OF THE PRINCIPLE OF UTILITY.
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.
IV. The interest of the community is one of the most
general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that
the meaning of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The
community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who
are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of
the community then is, what is it? — the sum of the interests of the
several members who compose it.
V. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the
community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the
interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to
add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to
diminish the sum total of his pains.
VI. An action then may be said to be conformable to
then principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with
respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the
happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.
VII. A measure of government (which is but a particular
kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be
conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the
tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than
any which it has to diminish it.
VIII. When an action, or in particular a measure of
government, is supposed by a man to be conformable to the principle of utility,
it may be convenient, for the purposes of discourse, to imagine a kind of law
or dictate, called a law or dictate of utility: and to speak of the action in
question, as being conformable to such law or dictate.
IX. A man may be said to be a partizan of the principle
of utility, when the approbation or disapprobation he annexes to any action, or
to any measure, is determined by and proportioned to the tendency which he
conceives it to have to augment or to diminish the happiness of the community:
or in other words, to its conformity or unconformity to the laws or dictates of
X. Of an action that is conformable to the principle of
utility one may always say either that it is one that ought to be done, or at
least that it is not one that ought not to be done. One may say also, that it
is right it should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done:
that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action. When thus
interpreted, the words ought, and right and wrong and
others of that stamp, have a meaning: when otherwise, they have none.
XI. Has the rectitude of this principle been ever
formally contested? It should seem that it had, by those who have not known
what they have been meaning. Is it susceptible of any direct proof? it should
seem not: for that which is used to prove every thing else, cannot itself be
proved: a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere. To give such
proof is as impossible as it is needless.
XII. Not that there is or ever has been that human
creature at breathing, however stupid or perverse, who has not on many, perhaps
on most occasions of his life, deferred to it. By the natural constitution of
the human frame, on most occasions of their lives men in general embrace this
principle, without thinking of it: if not for the ordering of their own
actions, yet for the trying of their own actions, as well as of those of other
men. There have been, at the same time, not many perhaps, even of the most
intelligent, who have been disposed to embrace it purely and without reserve.
There are even few who have not taken some occasion or other to quarrel with
it, either on account of their not understanding always how to apply it, or on
account of some prejudice or other which they were afraid to examine into, or
could not bear to part with. For such is the stuff that man is made of: in
principle and in practice, in a right track and in a wrong one, the rarest of
all human qualities is consistency.
XIII. When a man attempts to combat the principle of
utility, it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that
very principle itself. His arguments, if
they prove any thing, prove not that the principle is wrong, but that,
according to the applications he supposes to be made of it, it is
misapplied. Is it possible for a man to move the earth? Yes; but he must
first find out another earth to stand upon.
XIV. To disprove the propriety of it by arguments is
impossible; but, from the causes that have been mentioned, or from some
confused or partial view of it, a man may happen to be disposed not to relish
it. Where this is the case, if he thinks the settling of his opinions on such a
subject worth the trouble, let him take the following steps, and at length,
perhaps, he may come to reconcile himself to it.
1. Let him settle with himself, whether he would
wish to discard this principle altogether; if so, let him consider what it is
that all his reasonings (in matters of politics especially) can amount to?
2. If he would, let him settle with himself,
whether he would judge and act without any principle, or whether there is any
other he would judge an act by?
3. If there be, let him examine and satisfy himself
whether the principle he thinks he has found is really any separate
intelligible principle; or whether it be not a mere principle in words, a kind
of phrase, which at bottom expresses neither more nor less than the mere
averment of his own unfounded sentiments; that is, what in another person he
might be apt to call caprice?
4. If he is inclined to think that his own
approbation or disapprobation, annexed to the idea of an act, without any
regard to its consequences, is a sufficient foundation for him to judge and act
upon, let him ask himself whether his sentiment is to be a standard of right
and wrong, with respect to every other man, or whether every man's sentiment
has the same privilege of being a standard to itself?
5. In the first case, let him ask himself whether
his principle is not despotical, and hostile to all the rest of human race?
6. In the second case, whether it is not anarchial,
and whether at this rate there are not as many different standards of right and
wrong as there are men? and whether even to the same man, the same thing, which
is right to-day, may not (without the least change in its nature) be wrong
to-morrow? and whether the same thing is not right and wrong in the same place
at the same time? and in either case, whether all argument is not at an end?
and whether, when two men have said, “I like this”, and “I don't
like it”, they can (upon such a principle) have any thing more to say?
7. If he should have said to himself, No: for that
the sentiment which he proposes as a standard must be grounded on reflection,
let him say on what particulars the reflection is to turn? if on particulars
having relation to the utility of the act, then let him say whether this is not
deserting his own principle, and borrowing assistance from that very one in
opposition to which he sets it up: or if not on those particulars, on what
8. If he should be for compounding the matter, and
adopting his own principle in part, and the principle of utility in part, let
him say how far he will adopt it?
9. When he has settled with himself where he will
stop, then let him ask himself how he justifies to himself the adopting it so
far? and why he will not adopt it any farther?
10. Admitting any other principle than the
principle of utility to be a right principle, a principle that it is right for
a man to pursue; admitting (what is not true) that the word right can
have a meaning without reference to utility, let him say whether there is any
such thing as a motive that a man can have to pursue the dictates of it:
if there is, let him say what that motive is, and how it is to be distinguished
from those which enforce the dictates of utility: if not, then lastly let him
say what it is this other principle can be good for?
1. Note by the Author, July 1822.
To this denomination has of late been added, or substituted, the
greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle: this for
shortness, instead of saying at length that principle which states the greatest
happiness of all those whose interest is in question, as being the right and
proper, and only right and proper and universally desirable, end of human
action: of human action in every situation, and in particular in that of a
functionary or set of functionaries exercising the powers of Government. The
word utility does not so clearly point to the ideas of pleasure
and pain as the words happiness and felicity do: nor does
it lead us to the consideration of the number, of the interests
affected; to the number, as being the circumstance, which contributes,
in the largest proportion, to the formation of the standard here in question;
the standard of right and wrong, by which alone the propriety of human
conduct, in every situation, can with propriety be tried. This want of a
sufficiently manifest connexion between the ideas of happiness and
pleasure on the one hand, and the idea of utility on the other, I
have every now and then found operating, and with but too much efficiency, as a
bar to the acceptance, that might otherwise have been given, to this principle.
2. The word principle is derived from the Latin
principium: which seems to be compounded of the two words primus,
first, or chief, and cipium a termination which seems to be derived from
capio, to take, as in mancipium, municipium; to which are
analogous, auceps, forceps, and others. It is a term of very
vague and very extensive signification: it is applied to any thing which is
conceived to serve as a foundation or beginning to any series of operations: in
some cases, of physical operations; but of mental operations in the present
The principle here in question may be taken for an act of the mind; a
sentiment; a sentiment of approbation; a sentiment which, when applied to an
action, approves of its utility, as that quality of it by which the measure of
approbation or disapprobation bestowed upon it ought to be governed.
3. Interest is one of those words, which not having any
superior genus, cannot in the ordinary way be defined.
4. "The principle of utility, (I have heard it
said) is a dangerous principle: it is dangerous on certain occasions to consult
it." This is as much as to say, what? that it is not consonant to utility,
to consult utility: in short, that it is not consulting it, to consult
Addition by the Author, July 1822.
Not long after the publication of the Fragment on Government, anno 1776, in
which, in the character of all-comprehensive and all-commanding principle the
principle of utility was brought to view, one person by whom observation
to the above effect was made was Alexander Wedderburn, at that time
Attorney or Solicitor General, afterwards successively Chief Justice of the
Common Pleas, and Chancellor of England, under the successive titles of Lord
Loughborough and Earl of Rosslyn. It was made — not indeed in my hearing,
but in the hearing of a person by whom it was almost immediately communicated
to me. So far from being self-contradictory, it was a shrewd and perfectly true
one. By that distinguished functionary, the state of the Government was
thoroughly understood: by the obscure individual, at that time not so much as
supposed to be so: his disquisitions had not been as yet applied, with any
thing like a comprehensive view, to the field of Constitutional Law, nor
therefore to those features of the English Government, by which the greatest
happiness of the ruling one with or without that of a favoured few, are
now so plainly seen to be the only ends to which the course of it has at any
time been directed. The principle of utility was an appellative, at that
time employed by me, as it had been by others, to designate that which, in a
more perspicuous and instructive manner, may, as above, be designated by the
name of the greatest happiness principle. "This principle (said
Wedderburn) is a dangerous one." Saying so, he said that which, to a
certain extent, is strictly true: a principle, which lays down, as the only
right and justifiable end of Government, the greatest happiness of the
greatest number — how can it be denied to be a dangerous one? dangerous it
unquestionably is, to every government which has for its actual end or object,
the greatest happiness of a certain one, with or without the addition of
some comparatively small number of others, whom it is matter of pleasure or
accommodation to him to admit, each of them, to a share in the concern, on the
footing of so many junior partners. Dangerous it therefore really was,
to the interest — the sinister interest — of all those functionaries,
himself included, whose interest it was, to maximize delay, vexation, and
expense, in judicial and other modes of procedure, for the sake of the profit,
extractible out of the expense. In a Government which had for its end in view
the greatest happiness of the greatest number, Alexander Wedderburn might have
been Attorney General and then Chancellor: but he would not have been Attorney
General with £15,000 a year, nor Chancellor, with a peerage with a veto
upon all justice, with £25,000 a year, and with 500 sinecures at his
disposal, under the name of Ecclesiastical Benefices, besides et
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