The central tenet of Utilitarian philosophy is the definition of right and wrong, and how the basic principles affect people’s happiness or unhappiness.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) reasoned that the main motivation for human beings is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, and the central purpose of society is to enable the “greatest happiness to the greatest number.”
Within utilitarianism, an action would be right or wrong according to its consequences.
The answer was a representative democracy, in which citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf.
(This was actually a meritocracy, since only middle-class men over forty years old were allowed to vote at the time.)
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Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham’s Two Main Principles
The two main principles of the utilitarian philosophy are the “greatest happiness principle” and the “association principle.”
- The “greatest happiness principle,” is the consideration that the central purpose of society is to enable the great happiness to the greatest number of people.
- The “association principle” is the “deterministic account of mental occurrences.” Our modern minds would best understand this as the “conditioned reflex” as in Pavlov’s dog.
Utilitarianism in Real Life: Talented Graffiti
Take the case of three young graffiti artists, who caused £150,000 worth of damage to trains across London. According to a report published by the Mail Online on 11 December 2012, the men bragged online, posting photos and videos of the damage caused.
UK law requires the men be sentenced to prison, but Judge Henry Blacksell made it clear that although he was against jailing them, he had to impose a custodial sentence. Therefore he would give the most lenient sentence possible.
Imagine the law was less prescriptive and that the judge was empowered not to impose a punitive sentence, due to the offenders’ artistic talent. What is missing?
It is this: No suggestion of retribution has been acknowledged on the judge’s part.
We could, logically, extend this train of thought, so that the level of artistic talent is evaluated. Therefore, a “pass” could mean you would be spared punishment. A fail, because your artwork is rubbish, could earn you a spell inside.
Is this a utilitarian philosophy at work?
A Utilitarian Judgement?
If the judge could implement his personal wishes and set the three young men free, what would this mean in terms of a Utilitarian outcome?
In one sense, it could be seen as thoroughly Utilitarian, as it would work for the greater good of the public, in not needing to meet the cost of the men’s imprisonment. But this was not part of the judge’s remit.
Yet, Judge Blacksell acknowledged that this was not a “victimless crime.”
“Taking trains out of service affects people who are trying to live their ordinary lives, disrupting them in ways you probably don’t understand,” he said.
Whether the men were set free without a punitive sentence, as the judge would have preferred, or whether the sentence was reduced, there is an unsatisfactory side to this crime. There is no mention of the graffiti artists’ future moral welfare.
Surely society has a responsibility to these young men? Are they sorry for what they have done? Are they likely to repeat the offence?
Perhaps there are sometimes good reasons not to punish. Although we may be happy the offenders have not received a severe sentence, we may be uncomfortable with the reason– that their talent is upheld as a reason to ignore their moral well-being.
Is this lack of accommodation for personal integrity the unsatisfactory side of Utilitarianism? In the end, it is not a personal morality, but a public morality.
Sometimes strange reasons are given for not punishing an offender.
Mitigating Circumstances: Excusing Bad Behavior
For criminals, mitigating circumstances often reduce punishment. These offsetting factors could be the fact that the offender comes from a good family, or the understanding that prison will only make the offender worse.
To assume there is no reason for punishment due to the influence of a good family begs the question: “Why didn’t the good family prevent the offender from committing the crime in the first place?”
However, from a Utilitarian viewpoint, if the criminal worsened due to imprisonment, this would increase the sum total of human misery, affecting the perpetrator and society as a whole.
The remark implying a mitigating circumstance due to the family connection could be seen as highly offensive and an insult to the victim. The victim and her/his family may have desired retribution, and would be entitled to a fair explanation why justice has been denied. Should the victims’ feelings of outrage be taken into account to fit with the Utilitarian idea of the greatest good?
Prank Punishment: Not Utilitarian
Another dilemma may occur when young criminal is unaware of the seriousness of his crime, seeing it as a prank. Due to this lack of understanding, the judge decides not to impose a custodial sentence.
Although the leniency of the punishment fits with what the offender considered to be a prank, the judge is not, in essence, acting on Utilitarian principles, since he does not look to the future. If the judge believes that the offender behaved in a way natural to him, and without moral training to restrain him, then the offender was not responsible for his actions in a moral sense.
Therefore, those actions were deterministic and, therefore, Utilitarian.
The only justification for punishment in a case like this would be that of retribution for its own sake. If we cannot improve the situation, or the moral character of the person by punishing them, then are we just indulging ourselves?
(Of course, some retributionists would not think this relevant. Crime “X” gets a penalty “Y” regardless of circumstances, and regardless, therefore, of intention or understanding of action. But this could lead to penalties for manslaughter being almost as severe as those for murder.)
Determinism and Free Will: A Matter of Beliefs
It is maddeningly difficult to argue through such cases, and impossible not to get Utilitarian and Retribution principles entangled and confused. But, in its simplest terms, we can understand as follows:
- Utilitarians look forward for their reasons.
- Retributionists look backward for theirs.
While Utilitarianism embraces determinism, Retribution must depend on a belief in free will, given its emphasis on getting what is deserved.
Russell, Bertrand. The Utilitarians. (1946). A History of Western Philosophy. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London.
McDermott, K. Graffiti gang who caused £150,000 worth of damage to trains described by judge as ‘talented artists’. (2012). Mail Online. Accessed August 21, 2013.