Principle of utility
The principle of utility or ‘greatest happiness principle’ is the pursuit of pleasure over pain. It means designing society and institutions for the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It is based, for Bentham, however, on psychological egoism, the idea that we are all motivated by self-interest in the pursuit of personal pleasure and avoidance of pain. Pleasure and pain can be measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, productiveness, purity, and extent. His hedonistic, or felicific, calculus proposed a classification of 14 pleasures and 12 pains. These could be measured and the happiness factor calculated for any action. This led to some precise, some would say odd, recommendations for building institutions, such as prisons and schools.
The idea of the Panopticon prison was a radial design where all prisoners could be seen from a central hub. Bentham applied this idea to education in Chrestomathia (1817). One should not see this as a wholly authoritarian ‘school as prison’ model but rather similar to the modern lecture hall in the round. The aim was to encourage good citizenship and this cutting off from the outside and surveillance, so hated by Foucault, was designed to free the mind from mischievous influences and delusions, with a focus on useful art and science. Intellectual instruction protects the individual from groupthink and allows freedom of thought, even self-delusion.
He was interested in producing, not only good participatory citizens but also public servants and leaders. It was not just learners but teachers and other public figures that had to be open to scrutiny, to prevent delusion from taking hold of people’s minds. The Panopticon idea in schools was to do away with cribbing and copying. His curriculum was science-based (Natural Philosophy) and empirical, based on the senses and memory. Human testimony was also important, from biography and history.
This authoritarian element in his thought has gained most of the attention but you can find in his writings a much more liberal figure, who really did value individual freedom of expression, women’s rights, legalisation of homosexuality, animal rights, the abolition of capital punishment, slavery and the separation of church and state. He was also against physical punishment of adults and children.
The National Charity Company was his idea for the relief of the poor. Industry Houses would produce huge numbers of educated apprentices, who would repay their cost of living debt by working when released. The idea was to use education to allow poor children to get gainful employment, with 200 young people in every one of 250 Industry Houses.
There is a utopian streak in Bentham’s educational writing, grounded in his utilitarianism. He wanted to start over again, rearing children to become useful citizens of a society free from corruption, delusion and venal rulers. Citizens were to be able to challenge rulers in a liberal democratic society, where education and transparency were their weapons but also accept an education that allowed this to be realised.
There is an element of behaviourism in Bentham, with his view of the regulation of simple pleasure and pain, but Bentham’s best known influence has been on Foucault, who took from him the idea of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish (1975). The Panopticon prison was never built and Foucault takes the more authoritarian aspects and ditches the rest of Bentham’s thought, so one could argue that it was clearly an early 19th century experiment in designing a society of educated, critical and useful leaders and workers, not a Foucaultian nightmare..
The current debates about whether the internet is a force for democritisation or digital surveillance, often introduce the Panopticon idea as a metaphor for a dystopian view of technology, yet Benthan saw it as offering transparency, freeing us from fake knowledge and beliefs.
Bentham’s influence on Mill was profound, as Mill carried over his utilitarian principles, improving on them by taking it away from a simple hedonic calculus. They both held strong philosophical beliefs based on the pleasure principle that shaped their views of society and education but it was Mill that had more realistic recommendations. Their influence on the modern movement of positive psychology, with its focus on ‘happiness’ has also been significant.
Betham, Jeremy. A Comment on the Commentaries and a Fragment on Government, London: The Athalone Press 1977. p. 393.
Semple, J., 1993. Bentham's Prison: a Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Bentham, J. Chrestomathia, (1817) 1983. Edited by M. J. Smith and W. H. Burston.
Bentham, J., 2001. Writing on the Poor Laws, volumen I. The Collected Works of Jeremy.
Bentham, J., 2010. Writing on the Poor Laws, Vol. II, M. Quinn.