of human nature

In laying down as a philosophical axiom, that men's actions are always obedient to their interest, Mr Bentham did no more that dress up the very trivial proposition that all persons do what they feel themselves most disposed to do [...]. He by no means intended by this assertion to impute universal selfishness to mankind, for he reckoned the motive of sympathy as an interest [...]. He distinguished two kinds of interest, the self-regarding and the social: in vulgar discourse, the name is restricted to the former kind alone. [...] (p. 440)
By the promulgation of such views of human nature [ie predominantly selfish nature], and by a general tone of thought and expression perfectly in harmony with them, I conceive Mr Bentham's writings to have done and to be doing very serious evil. [...] (p. 441)
There are, there have been, many human beings, in whome the motives of patriotism or of benevolence have been permanent steady principles of action, superior to any ordinary, and in not a few instances, to any possible, temptations of personal interest. [...] [T]he effect of such writings as Mr Bentham's, if they be read and believed and their spirit imbibed, must either be hopeless despondency and gloom, or a reckless giving themselves up to a life of that miserable self-seeking, which they are there taught to regard as inherent in their original and unalterable nature. [...] (pp. 443-4)
The prevailing error of Mr Bentham's views of human nature appears to me to be this -- he supposes mankind to be swayed by only a part of the inducements which really actuate them; but of that part he imagines them to be much cooler and more thoughtful calculators than they really are. (p. 444)


KODAMA Satoshi <kodama@ethics.bun.kyoto-u.ac.jp>
Last modified: Fri Jan 28 06:52:53 JST 2000