Happy Happy Joy Joy?

While looking up some words in the dictionary yesterday, I ran across this term: the “greatest happiness principle.”According to Merriam-Webster, GHP, also called the “utility principle,” is “a principle in Benthamism” that states that “right and wrong are to be judged by the degree to which the action judged achieves the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The principle is meant to be a guide in deciding how to act in any circumstance. Simply put, the correct action in any situation is the one that brings the most happiness to the most people. This is the central tenet of utilitarian moral theory.

The Benthamism mentioned by Merriam-Webster refers to Jeremy Bentham (pictured below), the English philosopher who founded utilitarianism and came up with the GHP. To determine how successful one is at applying the GHP or your “utility,” Bentham created seven categories for rating it: intensity, duration, certainty, proximity, fecundity, purity, and extent. Then he used something called “felicific calculus” to determine whether an action is moral or immoral. (“Felicific” is an adjective describing something that brings about or is designed to bring about happiness. His method was also called “hedonic calculus.”)

Phew! Talk about overthinking things. Bentham, though, was an extremely cool person for his time (1748 to 1832). He favored individual and economic freedom, separation of church and state, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, the legalization of homosexuality, and the abolition of slavery, the death penalty, and physical punishment. Kudos all around!

Still, I am, not surprisingly, confused by the GHP and utilitarianism. Supposedly, something that is “utilitarian” is something that focuses on practical things or material interests. So how did that come to be associated with a philosophy centered around the intangible concept of happiness? As it turns out, Bentham viewed utility differently. To him, it is the sum of all pleasure that results from an action minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action. He must have rated each of his seven categories somehow and then set a threshold point for the total score above which an action was judged moral and below which it was immoral.

This brings me, in an admittedly roundabout, long-winded way, to the debate tonight between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I wish Bentham were here to rate the utility of this event. I suspect it would garner a very low score, both in terms of Bentham’s definition of the word and in terms of the more common meaning of “the quality or state of being useful.” In other words, tonight’s debate is unlikely to make very many people happy or help them decide who to vote for and will likely involve great suffering on the part of those putting it on and those viewing it. (Donald will probably be oblivious to this, of course, and Hillary focused on how best to dodge her improprieties.) Given this, in Bentham’s view the debate will constitute an immoral act. I can’t say I would disagree with him.

“If you desire greater utility, consider ditching the debate to watch ‘Meet the Fockers’ at 9 p.m.”
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