NYU Stern


“In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view; and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind. If any false opinion, embraced from appearances, has been found to prevail; as soon as farther experience and sounder reasoning have given us juster notions of human affairs; we retract our first sentiment, and adjust anew the boundaries of moral good and evil.” Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section II, Part Two

“Usefulness is agreeable, and engages our approbation. This is a matter of fact, confirmed by daily observation. But, useful? For what? For somebody's interest, surely. Whose interest then? Not our own only: For our approbation frequently extends farther. It must, therefore, be the interest of those, who are served by the character or action approved of; and these we may conclude, however remote, are not totally indifferent to us. By opening up this principle, we shall discover one great source of moral distinctions.” Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section V, Part One

“Thus, in whatever light we take this subject, the merit, ascribed to the social virtues, appears still uniform, and arises chiefly from that regard, which the natural sentiment of benevolence engages us to pay to the interests of mankind and society. *** [W]eighing the consequences, enquire if the merit of social virtue be not, in a great measure, derived from the feelings of humanity, with which it affects the spectators. It appears to be matter of fact, that the circumstance of utility, in all subjects, is a source of praise and approbation: That it is constantly appealed to in all moral decisions concerning the merit and demerit of actions: That it is the sole source of that high regard paid to justice, fidelity, honor, allegiance, and chastity: That it is inseparable from all the other social virtues, humanity, generosity, charity, affability, lenity, mercy, and moderation: And, in a word, that it is a foundation of the chief part of morals, which has a reference to mankind and our fellow-creatures.” Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Section V, Part Two

“We ought then, in order to be virtuous, to blend the light of knowledge with greatness of soul. Whoever assembles within himself these different gifts of nature always directs his course by the compass of the public utility. This utility is the principle on which all human virtues are founded, and the basis of all legislations.” Helvetius, De L’Esprit Essay II, chapter 6

“Necessity alone hath produced, from the opposition of private passions and interests, the idea of public utility, which is the foundation of human justice.” Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, chapter VII

“By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation chapter I, par. 3

“For the dictates of utility are neither more nor less than the dictates of the most extensive and enlightened (that is well-advised) benevolence.” Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapter X, par. 36

“Some of them [the opinions expressed in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras] are so far from being Plato’s own opinions, that the tendency of his mind seems to be decidedly adverse to them. For instance, the principle of utility, – the doctrine that all things are good or evil, by virtue solely of the pleasure or pain which they produce, – is as broadly stated, and as emphatically maintained against Protagoras by Socrates, in the dialogue, as it ever was by Epicurus or Bentham.” Mill, Notes on Some of the More Popular Dialogues of Plato: The Protagoras, Collected Works, vol. XI, pages 60 – 61

“Those who know anything about the matter are aware that every writer, from Epicurus to Bentham, who maintained the theory of utility, meant by it, not something to be contra-distinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain; and instead of opposing the useful to the agreeable or the ornamental, have always declared that the useful means these, among other things.” Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter 2

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