Decorative Initial Ltilitarianism is a natural consequence of the rationalism of the French philosophes and the English materialism of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, and gets its name from Jeremy Bentham's test question, "What is the use of it?" Bentham (1748-1832), the father of this -ism, conceived the idea when he ran across the words "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" in Joseph Priestly's Treatise on Government. This phrase represents the heart of Utilitarianism (or Benthamism), which attempted to reduce decision-making about human actions to a "felicific calculus" by weighing the profit, convenience, advantage, benefit, emolument, and happiness that would ensue from the action against the mischief, disadvantage, inconvenience, loss, and unhappiness that it would also entail.

Thus described, the philosophy seems to make a good deal of sense. Combined with the laissez-faire approach to business (the child of David Ricardo and James Mill) and Malthusian ideas on the increase of population, it constituted the basis of the Philosophical Radical party, which was responsible for a number of democratic reforms in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. It was not until the New Poor Law of 1834 (sponsored by the Benthamites) that the formulaic heartlessness of this philosophy became obvious, as parish relief for the poor (a system that had indeed broken down as the result of the shift of population following the industrial revolution) was replaced by workhouses, which quickly became known as "Poor Law Bastilles." Throughout the century, a wide range of thinkers and political groups opposed utilitarian thought and the associated classical economics.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) very movingly describes his education under Utilitarian principles in his Autobiography (1873) and his eventual dissatisfaction with them. To a great extent he humanized utilitarianism, which had a profound effect upon the socialist movement of the '80s and '90s.

The most important documents associated with the movement are:

Selected Bibliography


Victorian Web Overview Philosophy

Last modified 11 October 2002