Utilitarianism – Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill – Utilitarian calculators

Utilitarians explain all human action

The moral worth of a decision and action values its usefulness in maximizing utility/minimizing negative utility and this is summed among all living thinking beings. Jeremy Bentham (was not just a character on Lost) and John Stuart Mill (IQ of about 190) championed economic philosophy called Utilitarianism. What amazes me about Utilitarian analysis is it can be applied to every aspect of life from economics to criminology. In fact, I think it can better explain human behavior than psychology. In this post, I will illustrate the utilitarian analysis with a crime I commit.

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.  – John Stuart Mill

Utilitarianism and crime – my example

I ride the trams every day in my city of Krakow. From time to time I break the law (let us say hypothetically to avoid self-incrimination). When I only have one stop and it is the weekend, I do not always buy a ticket. I know that they check mostly on weekdays and the risk of getting caught is minimal for a one-stop ride. Further, the fine is only 25 dollars for a first-time offense. Therefore, the price of a 1 dollar ticket for me is sometimes too great weighing the risks and rewards. This is an example of a simple utilitarian calculation of happiness.

However, let’s spice it up a bit. For me, the calculation is not that simple. It is not simply a calculation of probability and risk and reward, but also a moral question. For me to break the law and rip off the good people of Krakow, even for 1 stop is not normally permissible for me.

utilitarianism  example
The price of a tram ticket is more than the benefit of riding one-stop without the risk of getting caught, in some cases. A utilitarian argument.

However, recently a great moral injustice has come down upon me, which is beyond the scope of this post (I myself was a victim of a horrible crime that could have been prevented). In moments of weakness, I do sometimes ride the tram for free in my bitterness. I know it is petty, but it gives me some feeling of momentary satisfaction. However, the fact that I suffer from the pains of moral guilt prevents me from doing in the future.

Further, others might add one more thing, that is the thrill of getting away with something. Some people have different indifference curves and are not risk-averse. They get a lot of utils from the adrenaline of risk.

Happiness the goal of human life in Utilitarian analysis

The above all come into a decision calculation which is still a utilitarian calculation of maximizing happiness.

When I decide that I will ride the tram, I make a decision if I will buy and cancel my tick or go for the free ride. 99% of the time I will pay. However, I am a free rider that 1% of the time when I feel particularly bitter and throw caution to the wind. In some way, I justify my actions by the city paying me back or the attitude I do not care.

A Utilitarians’ life is a calculation and every human a calculator. The greatest happiness was the goal of this calculation.

The equation itself is simple. Each decision is a measure of punishment and reward. It was not simply accountancy of the debits and credits of physical pain and physical pleasure, Rather it takes into account all aspects of human happiness, including moral feelings, risk, and probability.

Every decision in life can be broken down into this type of utilitarian decision tree. Crime, work, even love is an attempt to maximize happiness. What is life but a calculation? This is what the utilitarians believe. Utilitarians take a quantitative reductionist approach to life and ethics and law. Here are some Jeremy Bentham quotes on law and utilitarianism.

It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.

It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual.

The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation. –
Jeremy Bentham

There are many critiques of Utilitarianism from Marx to Wittgenstein, Daniel Dennett Matthew Ostrow. However, the purpose of this post is to simply illustrate the possibility of this philosophy in everyday life.

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.- John Stuart Mill

Next time you ride a tram or subway, think of me. Think of your actions and be aware of why you do something and see if you can fit it into a utilitarian model and if those actions should be changed for your greater good. I know I need to change my actions or at least my thought patterns.  I believe when you maximize your own personal greater good and happiness in an enlightened way, society as a whole benefit. What do you think?

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