The question of ethics and morality, what is the right thing to do vs. The wrong thing in a given situation, can be an extremely difficult one. There are occasions where right and wrong are clear, black and white distinctions. In such scenarios, the right thing to do is easy discernible, though it may not be the easiest things to do. However, this is the rarest of occasions. Far more often than not trying to determine what is the right and wrong choice in a given situation is extremely difficult, if not wholly impossible. Usually the world is not divided into simple terms like good and bad, right or wrong, black or white. Sometimes in life a person will be encountered with the opportunity to make a choice. There will be times when the right or wrong thing will not be as obvious as one would like it to be. There will also be occasions thankfully where the wrong or right thing will be obvious. Sometimes an honest action will be unprofitable and thus unpleasant and it can be difficult for the individual to make that correct, or right, choice. However, when faced with something so black and white, it is the responsibility of all thinking, ethical beings to do the right thing. Philosophers since before recorded history have tried to find a way to determine ultimate and empirical morality. In his writings, the philosopher Cicero described three criteria which would determine whether an ethical of philosophical theory had any potential voracity. According to Carneade, the three criteria which indicate a philosophical theory are: that it allows for choices, that it can be taught, and that the ethics must "appeal to some original motivating factor already present in human nature" (Carneade 15). Jeremy Bentham was one of the most intelligent minds of the 18th century and in his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation attempted to introduce his own perspectives on the three criteria.
Ethical theories must allow for human beings to make their own choices in given situations. This means that the ethical and more rules that are linked to a given sociological community must be dependent on choice of the person who lives in that community. He or she must understand the rules of the community, but they are also able to either accept or to challenge those moral and ethical rules. Bentham writes: "To be sufficient for this purpose, it must be evidently and uniformly greater: greater, not in the eyes of some men only, but of all men who are liable to be in the situation to take their choice between the two offenses; that is, in effect, of all mankind" (191). Man and woman must have the ability to choose to participate in the moral and ethical behaviors of the community if there is to be an acceptable set of social rules. In order for there to necessitate moral and ethical dictums, there must be people with the potential to disobey them.
Secondly, in order to be an accurate and appropriate philosophical theory, the hypothesis must be able to be taught to the masses. Since ethics are relative and determined by the majority population of a culture, they must be able to be taught to the larger population. Further, Jeremy Bentham postulates on the basic question of morality and ethics: what is good or bad. The philosopher explicitly states this question in his book and finds that, as many before him postulated, that there is no objective course which determines right or wrong on a universal scale. He writes:
A man's intention then on any occasion may be styled good or bad, with reference either to the consequences of the act, or with references to his motives. If it be deemed good or bad in any sense, it must be either because it is deemed to be productive of good or of bad consequences, or because it is deemed to originate from a good or from a bad motive. But the goodness or badness of the consequences depend upon the circumstances (Bentham 147).
This attitude would also formulate later ethical principles, such as the theory of relativism wherein philosophers state that ethics are relative to the community in which the rules of that society are created. The logic behind this aspect to the creation of philosophical theory is that if a person is unable to understand the rules of the moral philosophy of the community, then they cannot possibly adhere to those rules.
Lastly, a theory must appeal the masses as appropriate to the better part of their human nature. Human beings, either through legislation or their religious practices or whatever larger system of rules that they apply, endeavor to create dictums which will apply not only to themselves, but to all of mankind as well. Bentham writes:
It is an acknowledged truth that every kind of act whatever, and consequently every kind of offense, is apt to assume a different character, and be attended with different effects, according to the nature of the motive which gives birth to it. This makes it requisite to take a view of the several motives by which human conduct is liable to be influenced (97).
The purpose is to convince other men and women to prescribe to behaviors which will serve to better the living situation of mankind and which will ensure that the least amount of pain either physical or emotional occurs.
The criteria that the ancient philosophers wrote of, ethics requiring a person to have choice, being able to be taught to others, and that the ethical rules appeal to the better instincts of human beings are exhibited in the writings of Jeremy Bentham. Writing centuries after the ancients, Bentham was able to articulate how those criteria are still applicable in a modern setting. Each of these components is necessary in order to create an understanding of how ethics and morals are designed in any given society. The people must have the ability to accept or reject the ethical rules, must have the ability to learn them from the rest of their social structure, and must appeal to the innate sensibility of the individual so that the majority population can embrace them as truth.
At the heart of Bentham's book is the exploration into legislative forms and governmental forms which are best suited to the people and the ethics of the population as a whole; a question about pain and pleasure, the attempt to gain the most amount of pleasure in a situation and to retard the pain as much as possible (Bentham 1). This argument also appears in the writings of the ancients. The crux of the question of ethics and morals seems then to be that the most important distinction is the understanding of the difference between pain and pleasure. In any society, what will be considered ethical and moral according to Bentham's criteria will be what is best for the largest proportion of society. He writes: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do" (Bentham 1). Here it would seem that Bentham's philosophy is most closely related to the writer Cicero and his journey to find perfect justice.
Other philosophers, particularly Epicurus and Cicero also wrote about the correlation between pain and pleasure and ethical and moral determination. Whereas Bentham and Cicero both agreed that the desire for pleasure had to be balanced by the freedom from pain, Epicurus was far more interested in the achievement of pleasure, even if the cost of that pleasure was the pain of others. Epicurus wrote: "Pleasure is good even…