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Recommended reading

The Essential Epicurus

Letters, principal doctrines, Vatican sayings, and fragments.

An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

by Jeremy Bentham.

'On Liberty and Other Essays'

by John Stuart Mill. Includes 'Utilitarianism.'

Methods of Ethics

by Henry Sidgwick.

Sorting Out Ethics

by R. M. Hare.

Creative Potential Ethics

History of Utilitarianism

This is the first part in a five part series on Creative Potential Ethics, a development of utilitarianism where the sum of individuals' capacities to create is used as the utility function. Our emotions are a built-in sense that measures this potential. This is a work in progress. If you have comments or suggestions, please e-mail me.

Since Creative Potential Ethics is a development of utilitarianism, it is desirable to start with some background. What follows is a brief overview of the history of utilitarianism, starting with Epicureanism.


One of the first to see happiness or pleasure as a standard for moral behaviour was Epicurus (c. 341-271 BC). His ethics are a form of egoistic hedonism: only one’s own pleasure has any intrinsic value. Anything else is only valuable to the extent that it enhances this personal pleasure, or avoids pain. He contended that every action taken by humans is driven by this principle. This is true even for actions that involve self-sacrifice. Long-term pleasure is the goal, and a short-term discomfort is subordinate to that.

Jeremy Bentham

In the late 18th century, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) formulated the principle of utility. It was an attempt to provide a practical ethical theory that offered a sound and scientific basis for making policy decisions.

Bentham defined the desirability of actions in terms of their utility or usefulness in promoting the greatest happiness or pleasure. Happiness is identified with pleasure and the absence of pain. Desire for happiness is universal and recognized intuitively as the greatest good.

Bentham's efforts were in part a response to the social and political chaos left behind by the American and French revolution. Political decisions should be made based on the utility of their consequences, i.e. to what extent they would promote happiness and . For this to be meaningful in this context, the utility is linked to overall happiness rather than individual happiness.

Consensus was considered an unreliable decision process. The utility principle provided a basic principle that decisions could be based on. Bentham created a felicific calculus that could be used to determine the effectiveness of an action. It includes the intensity, duration, likelihood of pleasures and pains.

All sentient beings counted for Bentham. Anything capable of feeling pain, including animals, had to be taken into consideration when calculating the total amount of pleasure and pain involved of any law or action.

John Stuart Mill

The principle of utility was further developed by Johm Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who published his essay Utilitarianism in 1861. Contrary to Bentham, Mill believed there was a clear hierarchy of pleasures. Some pleasures are higher or qualitatively better than others. In particular, intellectual pleasures are morally superior to sensual and 'beastly' pleasures.

In the overall assessment of an action, both quality and quantity of pleasure must be considered. A smaller quantity of a higher pleasure can outweigh a lower pleasure. In Mill's own words: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Mill defined additional rules to choose between pleasures that appear to be equivalent. Active pleasures, where creative action is involved, are qualitatively better than passive pleasures. If in doubt, he says, consult someone with much life experience. Anyone who has experienced the consequences of both choices will be a good judge of which is more pleasurable.

There is a constant tension between the descriptive and normative aspects of utilitarianism: the individual's quest for happiness on the one hand, and the overriding principle of greatest happiness on the other. Determining pleasure requires an impartial observer, who does not consider her personal happiness above that of others.

Later developments

Mill was followed by Henry Sigwick, who proposed a version of utilitarianism based on three self-evident principles. These principles are: justice (what is right for me is right for everyone), prudence (all moments in a person's life are equally important), and rational benevolence (all persons are equally important).

More recently, Richard Hare has proposed a two-level version of utilitarianism. Simple decisions are governed by generally accepted principles of utility. In more complicated cases, the full, rational utilitarian method is applied.

Contents | Back to Introduction | Forward to Arguments against Utilitarianism