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“The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.”

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Lecturer in Human Geography, says the implementation of Bentham’s vision is highly controversial in our modern world.


Illustration Hanna Melin

What came to be known as “the greatest happiness principle” is one of the cornerstones of Bentham’s radical work, which aimed to develop models of social intervention, legal systems and governmental policies that would truly benefit the maximum number of citizens possible. Indeed, Bentham’s work challenged political systems that worked in favour of political elites by ignoring, or even directly undermining, their own citizens.

This appears a laudable framework for social and political action, and yet its implementation is highly controversial, including for reasons that Bentham himself recognised: that the happiness of ‘the majority’ of a state’s citizenry could precisely take place by sacrificing ‘the minority’, raising grave questions about whose happiness can and should be promoted by states, how, and at what (or whose) cost?

Challenges of inclusion and exclusion repeatedly emerge when states develop interventions on local and national levels, including with regards to the costs borne by both visible and invisible ‘minorities’ in a given state. In the contemporary political landscape, what appears particularly relevant, however, is the way in which the proposition is effectively invoked by states and organisations on a combination of national, regional and international levels.

The controversial application of this principle is clearly illustrated in the policies that have been developed and implemented since 2015 by European states and the European Union in response to the largest recorded number of refugees in Europe since the Second World War. Last year, for instance, more than one million refugees fleeing conflicts, crisis, human rights violations and poverty in their countries and regions of origin (including from the ongoing Syrian conflict, but also from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea) arrived in Europe.

In response, European states and the European Union have publicly argued that their ultimate responsibility is to protect the wellbeing of the majority of their citizens (in numerical, ethnic and religious terms alike), and the means to do this is precisely by excluding others (minorities in numerical, ethnic and religious terms) who are perceived to threaten or disrupt that happiness.

In this framework, European citizens are officially identified as those who have the right to happiness and stability, while others – in this case refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from outside of the European Union – are presented by European states as a threat to this; by extension, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants are presented as not having the right to safety and due legal protection, let alone happiness. They have truly been constituted as not having even the right to have rights.

A key question in this context, then, is how the European ‘majority’ can ‘enjoy’ happiness in light of the pain, suffering and death of others – both within and outside of their national and regional borders.

Bentham recognised that the precise formulation and implementation of ‘the greatest happiness principle’ was controversial, and yet the overarching question that stimulated his thinking behind this principle remained at the core of his work throughout his life: what can or should be encouraged, and what discouraged, to create the conditions for the wellbeing of people to flourish?

For more information on Elena’s work and the UCL Human Geography Department please visit: www.geog.ucl.ac.uk

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Portico Issue 3. 2016/17