The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: This short entry of approximately 750 words defines utilitarianism, describes Jeremy Bentham's theories about the concept, and analyzes its relationships with democracy and human rights.
The entry defines utilitarianism as an ethical theory that seeks to maximize happiness. Jeremy Bentham was one of utilitarianism's creators as well as one of its most ardent proponents. It was through his theories that utilitarianism became historically associated with democratic principles. Because Bentham's central concern was happiness rather than justice, he advocated democratic electoral institutions as the most important popular check on governmental authority and corruption. In fact, Bentham believed that democratic institutions would make certain constitutional limitations--like those placed on elected legislators--unnecessary. This intellectual perspective led Bentham, John Stuart Mill and others to criticize American institutions established as constitutional limitations, including federalism, separations of powers, judicial review and the Senate.
Bentham particularly and utilitarian theory generally object to any notion of human or natural rights. In fact, Bentham refers to natural rights as "nonsense on stilts," and calls the language of rights "terrorist language" that leads to anarchy and chaos. According to utilitarianism, the only human or natural rights that exist are those created by the sovereign. In the twentieth century, this intellectual perspective has been challenged. John Rawls, for example, regards utilitarian theory as incomplete and defective because it does not combine protections for individual liberty with constitutional limitations on political power.