Utilitarianism in Victorian England (with a special emphasis on Bentham and Mill)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Utilitarianism
2.1. Jeremy Bentham and the Fundamental Ideas of Utilitarian Theory
2.2. John Stuart Mill and the Improvement of Utilitarian Theory

3. Utilitarianism in Victorian England and in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times
3.1. Politics
3.2. Education

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Everybody wants to be happy. In order to reach happiness, man throughout history has followed many courses. But what is happiness? The opinions varied largely throughout history. Man has discovered a certain texture of “being”; he has realized that he is both, an individual and a part of a whole, society. According to this, he always made attempts to apply structure on the things and phenomena around him and thus tries to define happiness and find ways to reach and preserve it. True, the different views show certain similarities but there is still no unity today. However happiness might be defined, whether as a “good life”, as contentment or as the absence of physical or mental suffering or anything else, however it is believed to be reached and preserved best, the search for the essence of happiness always seems to be a quest for the holy grail. Otfried Höffe describes happiness as follows[1]: Happiness is an inclusive goal of man. It is not the top of a hierarchy of goals but an attendant circumstance of a success. Happiness is therefore not a thing and it cannot, like many other phenomena, be seen in this light. But things are easily imaginable for the human being. This might be the reason for the difficulties in defining happiness. It is a feature of being human to develop systems to arrange and organize things. Now, if happiness cannot be reified and therefore not be presented as an essence of existence, which is conceivable by everybody in the same way, it may for the present only be described as the satisfaction of the wants and needs of the individual. From this one may conclude that happiness can only be intentio indirecta of public action. Utilitarianism, as a system of ethics, roots in the period of Enlightenment. Based on a humanistic view, it is an important attempt to discuss the question of happiness in a reasonable and non-speculative way and make it a concern of all thinking and feeling creatures. But, as Utilitarianism treated happiness as intentio directa in the name of the principle of utility, Utilitarian overvaluation of mathematics and logic made many problems concerning the applicability of the theory in reality, arise.

2. Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism tries to create a just, complex system of Ethics with the help of generalizing principles. Additionally, those principles must be that simple that they can be used as a leading idea in the process of judging about human actions in general. Thus, Utilitarianism claims to be applicable to the whole mankind. Going back to Mo Tse’s basic idea of avoiding evil and maintaining the common weal as a guide for human actions, it’s main constituent is the principle of utility, leading to the utilitarian goal of increasing the public welfare, i. e. the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, which all utilitarian theories have in common. Not only as an ethical system, but also as the basis for legal and political reforms in nineteenth-century England, Utilitarianism is a counterposing theory to those of natural rights and natural law.

Most of the utilitarian authors are English. The two most important are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This phenomenon can be traced back to the special place England took during the period of Enlightenment. For in contrast to the rest of Europe, where revolutions took place, the English endeavoured to maintain new ideas and preserve the liberal principle of individual freedom at the same time by reforms. Utilitarianism could develop freely. As a philosophical subject it derived from English Empiricism, which is based on the idea that only what is really there (i. e. only facts which are empirically won) is reliable and therefore real knowledge. As a consequence, Metaphysics is not optional. It is mere speculation. The method is empirical, similar to the method of the natural sciences. Furthermore Utilitarianism is slightly influenced by French Positivism, which states that the predominant aim of knowledge in general is man’s ability to rule over nature.

2.1. Jeremy Bentham and the Fundamental Ideas of Utilitarian Theory

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), philosopher, economist, jurist and leader of the Philosophical Radicals, is the “father” of Utilitarianism which is the underlying idea for political, economical and social reform in Great Britain. He introduced the term “Principle of Utility”. It says that every human action that maintains the public weal is demanded.[2] Starting from the empirical assumption that everybody wants to satisfy his wants and needs, it is seen as a natural human feature to strive for pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore the things giving pleasure are considered valuable because they are useful, and the things causing pain are not. In the terminology of ethics this attitude is called Hedonism. On this basis, together with the empirically won knowledge that social values are not a priori but develop out of experience, it is now possible for Bentham to call everything that is useful “good” and use both terms synonymously. Value is thus the appropriateness for giving pleasure.[3] Human actions therefore have to pass the “Utilitarian Test”; they are measured according to their consequences, their usefulness for society in general. In other words: The aim “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the measure of right or wrong.[4] In Bentham’s conception this measure is a quantitive one. There is no differentiation of pleasures (and pains) according to their quality.

“ ‘Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin [a children’s game] is as good as poetry.’ ”[5]

The value of a pleasure is measurable with the help of “six circumstances”[6]: intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fruitfulness and purity. Thus, he claims, one can “scientifically ascertain what is morally justifiable”[7].

“If ‘the quantitative value of pains and pleasures as motives of action could be minutely calculated’, this ‘would give scientific accuracy to morals and legislation’.”[8]

Bentham’s love of facts and notorious hostility to imagination can also be seen in his claim that it is the business of law and education to make the sanctions sufficiently strong, so that the individual is urged to the subordination of his own happiness to the common weal.[9] The Sanctions Bentham speaks of are merely external Sanctions, namely physical, moral, religious and political sanctions. Bentham even drew up a model prison called the “Panopticon”, which David Newsome describes as:

“[…] his particular obsession […], in the prosecution of which he spent some twenty years of his life (and the best part of his fortune) making importunate overtures to the crowned heads of Europe, in the conviction that this nightmare of a penal institution, with its never-blinking, all seeing eyes, would effect the moral reformation of society.”[10]

Not only with the Panopticon Bentham aimed at presenting the theory as being easily turned into practice, but also with the idea of his model school, an unsectarian day-school, called the “Chrestomathia”, in which “useful knowledge” should be taught.[11] Useful knowledge at first means facts that enable the learner to integrate himself into society as a useful member, and, second, the exclusion of imagination. The Utilitarian idea is generally opposed to those theories that make the conscience the ultimate measure of right or wrong. It is reason alone that enables to make just judgements on the basis of mathematics and logic.

There are certainly several problems concerning the applicability of utilitarian theory in this unfinished form that make certain questions arise: The main problem is the subordination of the individual under the common weal. Everybody has got his own personal idea what happiness is and how it is reached. In most cases the individual idea does not correspond with the ideas of others. Therefore it seems utopian to believe in the existence of man’s altruism in such a high degree that the subordination of the individual under the common weal would be possible. In addition to that, the strictly individual hedonistic principle is generalized and becomes a universal principle. One may ask oneself, how emotions, which are also basically strictly individual, might be measurable. How can one justify the generalization of the hedonistic principle (i. e. everybody wants to satisfy his wants and needs) that basically concerns the individual and only the individual? If there are a number of people who share the same wants and needs, this might be merely by accident. Furthermore this very special situation does not imply that these people feel about these wants and needs in the same way. Their judgements might differ qualitatively. Another difficulty is the sacrifice of proven moral principles (e. g. those that derived from religious belief or other traditions) to the principle of utility which is only in few cases directly applicable, for it is not manageable for a single person to weigh all the possible consequences of possible actions against each other. Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly. Another serious problem is the use of “good” and “useful” as synonyms. It is obvious that not everything that is good is also useful and vice versa. Additionally, not everything that is useful is just. How, for example, are minorities to cope with? Many philosophers seriously tried to fill the gaps of utilitarian thought. Among them was John Stuart Mill, who endeavoured to modify this strict and narrow “Benthamism” into the direction of a more human kind of the theory in order to improve its applicability to human society.

2.2. John Stuart Mill and the Improvement of Utilitarian Theory

John Stuart Mill (1808–1873), philosopher, journalist, politician, psychologist and sociologist introduced the term “Utilitarianism”. He received a strict and unusually early and extensive “utilitarian” education by his father James Mill who tried to keep him away from any other influences and social contacts as far as possible.[12] At the age of three he began to study Latin and Greek. He also received courses in natural sciences, psychology, law and Greek literature and philosophy.[13] At the age of seventeen he founded the Utilitarian Society. Having lacked personal freedom and leisure, he suffered from a health crisis at the age of twenty. As a politician and philosopher he supported the efforts concerning equality for women, compulsory education, birth control and further political and economical reforms on the basis of utilitarian thought. His Essays on Bentham (1838) clearly show the divergence from Benthamism, which he remodelled to a more realistic and human concept. In Utilitarianism (1836) he furthermore tries to free the theory from “rude misunderstandings”[14], as he calls it. But this freeing from misunderstandings is far more a modification of Bentham’s thought. In Mill’s view Psychology is the basis for all Philosophy. Therefore his philosophy belongs to the branch of English Positivism, which is based on English Empiricism and thus states that only the particular (and imaginable) feelings are really given facts. According to that, the outside world constitutes itself as the consistent possibility of similar emotions and sensations.[15] So he can state that Philosophy is mainly Ethics, for Metaphysics is not possible. The summum bonum is the basis of all morals.[16]


[1] Otfried Höffe: Glück. in: „Lexikon der Ethik“

[2] Otfried Höffe: Utilitarismus. in: „Lexikon der Ethik“

[3] Schmidt, Heinrich: Utilitarismus. in: „Philosophisches Wörterbuch“

[4] Drabble, Margaret: Bentham, Jeremy. in: “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”

[5] Drabble, Margaret: Bentham, Jeremy. in: “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”

[6] comment no. 6 in: Mill: DerUtilitarismus

[7] Popkin, Richard H.: Bentham, Jeremy. in: Microsoft Encarta ’95

[8] Drabble, Margaret: Bentham, Jeremy. in: “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”

[9] Drabble, Margaret: Bentham, Jeremy. in: “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”

[10] Newsome, David: The Victorian World Picture. p. 53

[11] Newsome, David: The Victorian World Picture. pp. 52 f.

[12] Birnbacher, Dieter: Nachwort. in: John Stuart Mill: Der Utilitarismus. p. 118

[13] Mill, John Stuart. in: Microsoft Encarta ’95

[14] Mill, John Stuart: Der Utilitarismus. p. 10

[15] Schmidt, Heinrich: Mill, John Stuart. in: Philosophisches Wörterbuch

[16] Mill, John Stuart: Der Utilitarismus. p. 3

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Utilitarianism in Victorian England (with a special emphasis on Bentham and Mill)
University of Leipzig  (Institute for Anglistics)
Seminar: The Virtues of Work. Ethics and Enterprise in Victorian Times.
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
535 KB
Utilitarianism, Victorian, England, Bentham, Mill), Seminar, Virtues, Work, Ethics, Enterprise, Victorian, Times
Quote paper
Bettina Klohs (Author), 2003, Utilitarianism in Victorian England (with a special emphasis on Bentham and Mill), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25938


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