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He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, we arrive at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.
All that remains, Bentham supposed, is to consider the extent of this pleasure, since the happiness of the community as a whole is nothing other than the sum of individual human interests. The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action. Similarly, Bentham supposed that social policies are properly evaluated in light of their effect on the general well-being of the populations they involve. Punishing criminals is an effective way of deterring crime precisely because it pointedly alters the likely outcome of their actions, attaching the likelihood of future pain in order to outweigh the apparent gain of committing the crime. Thus, punishment must “fit” the crime by changing the likely perception of the value of committing it.
A generation later, utilitarianism found its most effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised by his father, the philosopher James Mill, on strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his life to the defence and promotion of the general welfare. With the help his long-time companion Harriet Taylor, Mill became a powerful champion of lofty moral and social ideals.
Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861) is an extended explanation of utilitarian moral theory. In an effort to respond to criticisms of the doctrine, Mill not only argued in favor of the basic principles of Jeremy Bentham but also offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. Although the progress of moral philosophy has been limited by its endless disputes over the reality and nature of the highest good, Mill assumed from the outset, everyone can agree that the consequences of human actions contribute importantly to their moral value. (Utilitarianism 1)
Mill fully accepted Bentham’s devotion to greatest happiness principle as the basic statement of utilitarian value:
“… actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain. by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Utilitarianism 2)
But he did not agree that all differences among pleasures can be quantified. On Mill’s view, some kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings also differ from each other in qualitative ways, and only those who have experienced pleasure of both sorts are competent judges of their relative quality. This establishes the moral worth of promoting higher (largely intellectual) pleasures among sentient beings even when their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower (largely bodily) pleasures.
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