The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill

The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill

The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill

The Classical Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill


This volume includes the complete texts of two of John Stuart Mill's most important works, UTILITARIANISM and ON LIBERTY, and selections from his other writings, including the complete text of his REMARKS ON BENTHAM'S PHILOSOPHY. The selection from Mill's A SYSTEM OF LOGIC is of special relevance to the debate between those who read Mill as an Act-Utilitarian and those who interpret him as a Rule-Utilitarian. Also included are selections from the writings of Jeremy Bentham, founder of modern Utilitarianism and mentor (together with James Mill) of John Stuart Mill. Bentham's PRINCIPLES OF MORALS AND LEGISLATION had important effects on political and legal reform in his own time and continues to provide insights for political theorists and philosophers of law. Seven chapters of Bentham's Principles are here in their entirety, together with a number of shorter selections, including one in which Bentham repudiates the slogan often used to characterise his philosophy: THE GREATEST HAPPINESS OF THE GREATEST NUMBER. John Troyer's Introduction presents the central themes and arguments of Bentham and Mill and assesses their relevance to current discussions of Utilitarianism. The volume also provides indexes, a glossary, and notes.


Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was an exceptionally able and influential philosopher, but he was also, in some ways, a rather strange man. He died in 1832, but he can still be seen, ensconced within a glass case, at University College, London. Bentham donated his cadaver for instructive dissection by T. Southwood Smith, a leading advocate for the legalization of such donations, but directed that his skeleton should be preserved. Bentham further requested that the skeleton be stuffed out to fit his clothing and preserved as what he dubbed an “auto-icon.” Technology being what it was, his executors had to settle for a wax model of his head, but the original remains and is kept separately, “preserved after the manner of South American head hunters.”

Bentham hoped that the preservation of his body, and its periodic display, would remind later generations of “the Founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation” and draw their attention to the virtues of that system. Bentham's hope has undoubtedly been realized, at least to some degree, but today his remains attract many fewer visitors than do the “auto-icons” of Lenin and Chairman Mao. Despite this, the greatest happiness system, as expounded in the writings of Bentham and Mill, is still widely influential, while the systems of Lenin and Mao are moribund.

The continuing vitality of the greatest happiness system is not difficult to understand—it embodies a very natural and compelling model of rationality. This model, which dominates much of contemporary economics (as well as decision theory, “cost-benefit analysis,” and “public choice theory”) sees rational action as an attempt to maximize net utility (i.e., the result of summing the benefits and costs and subtracting the latter from the former). This view, which is frequently called “means-end” rationality, goes back (at least) to Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle asserts that “we cannot deliberate about ends but only about the means by which ends can be attained.” If we assume, with Aristotle, that happiness is “the highest good attainable by action,” and hence the aim of politics, we get something very like Bentham's view. Indeed it is tempting, and not implausible, to interpret philosophers as different as Adam Smith and Chairman Mao as agreeing that the goal of social institutions is the maximization of net happiness and disagreeing only on the most efficient means of realizing that end.

Of course philosophers who share this vision of the proper function of social institutions like law and morality may differ on more than the best . . .

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