Chapter XXII: Utilitarianism of Bentham-Mill-Singer and the Philosophy of Euthanasia

By Fenigsen, Richard; Fenigsen, Ryszard | Issues in Law & Medicine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Chapter XXII: Utilitarianism of Bentham-Mill-Singer and the Philosophy of Euthanasia


Fenigsen, Richard, Fenigsen, Ryszard, Issues in Law & Medicine


Jeremy Bentham was born in 1748 and died 84 years later, but it was said that nothing ever happened to him; that he never experienced any human misfortunes or elations; that he was arid, devoid of imagination; that instead of living people he saw schematic diagrams; that being busy with reforming the prisons and the penal system, he by mistake applied the same considerations to the field of ethics and social reform. This description of Bentham's personality has not originated with his critics, it was penned by his true follower, John Stuart Mill. (286)

But Bentham had at least one very human trait: he was particularly sensitive to suffering both in people and in animals. That's why he readily adopted Helvetius' opinion (287) that living beings are governed by the search for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain. Bentham elevated this hypothesis to the position of natural law. (288) He also assumed, on less certain grounds, that these are the only motives of animal and human behavior. He therefore proclaimed the principle of utility as the only criterion of moral evaluation: good deeds are those that increase the sum of happiness, the acts that increase the sum of sufferings are morally bad. All other criteria Bentham not only rejected, but sharply condemned. (289) Having grounded the whole of ethics on a single principle, allowing only one criterion of evaluation, Bentham was able to build an exceptionally consistent system. Moreover, in the true spirit of the Enlightenment, Bentham tended to see ethics as a science, a branch of natural sciences; he demanded rigorous reasoning and did not take anything for granted. He was not willing to admit that murder, robbery, or arson were bad acts, until convincing proof was presented. (290) Premises had to be verifiable; appealing to privileged information, such as intuition, or revelation, was prohibited. It is owing to these scientific qualities that Bentham's ethical system--utilitarianism--became so popular among the philosophers of our time. Utilitarianism is still sharply criticized, for instance by Bernard Williams (291) and John Rawls, (292) but in the English speaking countries it is generally regarded as the most serious attempt to create a reasoned system of ethics.

John Stuart Mill, raised since his childhood in an atmosphere of adoration of Bentham, as a young man suffered a nervous breakdown and rebelled against the Master's stiff doctrine, but later did a great deal to make it more humane. (293) Mill's original contribution (in many ways linked to the subject of our interest, euthanasia), is his excellent treatise On Liberty. (294) In this book Mill asserted that neither the state, society, nor neighbors should interfere with what an individual is doing as long as his actions are not injurious to anybody but himself. The modern intellectual current directed against paternalism in social relations and in medicine traces its origin back to that treatise On Liberty first published by Mill in 1859.

Several variants of utilitarianism have been developed, which show that their originators have been aware of certain faults in Bentham's classic doctrine; but it also means that these authors wished to maintain the utilitarian tradition. "Preferential" utilitarianism (295) recommends making people happy not after some universal pattern, but in accordance to each individual's preferences. The utilitarianism of rules postulates that not so much our acts but rather the rules we follow should aim at increasing the general happiness. (296) Further, the "non-hedonistic" (297) and the so-called "negative utilitarianism" (298) are worth mentioning, but we now turn to a more detailed discussion of the views of professor Singer.

Peter Singer, formerly a lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, at present Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton, is a brilliant and undoubtedly the most influential utilitarian philosopher living. Among Singer's publications, his monograph with co-author Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? …

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Chapter XXII: Utilitarianism of Bentham-Mill-Singer and the Philosophy of Euthanasia
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