The measure of right and wrong, according to Jeremy Bentham, can be understood through the principle of utility which advocates “ the greatest happiness of the greatest number. ” Although Bentham brought forth his controversial assertion more than two hundred years ago, contemporary scholars continue to deconstruct utilitarian ideals, while critics of the theory argue that the utilitarian principles are inconsistent with human rights. Opponents of the principle declare that utilitarians do not acknowledge the rights of individuals or put forth ideologies that could safeguard the rights of the minority as the aforementioned principles centre mainly on the promotion of the happiness of the ‘ greatest number. ’ In determining if the criticisms hurled against the principles of utility are valid, it is essential to examine the concept of utilitarianism and determine if it is incompatible with the existing human rights legislation or the application of these laws. In order to understand Bentham’ s concept of right and wrong, a close examination of the context of which it was declared, should be put into consideration.
It should be remembered that in Bentham’ s previous works, he had been critical of the concept and the proposed theories of natural rights which he dismissed as ‘ rhetorical nonsense’ , mainly based on “ imaginary laws. ..fancied and invented by poets and dealers of moral and intellectual poisons” .
For Bentham, these abstractions cannot replace specific legislations. Furthermore, he shows scepticism on the existence of universal absolutes – the preliminary foundation of human right laws – as there are rarely absolutes in multicultural and diverse societies. Rights, according to Bentham, are afforded by the state, instituted by an established government to which an individual belongs; endowing human beings with natural rights is akin to granting them imaginary rights.
He argues that right and law “ are correlative terms” whereas natural rights exist not only in the absence of law “ but against the law” . Hence, the claim that natural rights gave rise to absolute rights undermines the force of law. Moreover, Bentham’ s critics tend to reduce the utilitarian argument into its simple form - one that only emphasizes on ‘ the greatest happiness of the greatest number. ’ What is overlooked in Bentham’ s argument is his inclusion of the measurement of the value of pleasures and pain by utilising the ‘ felicific calculus. ’ This calculation takes into account the ‘ sum total of pleasure and pain’ which results from a particular action.
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