Jeremy Bentham was a British Philosopher, Jurist, born on 4th Feb., 1748 and died 6th June, 1832. He is regarded as the father of modern utilitarianism. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. Most of his work include; Utilitarianism, Economics, Law reform, Animal rights, Gender and sexuality and among others, but the major one which will be put into consideration in this work is “the principle of utility”. (Bartle, 1963). The primary concern of Bentham was the good or welfare of the community. Bartle (1963) asserted that he believed that his principle of utility could be applied with advantage to all social questions and particularly to constitutional, legislative, and law reform. He had a reading and practical interest in view, and was not merely concerned with a barren speculative theory.

The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze the postulations of Jeremy Bentham on the principle of utility.



Utility is gotten from the Latin word ‘utilis’ meaning ‘useful’. In economics, Utility is the economist’s way of measuring pleasure or happiness and how it relates to the decisions that people make. Alpa (1994) stated that utility measures the benefits (or drawbacks) from consuming a good or service or from working. Although utility is not directly measurable, it can be inferred from the decisions that people make.  Otherwise, utility can be state or quality of being useful or advantageous.


Marshall (1920) perceived principle as an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct. It is a fundamental doctrine or a specific basis of conduct or management. It can be seen as a general and fundamental truth that may be used in deciding conduct or choice. In general, A principle is a law or rule that has to be, or usually is to be followed, or can be desirably followed, or is an inevitable consequence of something, such as the laws observed in nature or the way that a system is constructed.


At the time that Bentham appeared on the scene as a great reformer and thinker, the theory of natural right and the pompous generalizations of black stone regarding the greatness of the English constitution and the English law held the field, upon both of this Bentham poured his scorn, and exposed them to merciless criticism. (Burns, 2007). Burns continued that Bentham described natural rights as simple nonsense natural and imprescriptible right rhetorical nonsense upon stilts. For the theory of natural rights he substituted the principle of utility.

By the principle of utility, Bentham implies that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. (Everett, 1966). The principle of utility as propounded by Bentham recognizes and addresses the subjection that 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, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light. (

He further stated that political obligation was not based upon an original social contract. He argued that there was no such contract in the past and that, even if there were one, it did not bind the present generation. The only valid reason for obedience was utility or the general good, the principle he later described as ‘the greatest happiness principle’. (Bentham, 1988). He asserted government exists because they are believed they are believed to promote the happiness of those living under them, man obeys political authority not because of an original contract or natural right or any other ‘fiction’, but because of the habit of obedience’ thus in Bentham’s own characteristic language,’ the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable mischiefs of disobedience.’ (Bentham, 1988). This therefore implies that the good of a society is the sum of happiness of the individuals in that society, that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.

By “happiness”, he asserted a predominance of “pleasure” over “pain”. His principle of utility regards “good” as that which produces the greatest amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain and “evil” as that which produces the most pain without the pleasure. (Burns, 2007). According to Burns (2007), this concept of pleasure and pain is defined by Bentham as physical as well as spiritual. Bentham writes about this principle as it manifests itself within the legislation of a society, he lays down a set of criteria for measuring the extent of pain or pleasure that a certain decision will create and he restated that the principle of utility is a morally right principle of action for every situation. (Chand, 2008). He says that the principle of utility may also be described as the greatest happiness principle, in that it asserts that the only morally right and proper goal of action is to achieve the greatest happiness of all individuals whose interest is affected by the action and this principle is the only sufficient ground for deciding whether an action is morally right or wrong. (Everett, 1966). The principle of sympathy and antipathy (i.e. the feeling of instinctive approval or disapproval for the expected consequences of an action) is not a sufficient ground for judging the moral rightness or wrongness of an action.

In adverting to this principle, however, he was not referring to just the usefulness of things or actions, but to the extent to which these things or actions promote the general happiness. Specifically, then, what is morally obligatory is that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, happiness being determined by reference to the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain. The principle of utility therefore presupposes that “one man is worth just the same as another man” and so there is a guarantee that in calculating the greatest happiness for Bentham, “each person is to count for one and no one for more than one.”


Having successfully analyzed the principle of utility by Jeremy Bentham, it can be deduced that by this principle, centers on how an essentially self-interested individual may be encouraged and, where necessary, directed to perform actions that promote the greatest happiness of both himself and others. It can therefore be concluded that by ‘utility’ he means ‘that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness’. The rightness of actions depends on their utility and the utility is measured by the consequences which the actions tend to produce.


Alpa, G. (1994) ‘General Principles of Law’, Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law: vol. 1 isssue 1. article 2.

Bartle, G.F. (1963). “Jeremy Bentham and John Bowring: a study of the relationship between

“Bentham and the editor of his Collected Works”. Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research Retrieved from: Retrieved on 17/5/2015.

Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst: Prometheus Books.

Burns, C.D. (2007) Political Ideas. London: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Chand, S. (2008) Political Theory. New Delhi: S.Chand & Company PVT Ltd.

Everett, C. (1966). Jeremy Bentham. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Marshall, A. (1920) Principles of Economics. An Introductory Volume (8th edition). London: Macmillan



About emmanuelabii

Emmanuel is a profound researcher, who has gone through various academic research processes at Veritas University Abuja, and whose motive is to create a platform where this research works can serve as secondary source to other researchers in search of qualitative data.....
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