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The Greatest Happiness Principle*

  • T. L. S. Sprigge (a1)


My purpose in what follows is not so much to defend the basic principle of utilitarianism as to indicate the form of it which seems most promising as a basic moral and political position. I shall take the principle of utility as offering a criterion for two different sorts of evaluation: first, the merits of acts of government, social policies, and social institutions, and secondly, the ultimate moral evaluation of the actions of individuals. I do not take it as implying that the individual should live his life on the basis of constant evaluations of this sort. For there are different levels of decision making each with its appropriate criteria. For example, we each inevitably make many of our decisions from the point of view of our own personal self-fulfilment and this cannot regularly take a directly utilitarian form, nor should the utilitarian want it to do so. His claim is at most that we should sometimes review our life from the point of view of a kind of impersonal moral truth of a universalistic utilitarian character.



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1 Griffin, James, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance, Oxford, 1986, chs. 1 and 2 and passim.

2 Bentham's formulations are usually non-rigorist. Consider, for example:

In morals, as in legislation, the principle of utility is that which holds up to view, as the only sources and tests of right and wrong, human suffering and enjoyment—pain and pleasure. It is by experience, and by that alone, that the tendency of human conduct, in all its modifications, to give birth to pain and pleasure, is brought to view: it is by reference to experience, and to that standard alone, that the tendency of any such modifications to produce more pleasure than pain, and consequently to be right—or more pain than pleasure, and consequently to be wrong—is made known, and demonstrated (‘The Rationale of Judicial Evidence’, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. Bowring, John, 11 vols., Edinburgh, 1843, vi. 238, quoted in Postema, Gerald J., Bentham and the Common Law Tradition, Oxford, 1986, pp. 370–1).

Common Law Tradition, Oxford, 1986, pp. 370–1.

Such formulations certainly need to be understood with the qualifier that any pain caused must be as little as possible.

3 For an explanation see Smith, Teeling, as cited in note 5, at p. 52.

4 This approach, with its tender-minded dallying with the not straightforwardly verifiable may seem rather unBenthamite. But Bentham put great emphasis on the relevance to right action of the ability to represent to oneself the feelings of others. See Bowring, , ix. 110, quoted in Postema, , p. 381.

5 A unit based on such a method employed sometimes in determining the allocation of medical resources is the quality-adjusted-life year or QALY. See Williams, Alan, ‘Techniques of Health Status Measurement using an Health Index’ and Capewell, Gillian ‘Applications in Management’, Measuring Health: A Practical Approach, ed. George Teeling Smith, Chichester, 1988, esp. p. 48.

6 Warnings against treating any such methods as mechanical decision procedures comes from those who develop them as well as their opponents. Thus the economist Alan Williams who has worked on the measurement of quality of life in relation to medical policies warns that ‘no one should embark on the task of measuring quality of life believing that it is a simple mechanical process which will churn out data in a routine or comprehensive manner’ (Williams, Alan, p. 226).

7 See Postema, , pp. 350–7.

* This paper was presented at the meeting of the International Bentham Society held at King's College, Cambridge in July 1989. In preparing it I benefited greatly from discussion with Professor Lennart Nordenfelt and his comments on a first draft.

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  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
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