Utilitarian Ethics: Epicurus, Bentham & Mill

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  • 0:01 Weighing the Options
  • 0:58 Epicurus
  • 3:00 Jeremy Bentham
  • 4:50 John Stuart Mill
  • 6:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, learn the key ideas of utilitarianism. We'll look at three thinkers who saw the benefits of pursuing pleasure while still considering the needs and rights of others.

Weighing the Options

Regina is the owner of a company that produces tables. The company has found through research that out of 100,000 tables produced, one is likely to collapse after many years of use. Regina's company has sold about a million tables, so probability says that about ten tables may collapse over time.

The company is struggling financially. Regina is considering issuing a recall for the tables now that they know the flaw, but this will likely bankrupt the company if they publicize it. Bankrupting the company will put a large number of people out of work.

In this lesson, we'll look at the ethical approach taken by utilitarian thinkers and how they might view Regina's challenge. We'll refer to the philosophies of three individuals: Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.


Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who considered the topic of how to make decisions that lead to the greatest amount of happiness. He was known as a hedonist because he was a person who focuses their life on maximizing pleasure.

In his text, 'Letter to Menoeucus', Epicurus writes about pleasure in different terms than we might normally think. He says that pleasure can be described as the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. You can aim to remember the name of Epicurus by thinking of how he was curious about human pleasure.

You might think that someone like Epicurus would look at Regina's company's situation and respond that she should ignore the potential problems of the faulty table and enjoy better profits instead. This might sound like the more pleasurable option, yet Epicurus was interested in more than short term self-interest. For Epicurus, the consequences of our actions do matter and other people matter too.

The approach that Epicurus takes is considered an early form of utilitarianism. In this philosophy, the best action is the one that increases pleasure for the greatest number of people. You can remember the term utilitarianism by thinking of the utility or usefulness of an action and whether the action increases pleasure and human happiness.

But what about when it's unclear what is the best action? Take the one table in 100,000 that will bankrupt Regina's company if it's recalled. Should she recall it even if only a few people will ever be affected? Should she opt to keep the company running and have all of her employees able to earn a living instead? How does a utilitarian come to a conclusion about what is best?

Jeremy Bentham

About 2,000 years after Epicurus, Jeremy Bentham was continuing a utilitarian hedonist approach in his own work, An Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation. Sounds exciting, right? Well believe it or not, this sleepy-sounding title actually starts out with a bold statement about human beings.

He kicks off his text by writing, 'Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do...' He's saying that people are ruled by pain and pleasure and that this helps us to know what is moral. Bentham then makes the case that it's not just our own pain and pleasure that should matter, but the pain and pleasure of all human beings. Everyone's pain and everyone's pleasure are of equal importance.

So in the case of Regina's problem at her table company, Bentham could look at the situation and ask, 'Which action truly maximizes happiness for the most people?' Using Bentham's approach, Regina would weigh the needs of her employees versus the concern for very few customers. She would have to consider factors such as the intensity and length of pain or pleasure that might result for both groups. The consequences of a bankrupt company for all of her employees and the consequences of a faulty table for a few customers.

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