How to be happy-according to Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who believed that an action is right if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (the principle of utility). Happiness is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. He wrote that nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain. From this Bentham concluded that pleasure is the sole good and pain the sole evil. Bentham grounded his theory of morality upon these terms, and his guide for happiness is to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all misery you are able to remove.’ The happy life consists of as much pleasure and as little pain as possible, not just for oneself, but for others also (for the greatest number). Bentham believed that the foundation of morality lay not in reason (like Kant), nor in language, but in pain and pleasure, hence: ‘The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?’ Bentham constructed the hedonic calculus in order to measure pleasure so that it could be maximized to the greatest extent possible. The components of the action to be measured were certainty, duration, extent, intensity, purity, fecundity and propinquity. Though specific, it has been criticised as impractical and not useful as a tool for deciding how to act.

There are problems with this theory. Firstly, it can justify actions which we would usually think to be completely immoral (most people cite gang rape as a pertinent example), and A.MacIntyre even argued that the Nazi regime could be justified if it were shown that it could have produced more pleasure than pain. Many dislike Bentham’s theory because they see Bentham as making human morality too base, and he lowers our nature to that of swine. Moreover, the utility principle gives little thought to minorities, which would not be accepted today. Finally, the hedonic calculus is not practical, is time consuming, and does not account for events when it is not possible to measure all the different components (if it is at all possible to pleasure in any satisfactory way).

Although there are many problems with Bentham’s theory, it founded utilitarianism and was developed exponentially both the J.S. Mill and more recently Peter Singer. Bentham made insightful observations about human nature, although he may seem to have ignored other parts of human morality and nature. Aristotle was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of pleasure and pain (Nichomachean Ethics Book 1), but he maintained that reason was also crucial in the make-up of humanity, which Bentham saw little room for. His theory of happiness may be effective for a short time, but chasing  any kind of pleasure for prolonged periods of time will inevitably lead to destruction and unhappiness.


Standing your ground

Too easy is it to give way to others and not to stick by yourself and your decisions. It is more difficult to go one way when everyone else is going down the other, or when they try to push you their way. Standing your ground and not giving way to the wants of others both requires respect and earns respect. You must respect yourself, and once this becomes apparent to others, they too will respect you like you respect yourself.

Giving way to people endlessly and doing what others want you do to rather than doing what you want to do is weak, and it reveals to others that you do not trust yourself and are easily swayed by others, making you seem meek-minded. All respect is lost to those who do not respect themselves and seek only to please others. Not giving way, as Thucydides writes, is a sign of strength and mental fortitude, therefore deeming oneself worthy of respect.

What else can be taken from this? That maintaining one’s frame and not aiming to please others is a desirable trait when meeting people. That even though being praised may seem like something that people want, not always giving people what they want may lead to a greater degree of regard for a person.

There is no excuse

‘I’m tired.’ ‘I cant be bothered.’ ‘It’s too hard.’ ‘I don’t have the time.’ These are common excuses to avoid doing things we don’t want to do, but that we know would be good for us if we did. Instead of doing things which further us and move us towards becoming better versions of ourselves, endlessly we watch Netflix, mindlessly we browse social media, and purposelessly we scour the internet for anything that might distract from doing what we know would be good for us in the long run, be it reading, studying, or exercising.

We are all the product of millions and billions of years of evolution. Each individual is the product of millions of years of hardship, toil and struggle. Your ancestors all had to fight to survive and to reproduce, and to undergo all kinds of hardship. Every single ancestor, from simple cells to humans, had to endure every kind of difficulty in order that their genes would continue to survive in their descendants. And now here we are. The product of all this effort. In some ways, we are at our weakest today. We can’t bear even the smallest amount of mental or physical pain, and so we spend our days distracting ourselves from anything even a little bit challenging. This isn’t to say that life isn’t hard-it is. Life is difficult and is by nature a struggle filled with toil, suffering and hardship. Yet this does not mean that it is worthwhile or meaningless. The product of suffering is what justifies it, and the product of toil is always more valuable than the product of apathy. Without suffering, nothing worth anything is achieved.



Realizing that nothing matters

Some people believe that the realization that nothing matters necessarily means falling into despair, laziness, and apathy. Believing that nothing matters means nothing without consequent action, and it is up to each individual to determine how they react to this realization. Again, the belief that life is meaningless comes, at times, as a complaint against the world and against existence itself. Some people say that nothing matters and then throw everything in the air, as if this belief suddenly makes everything uncontrollably arbitrary, yet this is not the case. You exist, therefore some action must be taken, and this action will either enforce your belief that your existence is useless or whether you are doing something with your time that you think is worthwhile. Refusing to do something that is potentially worthwhile is not the right thing to do. It is an act which is portrayed as intellectual superiority, yet is in fact a result of cowardice. Nietzsche said that suffering, and only suffering, has created ‘all enhancements of man so far’.

A New Year

New year expectations always seem to be somewhat unrealistic. We seem to want to change ourselves so much over such a short period of time that when we realise that our hopes and expectations are not becoming a reality in the time we wished, everything collapses and we fall back into the old habits we so desperately wished to remove or replace. Heraclitus, one of the most notorious pre-Socratic philosophers, wrote that everything is in a state of change except change itself. We ourselves will change, whether we will it or not, and so it is not whether we change, but how we change. You can never become the person you once were, yet what is possible is that you begin to become the person you want to be, yet to do this it is necessary to start directing change in a positive direction at a pace that is realistic and attainable-‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ Schopenhauer. A sprint will not get you to the top, but a steady jog will, and once you reach the summit, things will become easier and easier.


Change is inevitable. As long as time exists, change will exist too. We will, as people and as beings existent in the universe, change constantly. We must determine not that we change but how we change, for good or for bad. As the New Year draws near, change is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Change can involve planning, hard work and sacrifice, yet it can also involve laziness, impulsivity and apathy. Change can be active or passive-we can let ourselves be changed, or we can change ourselves.

It is not enough to plan positive change-it must be actively pursued and ascertained. Perhaps one of the greatest aids to positive change is that of the goal (the telos, the end, the purpose). A goal provides a ‘why’ for what you are planning, and therefore gives reason and purpose to your actions, so when asked ‘why are you doing X?’ you can reply ‘because Y’. Without knowing why you are doing what you are doing it seems almost inevitable that change will become passive.

Killing time

‘Every human activity is a tack for killing time.’ Thomas Ligotti


Time passes inevitably. Change occurs whether we like it or not. That is what time is-a measure of change. The way we use and manipulate time determines how our lives turn out. Time, then, is the greatest resource for a human life.

Ligotti’s idea is one of existential nihilism, that everything is essentially useless, and that human activity leads to nothing. Objectively this may be to some extent true: time does pass and eventually all human endeavours will come to nothing. But that is not all. While the human race exists, our endeavours are still meaningful. They still affect ourselves and the people around him-what happens now and the effects that current events and actions have, must not be overlooked. Everything becomes redundant at some point, but human activities still have meaning while they are around to be experienced. Life is not merely killing time, it is using time which is passing and perishing in the best way you think.


Sport and war

Tribal warfare seems ingrained in nature. Humans, like other animals, divide into packs in the form of nations. The two world wars are a clear example of the potency and destruction of tribal warfare. It seems that in today’s world, war has been replaced with sport, and that sport is a less violent form of war. Perhaps sport is a form of war. Anyhow, the way in which groups of fans collide in city streets and pubs is hugely reminiscent of the battlefields in war, though considerably less brutal or destructive. It is not to say that sport is anything like much war in its consequences, but that sport, particularly the fan-bases of sports, may reveal that violence is something innate in humans, or at least division and tribal separation are present. One could argue that sport has replaced war. Like war, groups of people may fight other groups simply because they support a different team to their own-very much like the nation divide which causes this and that person to fight on different sides of the trenches. Sport seems to have replaced war, certainly for the better, yet the conflict in sport may tell us something about the nature of the human being.


Can we know whether anybody else exists? Are we the only conscious being that exists? Is everything else a projection? Some say so. Solipsism is the belief that everything external to our mind is unsure, and that it is impossible to know whether anything outside ourselves is real.

Gorgias the Sophist was the first philosopher to entertain solipsism and scepticism, and Descartes, in his meditations, wrote that we can only know that we ourselves exist. Solipsism can lead to depersonalization disorders and indifference to the world-if it doesn’t exist, why care for it? However, a solipsistic world view is bound to crumble when surrounded with other people, otherwise permanent detachment, and maybe even madness, will ensue.


What is art for? Is it to reflect reality or to create something different from it? Is art a way of appreciating what exists, or is it a means of escape, a way out from the real world?

Nietzsche was hugely appreciative of art, particularly music, being a composer himself, and said that without music, ‘life would be nothing’. This idea of the power and importance of art comes from Schopenhauer, and stems originally from Kant, although Kant thought music was a low form of art, opposing Nietzsche who held music in high esteem. It is not clear why we make art, though it seems a necessary part of life, something that most people cannot avoid doing. In some ways it is a form of self-expression. Yet what has occurred to me is that art portrays one thing: a desire for liberation. In this it seems that art is frequently used as a way of escaping reality and taking oneself elsewhere, not as a distraction as such, but more as a will to be someplace else which is, ultimately, purer. Music offers at least a moment of some kind of perfection, even if that perfection is temporary and man-made. And how, then, does one go about the creation of art? Again, Nietzsche must be quoted:

‘For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.’