Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation: Sovereign Masters and Utility

7 Jun

Jeremy Bentham begins his book Principles of Morals and Legislation by talking about pain and pleasure and specifying into stating the Principle of Utility. I think his beginning philosophy is enough to spark a lot of philosophical thought and argument,so I decided to put up this argument even though I have only read the first 2  pages of the PML.  I do not know if this will turn out to be a short (like my recent Zizek notes, or my Wittgenstein  late 5 notes) or a regular work.

Bentham begins his book by saying: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure” (Bentham). What he says after that up until the Utility principle does not matter to what I want to argue  here. He says that there are 2 things nature governs mankind under: pain and pleasure. This states that our emotions, physical feelings and thoughts are either painful or pleasurable. By calling pain and pleasure sovereign masters, Bentham is inferring that these 2 things are prevalent in mankind and occur a lot in a man’s life, governing how he does things and how things come out, and therefore his entire life, therefore, pain and pleasure are sovereign masters.

For example: If a guy has been working at  a HVAC company for 19 years and has had better reviews from the company’s customers than any other customer. He is happy right? So pleasure is governing his thoughts and feelings now. This happiness causes him to feel that he thinks he can have his own HVAC business that he can be his own boss in. If the business goes down and gets little business because of the economy, he sells his company and gets hired by another corporate HVAC company because of how painful and sad that experience was owning his own business.

See how pain and pleasure governed each action he did. Sovereign masters pain and pleasure are.
The fact that pain and pleasure are sovereign masters is not the matter I want to argue here however. Are pain and pleasure the only sovereign masters that govern mankind? Bentham states so and continues in his principles and says nothing more on the matter, but I think either position can be argued through rhetoric and its tactics.

The arguments are that the only sovereign masters are pain and pleasure (calling this argument X), and the other argument is that other masters govern mankind (calling this argument W). Like I said before, I think either one can be argued, but in each argument below I am stating justifications for thinking each argument


Pain and pleasure are not the only masters governing mankind. Things such as half neutral/half mad   and half neutral/half happy along with neutral exist. These things are midways between the two extremes of pain and pleasure. One cannot always feel one way or the other, there has to be midways between 2 extremes. Confused is another master that governs mankind because not only should a man be able to be in between 2 extremes, but he should be able to be not sure of his emotions, opinions or what he should do.

Sovereign Masters

1) Pain

2) Pleasure

3) Half Neutral/Half pained

4) Half Neutral/ Half pleasured

5) Neutral

6) Confusion

Items 3 through 6 cannot be brought into either 1 or 2.


Every possible situation fits either into pain or pleasure. It is not possible for someone to be neutral on a subject or confused without having some bias. Even a tiny amount of bias or opinion will cause a person to be overcome by one of the 2 sovereign masters. Or, this tiny bit of bias/opinion will cause the person to go the opposite way to the other sovereign master. Either way, the man ends up being governed by one of the two sovereign masters.

Between arguments X and W, what do you think? Do you have your own hypothesis?

I think this can be correlated with another work here on my site about Wittgenstein’s Tractatus proposition 4.023 because it deals with is there a gray area between black and white propositions.

I disagree with Bentham’s thought that there is only pain and pleasure. I think there are 3 sovereign masters that govern mankind. There is the pain and pleasure of course. I also think there is the master of confusion because a man is not always governed by pain or pleasure, because when a man is governed by one of the two things, he is sure of his feelings, thoughts and opinions (If he agrees with a proposition he is pleasures, if not, pained). If we knew and were sure about every thing we dealt with and experienced, philosophy, science and other arts would never be necessary and in the practice of these things, a master of confusion must be possible to get somewhere in research and philosophizing.

One may argue that there can be sub states that make their own master out of the first 2 (in my case 3) masters. Why is a half neutral/pleasured state not its own master? Because it is half pleasured, it is not confused and pained, therefore it goes into the pleasure master and is a part of it. If it had pained with it instead of half neutral, it would be the confused master. Anything half neutral and half pained or pleasured, is not its own category because it goes into the half category it represents.

Also, why is a full neutral master not possible? We all get to know something by being in the confusion state for awhile until we understand something enough to develop an opinion or argument about it, once that opinion or argument is formulated, it moves from the confusion state immediately to either the pained master of the pleasured state. An opinion or thought, maybe even an argument emerges immediately when something is understood. There is no time or possibility for a neutrality. One might say he or she is neutral because he knows something will happen if he says he agrees or disagrees, but no one is ever neutral on any subject ever while he or she understands it. It may be able to be said that one can be neutral on a subject while in the master of confusion, but I do not think so because that would be not giving an argument a chance to allow you to understand it before you make a choice.

You always have an opinion or argument about a thing immediately when  you understand it. No exceptions.

Principle of Utility

This is the main thing Bentham states in the first part of the book but I feel it needs less argument. The principle states that in each object, a property exists that good, pleasure, happiness or good knowledge emanates from and is found in. This is like that old saying that ‘there is good in everybody’ but in this case everything too!  What do you think? Do you think there is good in each and every existence? I think not. There would not be a hell and a Satan if this was true. There is good in most things of the universe except for one being that is the same being as hell itself: Satan. Satan does not have good in any property in him. All of him is evil and all of hell is evil.

Satan and hell is the only thing to concern with when talking about utility in everything (utility is the good property in everything).  Other than Satan and hell, everything and every being has utility. Every soul and every part of the creatum (except for Satan and hell) has utility in it because it is made in God’s image and is made for people to serve God. The only exception in its entirety is Satan and Hell.

Utility is not as big of a thing to argue as the sovereign masters of mankind, but it is important to understand that utility does exist for the most part.

What do you think? Is utility a part of the entire world? Is pain and pleasure the only sovereign masters?

Comment below your opinions if you’d like and I’ll respond.


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