The Hedonistic Calculus: Do You Calculate Your Pleasure and Pain?


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) thought so. He’s the guy who formalized the calculus, also called the felicific calculus, but he wasn’t the first one to think along those lines. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) came up with the bones of the same idea much earlier and others followed, e.g. John Locke. It seems that the English were quite concerned with their hedonism and the notion that they should be individually in charge of it.

Now, the hedonistic calculus has far-reaching significance for capitalist social relations, our conception of the nature of society as consisting solely of market relations, liberalism and certainly for economics. It has also infected our moral sense in a big way.

The hedonistic calculus as conceived by Bentham looks like this:

A pleasure or pain varies in (1) intensity, (2) duration, (3) certainty, (4) propinquity; when we take wont oaccouzd the other pleasures or pains that might result from the act or event which produced it, it varies in (5) fecundity and (6) purity; and, when we take other persons into account, it varies in (7) extent. In directing our conduct, we seek that pleasure which is most intent, of longest duration, most certain, nearer, and so forth. These ‘dimensions of value’ as Bentham calls them, are significant only because they indicate Bentham’s conviction that we are able to fix these dimensions quantitatively, add up the quantities, balance the totals against each other with more or less mathematical precision, and select the greater. ‘Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side,’ Bentham advised, ‘and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it to be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.1

So, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and the other classical liberals start their argument with the notion of individual sovereignty, that is, that the individual is the focus of their analysis and has complete charge of his behaviour which is always determined by a calculation of the pleasure or pain involved in any given act or situation. (I use his in the last sentence because for most classical liberals her was irrelevant.) Of course in pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain we must not harm others. That’s why Hobbes argued that we need a permanent sovereign. The sovereign’s role is as arbiter of disputes between individuals became, when you get right down to it, we are all in a power struggle with everyone else and we’re driven by fear, so someone has to keep order. Individualism is critical to classical liberalism. Society starts and ends with the individual or rather, society is just a set of market relations. It’s handy that the individual is in charge of himself because, then he can sell things and acquire things. he can’t sell himself, obviously, that would be slavery, but he can sell his property and buy and sell land. For the landless, however, with no land, the only property they have is their labour-power, their ability to work. So, men are free as individuals.

Because society is a set of market relations, the price of land, labour, etc., is derived in the marketplace. Logically, then, the market should be left alone to determine the value of everything, including labour power. The role of the sovereign in this should then be to protect the market, to ensure its independence and logic.

Conveniently, Hobbes, who was instrumental in getting classical liberalism off the ground, rationalized his view of man as derived from what he considered man in a state of nature. Macpherson suggests that Hobbes must have been smoking some good weed because he didn’t recognize that his ‘man in nature’ was really a particular specimen of ‘civilized’ man. It’s clear that none of the classical liberals were about to identify class as a variable in their theoretical musings, either. Men are individuals and their lives are determined by them alone. They owe nothing to society, nor does society owe them anything, unless it’s protection from violent death and market stability. Every individual is responsible for his own life and failure or success. Station at birth was meaningless. If you detect the ideas of quietism and social darwinism in these ideas, you’re probably on to something.

This is how Thorstein Veblen sees the hedonistic calculus as it applies to economics (and liberalism).

In all the received formulations of economic theory, whether at the hands of English economists or those of the Continent, the human material with which the inquiry is concerned is conceived in Hedonistic terms; that is to say, in terms of a passive and substantially inert and im- mutably given human nature. The psychological and anthropological preconceptions of the economists have been those which were accepted by the psychological and social sciences some generations ago. The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor consequent. He is an isolated, definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another. Self imposed in elemental space, he spins symmetrically about his own spiritual axis until the parallelogram of forces bears down upon him, whereupon he follows the line of the resultant. When the force of the impact is spent, he comes to rest, a self- contained globule of desire as before. Spiritually, the hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living, except in the sense that he is subject to a series of permutations enforced upon him by circumstances external and alien to him. The later psychology, re-enforced by modern an- thropological research, gives a different conception of human nature. According to this conception, it is the characteristic of man to do something, not simply to suffer pleasures and pains through the impact of suitable forces. He is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be sat- urated by being placed in the path of the forces of the environment, but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits which seeks realisation and expression in an unfolding activity. (page 74)

Classical economics and classical liberalism share the same psychological assumptions: people are responsible for themselves, they are basically lazy and must be ‘encouraged’ to work, they are fearful and basically want to kill each other all the time. Veblen was as strong critic of classical economics and liberalism as well as their psychological assumptions. In his The Instinct of Workmanship, Veblen makes the compelling case that we (humans) are born to act, we are not by nature quiet and still, needing to be prodded into action.

I would not be so bold as to suggest that Hobbes and Locke in the 16th Century were looking for a philosophical justification for capitalism. Macpherson writes in his book The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism that by the mid 17th Century in England, more than fifty percent of the population were servants, that is, wage workers. Their living conditions as well as those of the upper classes begged for theoretical justification.

It’s really quite astonishing to me that since the seventeenth century (and before to some extent) the kinds of ideas produced by the classical liberals still hold in most of the world. Of course, they have been modified according to historical circumstance and place. They have also taken into account (with Bentham certainly) social obligation and have evolved into the liberalism of the welfare state among others. However, there seems to now be a move back to classical liberal ideas. Libertarians are pretty much classical liberals although you’d never want to call them that to their faces. They would explode right there in front of you. ‘Liberalism’ is again a bad word but there is so much muddle out there right now, it’s almost impossible to use words in any meaningful way when describing politics and sovereignty. Members of the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative party in Canada would quiver and shake at being described as liberals, but liberals they are if we define liberals as focussed on (at least the semblance of) individual freedom, etc. They bear all the marks of classical liberals. They eschew taxes, want small government, release the market from any constraints, dismantle all social programs or at least privatize them, and hate ‘socialism.’ You might find it strange for me to even entertain the idea that Russian or Chinese societies are basically liberal, but they are in a real sense. They’re never been communist, but that’s an argument for another day.

Frankly, I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will turn itself around, realize how stupid the assumptions of classical liberalism are and act accordingly. The values of classical liberalism are the dominant moral ideals today: work hard, don’t be lazy, no matter how shitty your job is go to it every day, be responsible for your actions, buy things, lots of things, don’t ask questions. So sad, it’s not even funny.

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  1. From Harry K. Girvetz, 1950/1963. The Evolution of Liberalism. New York: Collier Books

4 thoughts on “The Hedonistic Calculus: Do You Calculate Your Pleasure and Pain?

  1. So sad its not even funny!!! For the world to work well it can’t be only about me. We must learn to live in community with each other and the natural world of which we are an integral part. We are as important on this scale as a mosquito or a moose…

    1. That’s right, Jack. Problem is that the idea of possessive individualism is so tightly wound around our lives. We are inherently social beings and not just market beings. I’ll have some optimism in my next blog post. Timing is everything.

  2. Good piece. The rise of political liberalism required a legitimization of the primacy of the individual. This notion, advanced and explicated by Hobbes & later Locke, set the stage for an English constitutional monarchy, parliamentary supremacy, a bill of rights, and the subsequent unravelling of the pre-existing feudal system of caste/class rigidity.
    On a slight quibbling note, Locke is a 17th c. writer and I think it is wrong to attribute a ‘harm principle’ to these early thinkers including [perhaps especially] Bentham. The ‘harm principle’ is intimately wedded to utilitarianism later in the 19th c. by John Stuart Mill.

    1. Thanks, Paul. I sure don’t pretend to be a political scientist so I’m bound to get some details wrong. Of course I know that Locke is a 17th Century writer. Brain fart is what that is. I get your point about the harm principle. I’ve been reading On Liberty by Mills along side a number of other writers and I’m fearing that there’s some cross-fertilization going on or just plain sloppy note-taking on my part. I haven’t yet tackled democracy, particularly Liberal-democracy, but I’m coming to that. Macpherson writes that democracy was essentially an afterthought and governments were liberal long before they were (nominally) democratic.

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