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June 23rd, 2005

Happiness is a Warm Book

Brad DeLong has two posts up defending Richard Layard’s defence of Benthamism against criticism from Fontana Labs and Will Wilkinson. I think Brad is misinterpreting Bentham, so while his defence might be a defence of something interesting (say, preference utilitarianism) it isn’t much of a defence of Bentham.

Here’s the start of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation where Bentham sets out his views.

I. 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. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, 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.

But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved.

II. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work: it will be proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant 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. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.

III. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.

The problem with interpreting these is that “advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” do not really come to the same thing. At the very least, it is clear that advantage and pleasure do not come to the same thing, and which (if either) of these good and happiness are is part of what’s at dispute. But for interpreting Bentham, it’s very important to realise that he did view them as the same thing.

Now compare this to what Brad’s preferred view.

Happiness—utility—plays a very special role in Bentham’s philosophy. It is defined to be that which is maximized by the choices of a rational and reasonable person with enough time for reflection and sufficient information about the situation. To say “I would rather be unhappy and free than happy and a slave, and thus I have refuted Bentham” is to miss the point entirely.

At its core utilitarianism is two commands:

  1. Respect people’s choices—those made with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties. You want to know what is good for someone? Watch the choices that he or she makes. Watch them carefully.
  1. A good society is one in which as much of what people would choose for themselves—with enough information, after sufficient deliberation, when they are in possession of their faculties—is attained, taking care that when there is a tradeoff between one person’s preferences and another’s, each one counts equally.

Those seem to be obvious and unexceptionable foundations for morality. Thus: You know who got it pretty much right? Jeremy Bentham.

Brad’s nowhere here defending the view that what matters most for morality is a particular kind of experience. What matters for him is “what people would choose for themselves”, i.e. preferences, and preference satisfaction isn’t a kind of experience. If people choose different kinds of experiences, or even things that don’t maximise their own chances for good experiences (as when people take life-endangering jobs so as to provide goods for their children) they are getting what they choose, but not maximising utility as Bentham saw it. In principle my preferences can be satisfied by things that happen after I die, even if I don’t get any extra experiences after I die, in which case we certainly couldn’t identify preference satisfaction with any kind of experience.

As I said, I don’t want to get into the pros or cons of the moral view Brad is espousing here. I just want to make an historical point, that it’s a mistake to think Bentham viewed preferences rather than experiences as the core of utilitarianism. It was a great advance over Bentham (I think) when later philosophers made this move.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized


This entry was posted on Thursday, June 23rd, 2005 at 12:19 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “Happiness is a Warm Book”

  1. Brad DeLong says:


  2. Pablo Stafforini says:

    I suspect misrepresentations like these could be at least partly avoided by carefully distinguishing, as John Broome does, between goodness, or a betterness relation, on the one hand, and utility, or the representation of that relation, on the other. Since utility functions are typically used to represent preference orderings, describing Bentham’s conception of the good (“happiness”) as a view about “utility” suggests, misleadingly, that his account of well-being was a form of preference utilitarianism. As Brian correctly notes, these were not his actual views. Bentham was a straightforward, if highly sophisticated, hedonistic utilitarian.

  3. Ralph Wedgwood says:

    I’m totally on your side on this one, Brian. It’s an odd fact that the majority of philosophers in the 18th and even 19th centuries seem to have been hedonists of one sort or another. Even Kant is a strict hedonist about non-moral motivation (at least, this is how I read those notorious passages in the second Critique).

    It’s an equally odd fact that such a large number of contemporary scholars can’t bring themselves to read these philosophers of the past as hedonists, and so engage in the most extraordinary squirmings to interpret their texts differently. These days, it seems to me, the history of philosophy is becoming dangerously hagiographic….

    Among the utilitarians, the evolution of thought about this topic took really quite a long time.

    1. As you point out, Bentham is a straightforward hedonist both about motivation and about what is good for a person.

    2. J. S. Mill thinks that the only things that we desire for their own sakes are pleasant experiences of various kinds; but he also thinks that the degree to which a pleasant experience is good for you depends not just on the degree to which it is pleasant (“quantity of pleasure”), but on other features of the experience as well (“quality of pleasure”); our preferences are evidence of how good the pleasant experience is for you, but not constitutive of it.

    3. Sidgwick thinks that the only thing that all pleasures have in common is that they are experences (or “states of consciousness”) that are preferred by the subject: i.e., pleasure must be defined in terms of preference. So Sidgwick abandons hedonism as a theory of motivation, but retains the idea that pleasure is what is good for a person. Certain preferences between states of consciousness are now constitutive of (not merely evidence for) what is good for a person — but only preferences between states of consciousness, not preferences for external states of affairs.

    So, here’s a question for readers of TAR: Who was it, among the utilitarians, who finally abandoned hedonism altogether, and defined utility not in terms of pleasure but simply as a measure of preference-satisfaction?

  4. Dsosa says:

    F.H. Bradley, at least, thought (in “Pleasure for Pleasure’s Sake,” Ethical Studies (Bobbs-Merrill: 1951), p. 60, originally published 1876) it was Mill himself, saying of him that “of pleasure it has plainly come to mean something like the life we prefer…[this] is to leave Hedonism altogether.”

    Mill did say (*Utilitarianism*, p. 49)—not perfectly plausibly—that “desiring a thing and finding it pleasant…are phenomena entirely inseparable…in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact.”

    Incidentally, on one reading of Mill, the “quality” of an experience is constituted by “quantitative” matters, in something like the way the qualitative difference between night and day might be constituted by matters of degree (compare shouts and murmurs).

  5. Pablo Stafforini says:

    In his path-braking ‘Truth and Probability’, published in 1926, Ramsey “call[s] the things one ultimately desires ‘goods’,” noting that “this theory is not to be identified with the psychology of the Utilitarians, in which pleasure had a dominating position,” because goods are “things which we want,” and these “may be our own or other people’s pleasure, or anything else whatever“ (Philosophical Papers, D. H. Mellor, ed., p. 69; emphasis added).

  6. Mark van Roojen says:

    Brian is certainly right about Bentham on this issue. But it can be difficult to put together everything he says about pleasure and its value. The most straightforward reading would have the value of a pleasure directly proportional to its intensity and duration. Then the value of an action could be a function of its tendency to produce pleasure.

    But his actual text seems to include two other factors in measuring the value of a pleasure itself — certainty vs. uncertainty and propinquity vs. remoteness. And all of these (intensity, duration, certainty, & propinquity) are then set up as qualities of the pleasure whereas when we come to assess actions themselves we have to add in fecundity and purity (which involves the tendencies of actions to lead to pleasures of pains). (See chapter IV of the Principles of Morals and Legislation).

    This leads me to two puzzles. (1) Is he really saying that we should discount pleasures if they happen to remote people or at remote times, rather than using remoteness as a proxy for certainty? Since he lists certainty seperately it seems he is not using it as a measure of the probability of getting what we aim at. To me discounting the remote is not all that sensible, but if it is a proxy for probability having it on the list would be double counting. (2) And why is certainty or uncertainty a property of the pleasure rather than a feature of the action, by which I mean shouldn’t he say that in choosing actions it matters how likely the anticipated results will be, though of course if they happen their value is just a function of intensity and duration.

    As for Mill, I may be disagreeing with Ralph’s reading a bit. I think that it is at least open to read Mill as identifying the pleasure with the activity that is enjoyed, rather than the feeling one gets when engaging in it. And I think the text there is also ambiguous as to whether the preferences of people determine the value or whether they are merely good evidence about the value. In On Liberty he does seem to say that the fact that something is what a person determines to be better for them makes it better, but this could be read either as a claim that their choices constitute the pleasantness of the pleasure, or alternatively be expressing the claim that the choice itself involves a higher order pleasure. I tend to think that Mill took the judgements of people with experience of the activity as evidence of the value of the activity, but not as constituting it. But I think either reading can be defended.

    As for David’s (I assume it’s David) last comment on quantity vs. quality, he does make the distinction connect up with qualatative differences insofar as each will be manifest in the choices of those who have experience of the pleasures being compared. But whereas mere differences in quantity require only that competent judges prefer one over the other, differences in quality require these judges to say they wouldn’t prefer any amount of the one to any amount of the other. In other words they rule out trading one for the other. (This is on around page 8 of the Hackett edition.)

  7. Ralph Wedgwood says:

    1. Thanks, David! I must check that passage of Bradley’s again. I don’t remember thinking that Bradley interpreted Mill as abandoning hedonism. Perhaps Bradley is just saying that a natural revision or amendment to utilitarianism would amount to abandoning hedonism. At all events, however, Bradley’s remark certainly does show that the idea of amending utilitarianism in this way had been thought of (even if it had not yet been explicitly endorsed) as early as 1876.

    2. Pablo — thanks for the reference to Ramsey! It’s interesting that Ramsey still associated utilitarianism with hedonism as late as 1926.

    3. Mark, thanks for your interesting suggestions about how to read Mill! I guess I do disagree with your interpretation. I concede that my interpretation isn’t obviously correct, but I think it fits better with the textual evidence as a whole. As for On Liberty, I don’t read Mill as claiming quite generally, that “what a person determines to be better for them makes it better”; I read him as claiming (i) that no one else is in a better position to know what is better for me than I am, and (ii) the activity of making and executing my own choices about how to live is an exercise of my higher mental faculties, and so involves intrinsically “higher-quality” pleasures.

  8. Mark van Roojen says:

    [Consider all of Ralph’s last comment to be quoted here.}

    Actually, I agree with all of this, whish is to say that my favored reading of Mill has people’s choices epistemically rather than constitutively related to the value of the pleasure. And the claim in (ii) is similar to what I had in mind when I talked about interpretting the On Liberty passages as invoking a “higher order” pleasure.

    So I guess the one bit of disagreement is just that I think it is open to objectify Mill’s conception of the higher pleasures so that the pleasures are the activities themselves and not the feelings they cause. And I take it that you don’t think that.

  9. Pablo Stafforini says:


    Your “thank you” post ironically made me realize that I couldn’t plausibly claim, as I somewhat cryptically claimed in my earlier post, that Ramsay was the first utilitarian to abandon hedonism while quoting him saying that utilitarianism implies a hedonistic conception of well-being. Ramsay may certainly be construing utilitarianism in the wrong way, but it would be nevertheless odd to classify him as a utilitarian when that construal implies he cannot consistently identify himself as such.

    At any rate, I now realize that there’s a much obvious (and earlier) candidate for the prize. It is G. E. Moore, whose “ideal utilitarianism” included a non-hedonistic conception of the good. He claimed that a world containing beautiful objects was, ceteris paribus, a morally better world that a world containing ugly ones, even if there was no person to appreciate the beauty of one and the ugliness of the other. This are goods that are, as he said, “beyond human existence”, and certainly beyond human experience.

    Now, when you asked who was the first utilitarian that “finally abandoned hedonism altogether”, you added “and defined utility not in terms of pleasure but simply as a measure of preference-satisfaction”. Moore was a utilitarian, and he abandoned hedonism altogether; nevertheless, since he abandoned hedonism in favour of his idiosyncratic “idealistic” version, he didn’t actually move on to account for well-being in terms of preference-satisfaction. His theory seems to fall into an altogether different category –-the one Parfit labelled “Objective List Theories” in his appendix on “What makes someone’s life go best” (Reasons and Persons). But More also acknowledged that utilitarianism, as such, was not committed to either Benthamite hedonism or Moorean “idealism”; by definition, it was simply the view

    that the standard of right and wrong in conduct is its tendency to promote the interest of everybody. And by interest is commonly meant a variety of different goods, classed together only because they are what a man commonly desires for himself (Principia Ethica, § 64; Moore’s emphasis).

    So Moore seems to be the first utilitarian to reject hedonism and to acknowledge the possibility of preference utilitarianism. The question that remains is: who was the first utilitarian to endorse this last variant?

  10. Pablo Stafforini says:

    Typos in last post:

    This are goods > these are goods
    But More also > But Moore also