NYU Stern


“Weighing is a good analogy; you put the pleasures together and the pains together, both the near and the remote, on the balance scale, and then say which of the two is more. For if you weigh pleasant things against pleasant, the greater and the more must always be taken; if painful things against painful, the fewer and the smaller. And if you weigh pleasant things against painful, and if the painful is exceeded by the pleasant – whether the near by the remote or the remote by the near – you have to perform that action in which the pleasant prevails; on the other hand, if the pleasant is exceeded by the painful, you have to refrain from doing that.” Plato, Protagoras 356B

“Since it has turned out that our salvation in life depends on the right choice of pleasures and pains, be they more or fewer, greater or lesser, farther or nearer, doesn’t our salvation seem, first of all, to be measurement, which is the study of relative excess and deficiency and equality? And since it is measurement, it must definitely be an art, and knowledge.” Plato, Protagoras 357B

“We want to have pleasure; we neither choose nor want pain; we prefer the neutral state if we are thereby relieved of pain, but not if it involves the loss of pleasure. We want less pain and more pleasure, we do not want less pleasure and more pain; but we would find it difficult to be clear about our wishes when faced with a choice of two situations bringing pleasure and pain in the same proportions. Considerations of number or size or intensity or equality (or their opposites) which determine our wishes all influence or fail to influence us whenever we make a choice.” Plato, Laws 733B

“For we are in need of pleasure only when we are in pain because of the absence of pleasure, and when we are not in pain, then we no longer need pleasure. And this is why we say that pleasure is the starting point and goal of living a happy life. For we recognized this as our first innate good, and this is our starting point for every choice and avoidance and we come to this by judging every good by the criterion of feeling. And it is just because this is the first innate good that we do not choose every pleasure; but sometimes we pass up many pleasures when we get a larger amount of what is uncongenial from them. And we believe many pains to be better than pleasures when a greater pleasure follows for a long while if we endure the pains.” Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 128 – 129

“So every pleasure is a good thing, since it has a nature congenial [to us], but not every pleasure is to be chosen. Just as every pain too is a bad thing, but not every pain is such as to be always avoided. It is, however, appropriate to make all these decisions by comparative measurement and an examination of the advantages and disadvantages.” Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 129 – 130

“Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it [the general tendency of any act]: and take an account, 1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance. 2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance. 3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain. 4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure. 5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter IV, par. 5

“The general tendency of an act is more or less pernicious, according to the sum total of its consequences: that is, according to the difference between the sum of such as are good, and the sum of such as are evil. It is to be observed, that here, as well as henceforward, wherever consequences are spoken of, such only are meant as are material.…. material (or of importance) as either consist of pain or pleasure, or have an influence in the production of pain or pleasure.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter VII, par. 2 – 3

“[I]t is necessary to render men duly sensible of the value, and to engage them in the steady pursuit of those perennial springs of enjoyment which are the more productive the more copiously they are drawn upon, in preference to those which, in proportion as they are drawn upon to excess, yield in the shape of ennui, at the least, if not in still more afflicting shapes, pain and grief instead of the expected pleasure.” Bentham, Chrestomathia, Notes to Table I

“When it is by the apprehension of future evil that men are turned aside from the pursuit of present pleasure, the sacrifice, however prudent and even necessary, is still not the less a painful one. But, when it is by the expectation of still greater pleasure, whether near or more or less remote, that the diversion is occasioned, pain is not produced in any shape; the profit made is made without sacrifice, and the transition is only from a less to a greater pleasure.” Bentham, Chrestomathia, Notes to Table I

“[I]t is necessary to consider, that man is not like the brutes, limited to the present time, either in enjoyment or suffering, but that he is susceptible of pleasure and pain by anticipation, and that it is not enough to guard him against an actual loss, but also to guarantee to him, as much as possible, his possessions against future losses. The idea of his security must be prolonged to him throughout the whole vista that his imagination can measure. This disposition to look forward, which has so marked an influence upon the condition of man, may be called expectation---expectation of the future. It is by means of this we are enabled to form a general plan of conduct.” Bentham, Principles of the Civil Code, Part I, chapter 7

“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account. Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties.” Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter 2

Return to Quotes on Utilitarian Principles.