Moral Calculus

Jeremey Bentham (b.1748, d.1832), an early proto-socialist and reformer, coined the term “moral calculus”.  He, like many of his contemporary reformers, was born into great wealth and patronage but took exception to it and took as his governing maxim “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as the ultimate aim of ethics and the sole descriptor of right and wrong, good and bad.  Bentham had been greatly influenced by Hume and rejected all forms of idealism, collapsing ethical categories into quantifiable variables which are further indexed to the consequence and not the motive of an action.  Thus, it was perfectly acceptable for Bentham that a person’s motivation could be self-interested, corrupt, and dishonest as long as the resulting benefit outweighed any harm.

This has some catastrophic implications, it would be permissible to torture if by torturing you prevent the torturing of others (how contemporary that view remains is perhaps captured in the 2021 film The Mauritanian concerning the torture at Guantanamo Bay) as well as a whole host of other practices such as social conditioning, forced abortion as population control, sterilization of undesirables, eugenic innovations etc. which many would consider immoral.  It was left to his contemporary and immediate successor, John Stuart Mill to develop this view, known as utilitarianism (coined by Bentham himself) into a less crass and a more benevolent form which became the foundation for many of the Victorian era liberal democracies and their social reforms.  Mill’s On Liberty (1859) for example, is considered one of the most important works of political philosophy ever published; as Bahnsen noted, this should be a required text for an educated person.  See Crimmins, Jeremy Bentham for a thorough review; the edition of Mill’s On Liberty I include in the bibliography also has three other essays and an excellent introduction to Mill’s thought.

Further Reading

Crimmins, J. E. (2021, December 21). Jeremy Bentham. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: .

Mill, J. S. (2015 (1859)). On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (New ed.). (M. Philip, & F. Rosen, Eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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