This morning I was reading A practical Guide to Happiness: Think Deeply and Flourish by Will Buckingham, and I came across the concept of the Hedonic Calculus by Jeremy Bentham.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher and social reformer who founded the school of thought known as utilitarianism. He believed that the right act or policy was that which would result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.
Interestingly, his father was an attorney. Bentham was a child prodigy and was sent to Queen’s College, Oxford at age 12. He found the curriculum dull and left after a year without a degree. He then trained at Lincoln’s Inn to become a barrister but soon became disillusioned with the legal system and never practiced law.
I have been studying Criminal Law, and I was surprised to find the law is not nearly as codified and systematic as Bentham had envisioned. There is no single criminal code that covers all offenses and penalties. Instead, criminal law consists of myriad statutes, common law precedents, and doctrines that have accumulated over centuries of legal history. This complex evolution has resulted in layers of rules and standards that do not always follow an overarching logic.
For instance, the requisite mental states for crimes like murder versus manslaughter seem defined by historical accident rather than consistent principles. Defenses like duress and necessity have emerged piecemeal from specific cases. The law retains archaic distinctions and doctrines whose rationales are not always clear today. Unlike Bentham’s structured calculus, the real criminal justice system reflects organic, incremental growth over generations. While this provides flexibility, it lacks the unified code Bentham strived for. I gained appreciation for both the nuance of evolved law and the need for systematic reform that inspired Bentham.
Instead he devoted his life to developing his moral and legal philosophy of utilitarianism, outlined in works like “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.”
Bentham wrote prolifically on law, penology, economics, and social reform. He advocated for legal and social changes like prison reform, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the abolition of slavery and of the death penalty.
I find it ironic that, despite Bentham’s vision of rational and democratic legal reform, much of today’s criminal law traces back to two dictators who imposed legal codes by fiat. The first was Caesar in the late Roman Republic, who essentially codified Roman law that later spread across Europe. The second was Napoleon Bonaparte who imposed the Napoleonic Code on France and its conquests in the early 19th century. Napoleon in particular appointed commissions to rapidly systemize French civil and criminal law into authoritative codes.
For a double dose of irony, it is interesting to take an aside of how Bentham and Napoleon collided.
Bentham was a vocal proponent of legal reform and critic of authoritarian rulers — he advocated for overhauling outdated legal systems and promoting more democratic governance. When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France after the French Revolution, Bentham initially hoped the rising military leader would prove an enlightened reformer.
But Bentham soon grew disillusioned as Napoleon consolidated power as a dictator, in a similar way that Beethoven would eventually cross out Napoleon’s dedication in his Third Symphony, the Eroica, in 1804 after also becoming disillusioned with Napoleon’s growing authoritarianism.
In 1802, Bentham published scathing criticisms of Napoleon in writings like Catechism of Parliamentary Reform, attacking him as a tyrant and enemy of liberty. As Napoleon imposed censorship and banned works challenging his authoritarian rule, Bentham’s calls for legal modernization and democracy in writings like An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation were seen as too radical. Starting around 1803-04, Napoleon had Bentham’s liberal utilitarian works suppressed in France and other countries under his control.
The irony is that Bentham, a philosopher of legal reform, had his ideas banned by the very dictator whose Napoleonic Code later renewed Europe’s law. Enlightenment optimism collided with political repression.
Though not a lawyer himself, his writings were influential on law reformers. He advised the new government formed after the Spanish Constitution of 1812.
Bentham called for codifying laws into a single, clear, and accessible document. This led the Spanish government to decree a single civil and criminal code in 1822. He also corresponded with President James Madison and influenced aspects of the U.S. Constitution and debates over the Bill of Rights.
Bentham wanted to create a unified way of measuring actions to hold individuals accountable. This is the ethical philosophy Utilitarianism in its purest form — judging actions based on their consequences. Bentham defined utility as maximising pleasure/happiness and minimising suffering/unhappiness.
His goal was to create an ethical calculus to rationally weigh the morality of any decision based on its overall impact on human happiness and suffering. This stood in contrast to moral systems focused on motives, rules or character. In summary, Bentham pioneered utilitarianism as a consequentialist, utility-focused system for judging acts right or wrong.
Bentham’s act utilitarianism differs starkly from modern criminal law in its treatment of mens rea (guilty mind) and actus reus (guilty act). Some key differences:
- Criminal law requires proving both actus reus – the criminal act – and mens rea – the mental state like intent.
- Utilitarianism disregards intent and just looks at the act itself. Motive is irrelevant to moral judgment.
- The law sees motive as essential to distinguishing between degrees of offenses like murder vs manslaughter.
- But for Bentham, any loss of life is equally bad based on the outcome. Why you killed is unimportant.
- The legal system also considers mitigating circumstances that can lessen culpability even for the same act. But utility ignores excuses or justifications.
- Lastly, the law imposes fixed punishments fitting the crime. For Bentham, punishment should aim at crime prevention, not retribution.
This part raises some eyebrows: Why you killed is unimportant.
At first glance, Bentham’s utilitarian ethics would seem to judge any loss of life as equally wrong, since all human lives are sacred. His act utilitarianism disregards motives and circumstances, caring only for outcomes. However, Bentham’s hedonic calculus provides room to differentiate cases of self-defense from unprovoked murder. In murder, the criminal’s pleasure is vastly outweighed by the suffering and loss inflicted on the victim, their family, and society at large. But a case could be made that killing in self-defense produces less net suffering than being killed by an intruder. While no killing maximizes happiness, between the two options self-defense could produce greater overall utility.
In applying the hedonic calculus, Bentham would still criticize taking a life in self-defense as morally problematic. But he could condone it relative to the alternative scenario. Much depends on quantifying the utility of all parties affected. In the end, while Bentham saw all life as equal, his utilitarian ethics could potentially distinguish self-defense from murder by weighing their relative impacts on total happiness versus suffering. Some punishment may be advocated to deter abuse of self-defense claims, but the ultimate judgment is based on utility.
So let’s dig into the Hedonic Calculus itself. These are the core components:
- Intensity: How strong is the pleasure or pain?
- Duration: How long will the sensation last?
- Certainty: How likely is the pleasure or pain to occur?
- Propinquity: How soon will the pleasure or pain occur?
- Fecundity: Will the action lead to further pleasures or pains?
- Purity: Is the pleasure free from pain or vice versa?
- Extent: How many people will be affected?
Intensity refers to how strong the pleasure or pain is. For example, the intensity of enjoyment from eating ice cream is far less than the intensity of pain from a broken bone. Bentham said the intensity of a sensation should be considered in judging how much it impacts happiness or unhappiness.
Duration is how long the pleasure or pain lasts. The duration of watching a movie is around 2 hours, while the duration of recovering from surgery can be months. Acts that affect happiness or unhappiness for longer periods of time matter more in Bentham’s calculus.
Certainty relates to how likely an act is to actually produce the expected pleasure or pain. If pleasure is uncertain or doubtful, it should not be weighed as heavily as guaranteed pleasure. We must consider the probability the act will have the expected outcome.
Propinquity looks at how soon the pleasure or pain will occur after the act. Pleasures or pains in the distant future matter less than those in the immediate present, since distant outcomes are more uncertain.
Fecundity examines if the act will tend to produce additional future pleasures or pains beyond the immediate impact. These potential further consequences should be included in judging the act’s total utility.
Purity asks if the pleasure is “pure” without any mixture of pain, or the pain “pure” without any pleasure. Sensations with a mix of both require separating the pleasure and pain components.
So this is all about tradeoffs, and what it means to have pleasure and pain. How do we define these? I think for pleasure there are really two ways to look at it: subjective vs objective.
Defining pleasure and pain raises the question of subjective versus objective criteria. Bentham focused on the subjective experience of happiness or suffering. But should morality derive from individual preferences alone? Some argue an objective basis is needed, like Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia or human flourishing. For example, a rapist may argue their crime brings them pleasure. Subjectively this feeling cannot be denied. However, rape inflicts trauma and violates consent, impeding the victim’s well-being. Objectively, a flourishing society is one without rape. Though the rapist gains subjective pleasure, the act diminishes objective happiness.
In Bentham’s calculus, the rapist’s pleasure would be outweighed by factors like the rape’s certainty, duration, purity and extent of harm. The trauma to the victim persists much longer than the rapist’s momentary pleasure. Rape also rends the moral fabric of society in many ways. It spreads fear and distrust, especially among women, decreasing overall well-being. The stigma attached to victims can lead to ostracization and suffering. Rape statistics may deter women from careers or activities out of caution and significant social resources must be diverted to prosecuting rapists and providing services to victims. All these widespread impacts on women and communities multiply the suffering caused. Though the rapist gains some subjective enjoyment, an objective analysis shows rape substantially reduces net utility through its broad social harms. In this way, Bentham left room for both subjective experience and objective societal criteria in his moral framework. The hedonic calculus demonstrates how rape fails to maximize objective happiness.
Yhere are significant challenges in trying to objectively quantify and measure the factors in Bentham’s hedonic calculus for actual legal or ethical decisions. Some key problems:
- Intensity of pleasure/pain is highly subjective and difficult to measure or compare between different people and experiences. There is no universal way to objectively gauge intensity.
- Duration can be estimated, but the exact duration of future pleasure or pain is uncertain. How far into the future should calculations extend?
- Certainty relies on estimated probabilities that may be prone to error and cognitive biases. True certainty is rare.
- Propinquity attempts to temporally discount future effects, but choosing an appropriate discount rate is complicated. Individuals may value time differently.
- Fecundity requires complex analysis of cascading effects and unintended consequences that grows increasingly speculative. Long-run causation is hard to model accurately.
- Purity depends on problematic interpersonal comparisons of subjective experiences like comparing degrees of sadness.
- Extent can be approximated by number of people affected, but misses distributional issues and interpersonal comparisons.
While the hedonic calculus currently cannot be rigorously applied due to limitations in quantifying and comparing subjective states, AI and advanced data analytics may someday provide tools to measure utility in a more objective manner. Brain scanning and sentiment analysis could detect intensity and duration of emotions. Predictive algorithms could estimate cascading effects and social impacts based on big data, overcoming the speculativeness of human forecasting. Even factors like purity and certainty could be informed by mining millions of case studies and scenarios to determine typical distributions and probabilities.
With enough data, machine learning techniques may be able to overcome some of the cognitive biases and limitations that skew human cost-benefit analyses. Of course, the algorithms and training data would still contain some residual subjectivity. But an AI system could consistently apply the same standards to each case without fatigue or emotional bias. By leveraging massive databases and computational power, it may someday be feasible to employ the hedonic calculus in a reasonably impartial way.
However, fully automating such an algorithmic approach raises ethical issues about transparency, accountability, and fairness that would need to be addressed. And some may argue that true morality requires a degree of human wisdom and nuance that cannot be captured through data-driven calculation — it oversimplifies the complexity of real-life ethical dilemmas.
Reducing morality to a cost-benefit analysis ignores intangible factors that make some choices so difficult. For instance, how can one quantify concepts like justice, dignity, or fulfillment of duty using Bentham’s seven criteria? Utilitarian reckoning cannot easily account for principles, emotions, relationships, rights, or virtues essential to human flourishing.
Applying the hedonic calculus may also lead to dubious conclusions that conflict with moral common sense. If utility is maximised, are theft, torture or oppression justified? Can I take your organs and redistribute them to five other people who can then live happy lives, while you die?
Bentham claimed good government was less about rights than maximising pleasure. But his calculus struggles to model fundamental human rights and protections. While aiming to rationalise ethics, utilitarianism’s reductionist logic can produce unreasonable prescriptions when applied to truly complex modern policy debates involving competing duties, values and priorities. Its computational approach to morality risks missing the forest for the trees.
Nevertheless, a tool based on Bentham’s utilitarian framework could at minimum provide helpful insight and supplementation to human moral reasoning, even if not a complete substitute. The possibilities merit further philosophical and technical exploration.
While precisely quantifying every factor in the hedonic calculus may be difficult, we can often reasonably determine where on the extreme ends of the spectrum an action falls for each criteria.
A few examples to illustrate this:
- Intensity: We can likely tell if a pleasure is mild (eating a sweet) or intense (passionate romance). Same for distinguishing severe pain from mild pain. The extremes are clearer.
- Duration: We know a stubbed toe hurts briefly while chronic back pain persists. The exact duration may be uncertain but the general timescale can be estimated.
- Certainty: Getting cash from an ATM is more certain than gambling. The precise odds may be tricky but the difference in certainty is obvious.
- Propinquity: A bonus paid next week has more proximate pleasure than possible promotion next year. The nearness in time is apparent.
- Fecundity: Regular exercise has cascading health benefits while smoking addiction compounds harms. The general tendencies are knowable.
So while precision is difficult, the hedonic calculus can still helpfully distinguish the extremes and gradients on each spectrum. Comparing relative positions can inform judgments without requiring exact measurements. Considering where actions lie on each factor scale has merit even if precise scores remain elusive and can never be calculated.
While Bentham’s utilitarianism has clear limitations, his pioneering work carved a path for using reason and calculation to inform morality. Much as the Enlightenment tamed religion with rational analysis, Bentham sought to scrutinize ethics through evidence and universality. Utilitarian thinking today pervades fields like economics, public policy, and effective altruism movements aiming to do the most good.
Yet critics rightly warn that morality cannot be wholly reduced to cost-benefit equations. Respect for human dignity, justice, and rights require preserving space for moral intuition. Perhaps the solution is what Keynes called Enlightened Utilitarianism — employing the hedonic calculus as one tool among many, while recognizing wisdom has its mysteries beyond the formulaic.
Two centuries later, Bentham still provokes the question: can moral philosophy be a science just like any other?
His flawed but seminal attempt to make it so remains influential.