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THE UGLY little dispute about the profits made by privatised public utilties is said to have caused Energy Minister Tim Eggar to become "incandescent", though the utility that got him overheated was electricity rather than gas. It is all a bit sordid, and takes us a long away from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It was Bentham who first formulated in its full splendour the principle of utility, which declared that the only test of public or private morality was whether it promoted the greatest happiness of the greatest number. In this he followed David Hume, who, if I understand him, thought the highest form of pleasure was giving pleasure to others. Bentham's principle, if not Hume's, thus runs contrary to that of a privatised utility, where some will say the greatest happiness is shared among a small number of directors.

It may be objected that Bentham's utilitarianism is irrelevant to the profits of the National Grid, because he was using utility as an abstract noun - a desirable quality - while a utility is a palpable thing. However, the two functions of the word have amicably co-existed for at least 500 years. The abstract one had come first, borrowed from the utilitas of the Latin, in which the -itas ending generally implied an abstract.

Bentham aside, it was never much more than a workaday word. Bentham himself was attacked in the 1910 edition of the Britannica for being "mean-spirited" and for "measuring the quantity of pleasures by the coarsest and most mechanical tests". Since then utility's connotations have tended to grow shabbier, moving away from the idea of amenity, or benefit, towards that of minimum necessity: a utility coat is of cheapest cut, a utility car will merely get you there. It can't be said that the privatised utilities have done much for its reputation.

Nicholas Bagnall