Tag Archives: Jeremy Bentham


Zena Gainsbury took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘utilitarian’ as a keyword, from John Stuart Mill to modern fashion magazines….

(Courtesy: ImaxTree) 2014 Paris Fashion Week: Utilitarian style by (Left-Right) H&M, Isabel Marant, Balenciaga, Balmain, and Lanvin.

When flicking through Grazia magazine on a Tuesday evening (I receive the joy of this subscription in my postbox weekly) nothing puzzles me more than the use of ‘utilitarian’ against a backdrop of khaki, pockets, and wrap belts. Between reading about Taylor Swift’s squad and the trivialities of Harry Styles love life I am more than surprised to see a nod towards the utilitarians. I swiftly imagine J.S. Mill, Grazia in hand, fighting for the ‘Mind the Pay Gap Campaign’ outside the Houses of Parliament alongside the likes of Gemma Arterton. Perhaps, the use of ‘utilitarian’ amongst celebrity gossip is a product of the evolution of women’s magazines like Grazia, who now, rather than print stories focused merely on the latest popstar include informed cultural pieces. But as I scan my Grazia for a ‘normal’ use of the word ‘utilitarian’ amongst these more serious pieces on women’s rights and the plight of Syrian refugees the only use of ‘utilitarian’ is to connote a fashion trend. Such a mainstream use of ‘utilitarian’ in British popular culture seems ultimately surprising – severing the white middle class figures of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill from use of the word Utilitarian seems somewhat impossible. How then, has the fashion industry appropriated its use to connote something which appears to diverge completely from the utilitarian’s intentions?


(Courtesy of Wikipedia) The utilitarian and not so fashion conscious J.S. Mill.

Although the image of J.S. Mill as utilitarian philosopher and fashion darling is an amusing and somehow pleasing image this isn’t the usual picture that the word Utilitarian (dating back to 1781 to describe Jeremy Bentham himself) evokes in philosophical uses as either adjective of noun.  As a noun Utilitarian refers to ‘one who holds, advocates, or supports the doctrine of utilitarianism; one who considers utility the standard of whatever is good for man; also, a person devoted to mere utility or material interests.’[1] And, again, when used as an adjective the earliest usage, is again, attributed to Jeremy Bentham; defined as ‘Consisting in or based upon utility; that regards the greatest good or happiness of the greatest number as the chief consideration or rule of morality.’ From these definitions, however, we do not gather a complete sense of what it is, or was, to be a ‘utilitarian’.

To really grasp what it is to be, or to be described as a utilitarian in pre-20th Century Britain it is best to consult the literature of the utilitarians. Bentham formulated this ethical system in a number of his life’s works which approves, or disapproves any action according to whether it augments of diminishes ‘the two sovereign masters’ pain and pleasure. [2] ‘Utility’ itself, for Bentham, refers to the ‘property’ in any object which produces any of the following: advantage, benefit, pleasure, good, happiness or the prevention of pain in regards to the interests of the individual, or the interests of the whole community. The interest of the community is calculated by taking the ‘sum’ interest of its members. Bentham argues the case for his formulation of utilitarianism by asking the question: is there any other motive a man can have which is distinguished from the motive of utility? Perhaps there isn’t, but defining ‘utility’ becomes problematic, and many condemn Bentham’s approach as merely exemplifying hedonistic principles.


‘The Auto-Icon’ courtesy of: Existential Comics – the Utilitarian Bentham and the ‘faults’ of Utilitarianism.

The hedonism in Bentham’s approach was critiqued and redeveloped by his utilitarian successor J.S. Mill. Mill, who grew up under the influence of Bentham, criticised him for ‘neglected character in his ethics’ and a focus on ‘self-interest’ and a formidable lack of ‘inspiration’ in which Mill attempted to remedy in his formulation of the Utilitarian theory. Namely, Mill’s utilitarianism differs from Bentham’s in its emphasis on quality over quantity in regards to pleasure:

‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’[3]

Bentham’s utilitarianism was criticised as debasing the object of human life as nothing but pleasure: ‘a doctrine worthy of swine.’ Mill tackles this criticism of Bentham by arguing that a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conception of happiness; and goes so far as to argue that ‘few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures’ and thus making a distinction between human and animal pleasures. Mill justifies this by suggesting that the possession of higher faculties in humans entails a greater measure of happiness for fulfilment, and as such, the fulfilment of a beast’s pleasures for a human provides no fulfilment, or pleasure, at all.

Courtesy: Grazia 29th Feb 2016 Issue Fashion Utilitarianism.

(Courtesy: Grazia 29th Feb 2016) ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ in magazines included in a report on London Fashion Week.

In 20th and 21st Century philosophy this is problematic – Mill’s reference to ‘lower pleasures’ ridicules those with lower mental capacities who Peter Singer infers as ‘a person with an intellectual disability.’[4] It is interesting here to go back to what I will call ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ – what end of the scale would Mill propose that this was situated? Looking perhaps at the catwalk of Paris, Madrid or London, maybe these would be considered as ‘higher pleasures’ alongside other privileged activities including opera and theatre. What about high-street ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’? I imagine that Primark sits at the bottom of Mill’s scale. Or is the consideration and pleasure taken in choosing agreeable clothing whether it is off an Essex high street or hot off the Versace catwalk a higher pleasure in itself? The problematic subjectivity inherent in both Mill and Bentham’s utilitarianism is clear here.

Peter Singer’s approach to utilitarianism is inspired by his vegetarianism and animal rights activism which makes his ‘preference’ utilitarianism more inclusive. A case that demonstrates this inclusiveness in Singer’s ethics is included in his article Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972).[5] Singer, writing after the cyclone in Bangladesh in 1971, argued that physical proximity should not be a factor when establishing one’s moral obligations to others. He argues that it makes no difference whether he helps his neighbour or someone whose name he will never know and in essence compromising the relationship between duty and charity. Hence, Singer’s utilitarian approach proposes that any act becomes duty if it will either prevent more pain that it causes or cause more happiness than it prevents. But how can this apply to fashion? It seems as if ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ has modelled its utilitarian approach even further from Mill, Bentham and Singer’s definitions of a utilitarian ethics.

Courtesy of ASOS - Fashion Utilitarianism and Utility

(Courtesy of ASOS) – Fashion Utilitarianism and Utility as shown on one of the leading fashion retailer’s site.

The only thing that I can see relating to these khaki adorned, boiler suit and pocket embellished page spreads is that word ‘utility’ of which utilitarianism and utilitarian derive. The other common factor that arises when looking through these glossies is the intertwining and juxtaposed use of the words ‘utilitarian’ and ‘military’ to describe a fashion trend which seems bounds away from the ethical theory proposed by Jeremy Bentham, and later J.S Mill. Magazine writers flit between using ‘utilitarian’ to describe a look to ‘military’ two words that, when thinking about the principle of utility as the minimisation of pain and maximisation of pleasure seem exceptionally polarised terms. Maybe if we go back to the definition of the word ‘utility’ this use in the fashion industry may become clearer:

‘The fact, character, or quality of being useful or serviceable; fitness for some desirable purpose or valuable end; usefulness, serviceableness.’[6]

Here I can find links between the use ‘utility’ and ‘military’ which relate to the fashion world and illuminate the meaning of ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’. The words ‘serviceable’ and ‘usefulness’ stand out in the definition of ‘utility.’ Serviceableness as the ‘utility’ of a garment links to the use of ‘military’ interchangeably with ‘utility’ or ‘utilitarian’ – what we’re really looking at is a fashion which is easy to maintain, whether this be the look, or the garment itself (which I presume is how ‘military’ comes in). ‘Usefulness’ has a much broader spectrum of connotations than utilitarianism and hence seems to resonate much more with the fashion and designers described as ‘utilitarian’. It infers a practical look; and finally those oversized pockets seem to make sense. ‘Fashion Utilitarianism’ seems to have adopted the language of the utilitarians but arguably not the semantics. However, the evolution of the word ‘utility’ resonates with words like ‘wearability’ and ‘practicality’ which relate more obviously to fashion and hence underline how the word ‘utilitarian’ has evolved in modern use. And as for the pockets, their existence on the garment is beneficial to the wearer and serves a purpose – how very utilitarian.


[1] “utilitarian, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 28 February 2016.

[2] Jeremy Bentham, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987) p. 65.

[3] J.S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987) p. 281.

[4] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p. 108.

[5] Peter Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243 [revised edition] <http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972—-.htm> [accessed: 26/02/2016]

[6] “usefulness, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 29 February 2016.

Further Reading:

Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/

In Our Time ‘Utilitarianism Episode: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05xhwqf

Jeremy Bentham, ‘An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987)

Katie Davidson, ‘Army Green Marches Down the Runway at Paris Fashion Week’ – http://www.livingly.com/Fashion+Trend+Report/articles /jqtgypb2__3/Army+Green+Marches+Down+Runway+Paris+Fashion

J.S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’ in On Liberty and other writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

J.S. Mill, ‘Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism and Other Essays, ed. Alan Ryan (London: Penguin Classics, 1987)

Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)


Charlie Roden took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post she writes about ‘happiness’ as a philosophical keyword, with the help of Charlie Brown.

Extract from the comic-strip ‘Peanuts’. Image from http://www.philipchircop.com/post/15448312238/incidentally-what-is-happiness-do-whatever

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘happiness’ is defined as ‘the state of being happy’, that is, ‘feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.’[1]  Happiness is a universal concept which, I believe, most people aspire to achieve. However, since happiness is so subjective, everyone interprets it in different ways.

Many people believe that they attain happiness when they eat their favourite food, buy new clothes or earn a lot of money. Although these are all experiences that can be enjoyed, they don’t actually cause happiness- they only bring us pleasure.  Of course, the official definition of ‘happiness’ does include pleasure, however I agree with Happiness International who suggest that pleasure is only short-lived and externally motivated. If happiness relied on pleasures such as the ones just mentioned, does this suggest that without a lot of money or materialistic items people are unhappy?

I don’t believe that anyone can truly define ‘happiness’, and by looking at the history of this word we can see how its cultural and philosophical meanings have changed over time, demonstrating that happiness cannot simply be understood as a single concept.

‘Happiness’ stems from the late fourteenth-century word ‘hap’ meaning ‘good luck’ or ‘chance’. [2] This suggests then that in the Middle Ages, a person was believed to be happy if they had good fortune.  Already, we can see how a modern perspective of ‘happiness’ is different to this idea, as although being lucky can promote happiness, we can often feel happy without being fortunate.

The sole predecessor to the idea of ‘happiness’ was proposed by Aristotle (384-322 BC). In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle emphasised that the ultimate aim in life is ‘Eudaimonia’, an Ancient Greek term usually translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘human growth.’ [3]

Unlike an emotional state, such as pleasure, Aristotle asserted that Eudaimonia is about reaching your full potential and flourishing as a person. In order to do this, you need to live a life that is wholesome and virtuous to attain the best version of yourself. [4] Virtue can be achieved through balance and moderation, as this way of life leads to ‘the greatest long-term value’ rather than just pleasure that is short-lived.  [5] In a modern-day perspective, this would be the difference between earning vast sums of money but spending it all at once, as opposed to spending money wisely, ensuring it will last and provide you with a good life. [6]

In the early modern era, the importance of happiness began to emerge in the political sphere. [7] In 1726, the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) wrote that

‘that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.’ [8]

This utilitarian principle, which aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, essentially asserts than an action is right if it produces happiness and wrong if it produces the reverse of happiness. [9]

Jeremy Bentham 1748 – 1832

Jeremy Bentham, image from http://sueyounghistories.com/archives/2010/06/13/jeremy-bentham-1748-%E2%80%93-1832/

The most famous advocate of utilitarianism was English philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Bentham proposed many social and legal reforms, such as complete equality for both sexes, and put forward the idea that legislation should be based on morality. [10] Identifying the good with pleasure, in his 1781 book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’  [11]

By stating that happiness can be understood in terms of the balance of pleasure over pain, Bentham shares an ethical Hedonistic claim; the notion that only pleasure is valuable, and displeasure or pain is valueless. [12]

In 1861, English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) published one of his most famous essays, Utilitarianism, which was written to support the value of Bentham’s moral theories. The general argument of Mill’s work proposed that morality brings about the best state of a situation, and that the best state of affairs is the one with the largest amount of happiness for the majority of people. Mill also defined happiness as the supremacy of pleasure over pain; however, unlike Bentham, Mill recognised that pleasure can vary in quality. Whereas Bentham saw simple-minded and sensual pleasures, such as drinking alcohol or eating luxurious foods as just as good as complex and sophisticated pleasures, such as listening to classical music or reading a piece of literature,  [13] Mill argued that:

‘the pleasures that are rooted in one’s higher faculties should be weighted more heavily than baser pleasures.’

[14]  Mill’s version of pleasure also links back to the tradition  of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, as he stated that leading a virtuous life should be counted as part of a person’s happiness. [15]

Ultimately, ‘happiness’, at least from a political viewpoint, took its deepest roots in the New World. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) asserted that:

‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.’ [16] 

He believed that a good government was one that promoted its people’s happiness by securing their rights.

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, image from http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/creating-the-united-states/interactives/declaration-of-independence/pursuit/enlarge5.html

‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’, the three ‘unalienable rights’ is the phrase  most often quoted from  the 1776 American Declaration of Independence. Today, Americans translate ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a right to follow ones dreams and chase after whatever makes you subjectively happy. [17]   However, Professor James R. Rogers from Texas A&M University argues that happiness in the public discourse of the late eighteenth-century did not simply refer to an emotional state. Instead, it meant a person’s wealth or well-being. [18] It included the right to meet ‘physical needs’, but it also encompassed an important religious and moral aspect. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 confirmed that:

‘the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depended upon piety, religion and morality, and… these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.’ [19]

Statements like these can be found in many documents of the time. Essentially, ‘happiness’ in the Declaration should be understood as a virtuous happiness, again similar to Aristotle’s ‘Eudaimonia’. Although the ‘pursuit of happiness’ includes a right to material things, it goes beyond that to include a person’s moral condition. [20]

After searching for the philosophy of happiness in twentieth-century Britain, I came across Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930. To my surprise, I found his beliefs on happiness rather modern, and similar to the sort of ideas about happiness you can read about in self-help books today. Nevertheless, I found his work inspiring. Russell wrote this book to ‘suggest a cure’ for the day-to-day unhappiness that most people suffer from in civilised countries.  [21]

The key concept of happiness that I took away from Russell’s book was to stop worrying:

‘When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,’ you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.’ [22]

This also means to stop worrying about what other people think of you, since most people will not think about you anywhere near as much as you think [23], essentially suggesting that people overestimate other negative people’s feelings about them.

With around two thousand self-help books being published every year, it can be argued that happiness is more central to modern-day society than any other time in history. [24]

However, as well as aiming to achieve happiness, there is now a huge emphasis on how to reduce symptoms which prevent happiness, such as anxiety and depression.  According to the Huffington Post, around 350,000,000 people around the world are affected by some form of depression. These extortionate statistics has led to the creation of organisations such as Action For Happiness, whose aim is to reduce misery in people’s lives, and encourage people to create more happiness and less unhappiness in the world.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1838-1910) once said:

“If you want to be happy, be.” [25]

The idea that we can simply choose to be happy, regardless of certain aspects of our life that we want to change, is also a prevalent idea today. The best-selling song of 2014, Pharrell Williams’ Happy promotes this idea:

‘Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.’ [26]

When asked what these lyrics meant, Williams stated that happiness has no limits and can be achieved by everyone.


Pharrell Williams’ reply. Image from https://twitter.com/Pharrell/status/431011318737698816?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Finally, the idea that everyone can achieve happiness has been a topic talked about by Sam Berns. Berns suffered from Progeria and helped raise awareness of this disease. He died one year after appearing in a TEDx Talks video called ‘My philosophy for a happy life’ at the age of seventeen in 2014. In this inspiring video, Berns shares his four key concepts that help him lead a happy life.

1) Overcome obstacles that prevent happiness.

2) Instead of focussing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.

3) Surround yourself with people who bring positive energy into your life.

4) Don’t waste energy on feeling bad for yourself.

Overall, it appear that there is no such thing as one concept of ‘happiness.’ From classical antiquity all the way through to present day, the idea of what happiness means culturally and philosophically has developed, and will most likely continue to change in the future.

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