Jeremy Bentham, a pioneer of Utilitarianism, produced 7 criteria for ethical decision making, known as the Hedonic (or Felicific) Calculus, designed to provide the greatest total pleasure to the greatest possible number of people. Wikipedia defines these criteria as below:

-Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?

-Duration: How long will the pleasure last?

-Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?

-Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?

-Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.

-Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.

-Extent: How many people will be affected?

I understand the first three and the last three, since they all actively contribute to the likely overall pleasure to be experienced. However, I don't see why the remoteness of potential pleasure should be factored in (certainty is already accounted for, and Utilitarianism as an ideology is explicitly non-self-centred), or why a larger pleasure in the far future might be rejected in favour of a smaller one in the present. Can anyone enlighten me on this topic?

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    Note that this is a rough heuristic; one can always come up with counterexamples where this fails until one ends up integrating everyone's pleasure-function for all time. That propinquity is pulled out is no more significant than that fecundity and purity are treated separately instead of a single probability-of-consequences criterion. – Rex Kerr May 29 '14 at 22:16

Because effects that are less immediate are less likely. I'm trying to calculate expected utility, but that calculation gets more and more uncertain the farther out I try to forecast, so if A and B both, hypothetically would produce ten utils of pleasure, but if those good consequences are an immediate consequence of A, but only a remote consequence of B, then I should prefer A to B, because all other things being equal, i'm more likely to actually get those 10 utils with A.

  • Ah, so you're saying it is a probability-based concern, just considered separately from certainty on the grounds that the cause of uncertainty is somewhat different? – CaptainRad May 30 '14 at 19:52
  • That sounds right, but I'm no expert on Bentham. – user5172 May 30 '14 at 20:05

If one result happens immediately and the other result happens so far in the future that the person is no longer able to properly enjoy it because of their advanced age or any other reason then this should be accounted for. Also the farther into the future something is going to happen the more likely it is to have outside factors affect its result. There is also the possibility of a good thing happening too late to have any worth or a bad thing happening so late that it doesn't matter any more.

  • Ooh, I didn't think of the 'Too late to matter' facet of resulting pleasure, thanks! – CaptainRad May 30 '14 at 19:53

Puzzling propinquity

On Bentham's criterion of propinquity, one is right to regard a distant pleasure as less valuable than an immediate one. On what grounds can the criterion be defended ?

There is the point, made in another answer, that the more distant a pleasure is, the lower the probability of its occurring, since impeding factors are more likely to intervene.

But Bentham cannot subsume 'propinquity' under probability since he includes 'certainty and uncertainty' as separate 'circumstances' in the same list. Probability is covered under that heading, and so 'propinquity' must refer to something else. (Principles of Morals and Legislation, IV.2.)

Another suggestion is that the further a pleasure is in the future, the less likely one is to be able to enjoy it. But that introduces an extra factor that Bentham implicitly excludes. Pleasure for pleasure, the immediate is to be valued over the distant : the quality or intensity of the pleasure or one's impaired future capacity to enjoy it is not relevant. Equal pleasures, differentiated only as immediate or distant, are his concern.

A suggested solution

Bentham assumes that, of two pleasures for comparison under 'propinquity', we are aware that one is immediate and the other distant. That is presupposed to the application of the criterion. What Bentham may have had in mind is that an intense pleasure immediately available - supply your own example - has no pain of waiting or delay attached to it. If I have an immediate pleasure, it tops the pleasure of equal intensity that I will have tomorrow because tomorrow's pleasure will have been preceded by the pain of waiting or delay, pain which must be taken into account in the felicific calculus.

Bentham does not elaborate on propinquity and rather leaves us to work out why it features in the calculus. I offer my answer as my best inference - no more than that - to what he meant.


Bentham, IV.2:

II. To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself, will be greater or less, according to the four following circumstances:

Its intensity.

Its duration.

Its certainty or uncertainty.

Its propinquity or remoteness.

III. These are the circumstances which are to be considered in estimating a pleasure or a pain considered each of them by itself. But when the value of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances to be taken into the account; these are,

1.Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by sensations of the same kind: that is, pleasures, if it be a pleasure: pains, if it be a pain.

2.Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be a pain.


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