The Ethicist’s Toolbox: Jeremy Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus

Can happiness be measured and predicted? This article takes a look at the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who proposed his Hedonic Calculus could do precisely that.

Sep 5, 2022By Amanda Adie, BA Philosophy w/ honors) & Creative Writing, MA Philosophy
ethicist toolbox jeremy bentham hedonic calculus


Figuring out how to be a good person and live a happy and ethical life is often a complicated, confusing, and sometimes exhausting task. What if you have good intentions but bring about disastrous consequences? What if the person who does an incredible good for the world, such as cure cancer, is a malicious puppy torturer in their spare time? How can you make sure to be happy while still doing enough for those around you? One man who offered a potential solution is a 16th-century political and moral philosopher named Jeremy Bentham. An early proponent of consequentialist theories of morality, Bentham laid the foundations for the study of ethics as we know it today.


In the following sections, we will look at what is known to be Jeremy Bentham’s largest contribution to ethical philosophy — the Hedonic Calculus. Fortunately, this is one calculus that is sure to bring you way more pleasure than the sort you might have learned in high school!


Jeremy Bentham, Creator of the Hedonic Calculus

jeremy bentham portrait pickersgill
Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill, 1875, National Portrait Gallery


Writing at a time when natural law theory was the norm — the theory that morality and the law are one and the same — Jeremy Bentham was considered a radical for his arguments in favor of a separation of law and morality, a theory now known as legal positivism. At the time, morality was largely considered to be an extension of God’s will, so Bentham’s secular theory of law caused plenty of pearl-clutching and controversy.


By creating a separation between the two, there would be legal room for those who live outside of the doctrines of religion to exist without fear of persecution. This applied to atheists, LGBTQ+ folks, and often people who were just considered abnormal in any way. Of course, real progress would take much longer in actuality, but legal positivism was the start of this becoming possible.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Bentham’s radicalism did not stop at theories of law. The consequentialist theory of ethics he authored was also a deviation from the moral theories in vogue. Maintaining that the rightness or wrongness of an action comes from the consequences of one’s action rather than God, consequentialism had awkward ramifications for theists. If something is right or wrong because of consequences, God’s approval or disapproval of the action would be irrelevant. There are many words that theists would happily use to describe God, but “irrelevant” is not one of them!


In addition to being the “radical hippie” of the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham inspired the likes of J.S. Mill, who is largely considered the father of utilitarianism. Arguably, Bentham’s contributions to utilitarianism haven’t received their due appreciation, being overshadowed by his pupils and successors. Hopefully, this article will shine some spotlight on this great moral philosopher.


Thought Experiment: Ant Farming or Curing the Common Cold?

scientist greer painting
The Scientist by Rita Greer, 2007, via Wikimedia.


I would like to introduce you to my friend, Dr. Anthony Eader. Currently, Dr. Eader is in the throes of an ethical dilemma and requires some sort of intervention on how to proceed with his life. He is a brilliant scientist who has devoted his life to finding the cure for the common cold. Success is very close, and he knows that he’ll be able to finalize his cure within a few years.


The problem is that Dr. Eader has also recently gotten into ant farming, so much so that this has become the only thing that he wants to spend his time on. Instead of spending these next few years on bringing his cure for the common cold to the world, Dr. Eader wants to spend the rest of his life perfecting his ant farm in a cabin in the woods.


Intuitively, Dr. Eader would be doing the wrong thing by choosing his ant farming over his cure. To interpret why it is wrong, we need to learn a bit more about Jeremy Bentham’s ethics and the Hedonic Calculus.


The Secret to Happiness

Kiss Gustav Klimt Painting
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, 1907, via the Google Art Project.


According to Jeremy Bentham’s 1789 work Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, the path to living an ethically good life is to live a happy one. Sounds simple, right? However, it’s no secret that happiness can be tricky and elusive to obtain. As a possible solution to this problem, Bentham proposed a hedonistic solution —  that happiness is just the state of having more pleasure than pain in our lives. In short, by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, we can create happiness in our life.


Importantly, not only does this pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain bring happiness, but it is also the measure that we should use to guide our actions. Using the pursuit of happiness as an action guide is what Bentham coined the “principle of utility”.


Jeremy Bentham wrote that we could determine whether an action was ethically good or bad by applying the principle of utility. Here we arrive at the subject of this article — the Hedonic Calculus!


Using the Hedonic Calculus

ill matched lovers massys painting
Ill-Matched Lovers by Quinten Mestys, 1520, via the National Gallery of Art.


“The principle of utility, (I have heard it said) is a dangerous principle: it is dangerous on certain occasions to consult it. This is as much as to say, what? that it is not consonant to utility, to consult utility: in short, that it is not consulting it, to consult it.” – Jeremy Bentham


The Hedonic Calculus measures an action based on its tendency to produce pleasure or pain on seven criteria. The following are the criteria to be consulted:


  1. Intensity — what is the strength of the feeling of pleasure or pain that would result from performing the action?
  2. Duration — how long would the pleasure or pain last after the action?
  3. Certainty/Uncertainty — how sure can we be that the action will result in pleasure or pain?
  4. Propinquity/Remoteness — is the pleasure or pain immediate, or will it be delayed to another future time?
  5. Fecundity — does the action have the ability to reproduce the same sort of feelings?
  6. Purity — is there a chance that the pleasure of an action will lead to further pain and vice versa?
  7. Extent — how far-reaching is the action regarding people impacted as a result?


The easiest way to understand what these criteria are and how they should be applied is by looking at examples of them at work.


Let’s look at buying a lottery ticket. You would buy one to hopefully win a large sum of money. If you were to win a few million dollars, I would experience overwhelming pleasure — very intense. Likewise, I’d have a long duration of that pleasure (as long as I was financially savvy). The fecundity, or reproduction of that pleasure into more pleasure, would surely arise out of never worrying about money again!


merry company terrace jan steen
Merry Company on a Terrace by Jan Steen, ca. 1670, via the Met Museum


However, the chances of winning the lottery are so incredibly slim that it is almost fair to say that it is certain that you will not win and would have just wasted money on the ticket. Additionally, the certainty of loss may lead to the pain of having realized you lost once the numbers are revealed, making this an impure action.


Let’s take another example of being unfaithful to your significant other. The pleasure is likely to be immediate, meaning high propinquity. Depending on the person you are unfaithful with, this pleasure could also be very intense with the highest of highs. However, the duration would probably be short-lived as the guilt sets in. In being unfaithful, you will surely bring lots of pain to yourself and others in the future, so the purity and extent of this action would favor remaining faithful.


Of course, you may feel that you know without measuring that something like cheating on your partner is wrong, but the Hedonic Calculus allows us to explore why — the consequences will bring about some pleasure, but much more pain.


Thought Experiment: The Results Are In

Luke Fildes Doctor Painting
The Doctor by Luke Fildes, 1891, via Tate Britain


Now, let’s return to Dr. Anthony Eader. Remember, he is about to pack up and spend the rest of his life tinkering with his ant farm instead of curing the common cold. Having a better understanding of the Hedonic Calculus, let’s analyze this action in terms of the principle of utility.


Let’s allow that Dr. Eader would derive more intense pleasure for a longer duration if he spent his remaining time ant farming. If we were using a less sophisticated tool, this might be enough for him to abandon curing the common cold. However, intensity is just one of seven criteria that need to be considered!


Garden Earthly Delights Bosch Painting
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500, Via Museo del Prado.


The remaining criteria may favor continuing with the cure. The extent of the pleasure of ant-farming would be short, and would only include Dr. Eader. On the other hand, the extent of the pain caused by his abandonment of the cure is extensive. It likely would include almost the entire world’s population. Everyone suffers from a cold at least once in their lifetime, including Dr. Eader himself!


Additionally, the uncertainty that he will actually be happier with his ants seems significant, as does the likelihood that he may find his choice leads to his pain, making it impure.


When we look at all of the criteria, it should become clear that ant farming would not be an ethically good choice. The pleasure and pain of everyone involved needs to be accounted for in the Hedonic Calculus, so Dr. Eader’s own pleasure with his ants could not outweigh the pain of the world continuing to get sick year after year.


Bentham’s Final Tally on the Hedonic Calculus

mary cassatt tea painting
The Tea Party by Mary Cassatt, 1880, Museum of Fine Arts Boston


One objection to the Hedonic Calculus is that taking the time to do this measurement for each action is not something that would bring about a lot of pleasure. However, Bentham himself had something to say about this. If the Hedonic Calculus tells you not to use it most of the time, then don’t!


The Hedonic Calculus is a tool, not a universal law. If you immediately know that choosing reality TV over a Shakespeare production will bring you way more pleasure, then by all means, just grab your popcorn!

Author Image

By Amanda AdieBA Philosophy w/ honors) & Creative Writing, MA PhilosophyAmanda is a writer and philosopher. She holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a primary interest in aesthetics, ethics, and the places where they overlap. She is passionate about teaching yoga to children with developmental disabilities and helping make philosophy more accessible to those not in academia. When she is not writing, she can be found reading spicy romance novels, playing a halfling bard in her D&D group, or doing yoga.