Harry R. Schwartz

Code writer, sometime Internet enthusiast, attractive nuisance.

The author at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris, November 2022. hacker news gitlab sourcehut pinboard librarything 1B41 8F2C 23DE DD9C 807E A74F 841B 3DAE 25AE 721B


British Columbia



The Felicific Calculus


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Tags: math, old-dead-white-guys.

Felicific Calculus

In the 18th and 19th centuries, English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed a handy moral system called utilitarianism. It states that the goal of an action should be to cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This is an extremely practical rule; the only thing required is a method for quantifying happiness.

The felicific calculus deals with a number of factors (called vectors, to my delight). For each person affected by an action, sum up the first six values below, then sum the respective values of each person. If this final summation is positive, then the action is good! Wikipedia lists the vectors:

How strong is the pleasure?
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?
The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
How many people will be affected?

This really only pushes the quantification problem back a step, but these categories are a little easier to score.

Bentham also did a bunch of other neat things: he came up with the Panopticon, a hypothetical prison in which all inmates are constantly under (possible) surveillance; developed some of the first ideas about animal rights; and through his friendship with Adam Smith tried to apply some of his ideas about utility to economics. He also had his body preserved in a small glass closet—I’ll let Wikipedia explain this…

As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his “Auto-icon.” Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as “present but not voting.” Tradition holds that if the council’s vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favour of the motion.


The head is made of wax, and was regularly stolen by students as a prank. So I guess what I’m saying here is that utilitarianism is pretty exciting stuff.

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