chapter  VII
20 Pages

The Greatest Happiness Principle

For the past two chapters the problems and the prospects of success of the Benthamite legislator have been considered. The legislator has a given end, that of promoting the general happiness, and has the task of so arranging law and other social institutions that each man following his own interest (or, more accurately, what seems to be his own interest) will be led to do those things which result in the greatest happiness for the people as a whole. The legislator has knowledge of the given end and knowledge of the human nature on which he has to work so that he can artificially create a system or an organisation in which pursuit of self-interest leads to promotion of the general interest; in which there is a junction between interest and duty. In the last chapter the assumed knowledge about human nature was questioned, and it was considered whether the legislator could have the knowledge about individual self-interest which the general project requires. What interest was, and that people pursue their own interest, could not just be taken in the axiomatic way that Bentham himself sometimes did. However, as well as these problems about interest, there are also problems about duty. If the axiomatic psychology which Bentham uses demands study and defence, then so also does the axiomatic morality. It was suggested at the start of Chapter V that Bentham’s reason for assuming each of his two ground principles, the one which founds the psychological description of the means and the one which founds the normative recommendation of the ends, was that they were around in the intellectual air of the time. The same project as Bentham’s, with the use of the same founding principles, was traced in predecessors whom he admired such as Helvetius and Beccaria. So Bentham’s assumption of these two principles as axioms was not unnatural: it might have seemed plausible at that time that they were something adopted by any right-thinking man which could be adopted without further question as the foundation of a new enterprise. The problems would then be all problems of construction; of the practical application of the unquestioned principles. This was indeed part of the spirit of Chapter V. However, the intellectual air which Bentham breathed is not the air which we breathe, and even at Bentham’s time not all men, or even all learned, writing, men, were right-thinking men. These principles were held by a sect, a party, the pbilosophes, to whom it was seen in the first chapter that Bentham attached himself. As a party they had opposition. So the principles were neither then nor now uncontentious. They need explanation and defence. Bentham himself knew this and at times provided defence for both of them. In the last chapter the defence of the psychological principle was examined. In this chapter the fundamental evaluative principle, the grand master principle of utility, will in its turn be examined together with Bentham’s actual and possible defences. Rather than just presupposing that the legislator may adopt it as an unquestioned end, it must now be seen whether such an adoption can be defended.