Reference > Cambridge History > The Period of the French Revolution > Bentham and the Early Utilitarians > The Principle of Utility; Beccaria’s Crimes and Punishments
  A Fragment on Government; Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians.

§ 5. The Principle of Utility; Beccaria’s Crimes and Punishments.

Hume’s metaphysics had little meaning for Bentham, but it is interesting to note that his moral doctrine had this direct influence upon the new theory of jurisprudence and politics. Hume was content with showing that utility, or tendency to pleasure, was a mark of all the virtues; he did not go on to assert that things were good or evil according to the amounts of pleasure or pain that they entailed. This quantitative utilitarianism is adopted by Bentham from the start. In the preface to the Fragment, the “fundamental axiom,” whose consequences are to be developed with method and precision, is stated in the words, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Half a century earlier, Hutcheson had formulated this “axiom” almost in the same words; but Bentham does not seem to have been influenced directly by him. Helvétius, whom he had studied closely, comes very near the same doctrine, 5  and Priestley had preceded Bentham in using a similar standard in political reasoning. Priestley is not mentioned in this place, though the preface begins with a reference to his scientific discoveries, and Bentham has elsewhere recorded his youthful enthusiasm for his writings. He even says that he had found the phrase “greatest happiness of the greatest number” in one of Priestley’s pamphlets; but, in this, his memory must have deceived him, for the phrase does not seem to have been used by Priestley. So far as Bentham was concerned, its origin (as he in one place suggests) must be traced to Beccaria, the Italian jurist whose work on the penal law proceeded on the same principles as Bentham’s and had a notable effect upon the latter. Beccaria’s book on Crimes and Punishments was translated into English in 1767, and, in this translation, the principle of utility is expressed in the exact words in which, through Bentham’s influence, it soon became both an ethical formula and a party watchword. Bentham himself used the word “utilitarian” as early as 1781, and he asserted that it was the only name for his creed; 6  but, in later life, he came to prefer the alternative phrase “greatest happiness principle.” “The word utility,” he said, in a note written in July, 1822, 7  “does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure and pain as the words happiness and felicity do: nor does it lead us to the consideration of the number of the interests affected.” A few months after the latter date, the term “utilitarian” was revived by John Stuart Mill, 8  who seems to have been unaware that it had been previously employed and afterwards discarded by Bentham; he found the word in Galt’s Annals of the Parish, where it is used in describing some of the revolutionary parties of the early nineties of the preceding century; and, “with a boy’s fondness for a name and a banner,” he adopted it as a “sectarian appellation.” After this time, “utilitarian” and “utilitarianism” came into common use to designate a party and a creed.   12
  The evidence goes to show that the “greatest happiness principle,” or principle of utility, was arrived at by Bentham, in the first instance, as a criterion for legislation and administration and not for individual conduct—as a political, rather than an ethical, principle. His concern was with politics; the sections of Hume’s Treatise which chiefly influenced him were those on justice; Beccaria wrote on the penal law; and it was expressly as a political principle that Priestley made use of “the happiness of the members, that is the majority of the members, of any state,” as his standard. The point is important, seeing that, from the time of Locke, the action of every individual had been commonly interpreted as determined by his own pleasure or pain. It is difficult to reconcile this interpretation (which Bentham accepted) with an ethical theory which makes the greatest happiness of all the end for each. But the same difficulty does not arise when the point of view is shifted from the individual to the state. Indeed, the analogical argument will now be open: since each is concerned with his own greatest happiness, the end for the community may be taken to be the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And, when the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” has been accepted in this way, it is easy—though it is not logical—to adopt it as not merely a political, but, also, in the strict sense, an ethical, principle.   13

Note 5La justice consiste … dans la pratique des actions utiles au plus grand nombre. De l’Esprit (1758), Discours II, chap. 24. [ back ]
Note 6Works, vol. X, pp. 92, 392. [ back ]
Note 7Principles of Morals and Legislation, ed. 1879, p. 1 n. [ back ]
Note 8Autobiography, pp. 79, 80; Utilitarianism, p. 9 n. [ back ]

  A Fragment on Government; Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation  
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