The Mummy's Curse

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Bentham was a British political reformer. In an age when the death penalty was imposed for thefts as small as 5 shillings (maybe $20 today), or for unknowingly passing counterfeit money, for which the humane alternative was "transportation" to penal colonies like Georgia or, after the American Revolution, Australia, Bentham proposed an ideal kind of prison, the "panoptikon" ("all seeing"), where prisoners would be under constant supervision. This is more or less what modern prisons are like.

At the same time, Bentham had unusual ideas in other areas. Certainly the most unusual was what he wanted done with his body. Bentham thought that his body should be preserved and kept on display. This would be his "Auto-Icon." He believed this is what might be done with all famous men. His body, indeed, was preserved and is kept at the University College of London (UCL) in a wooden cabinet, modestly and precisely labelled "Jeremy Bentham." The body as such is not visible, since it is clothed and the head has been removed and replaced with a wax one.

Over the years a great deal of mythology has arisen about the Auto-Icon. The first story I ever heard about it was that Bentham contributed money to the University and required, not only that his body be displayed but that it be present for meetings of the University Board. Both of these are untrue. There are also myths about his mummified head, which at one time was actually displayed on the floor between his feet and then was, more delicately, kept in a hatbox in the cabinet. It is now locked away elsewhere, after students from King's College stole it as a prank. The myth is that they used it as football. This seems to be false.

In ethics, Bentham also had some new ideas. His proposal is called "Utilitarianism," and over the years there have been times when it was accepted as all but self-evidently true in Anglo-American philosophy. It is a variety of teleological morals. Bentham formulates the Principle of Utility as a single simple rule:

Act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

This is not the whole story, for the good itself must then be defined, and Bentham does. The good is happiness, and happiness is pleasure. Bentham is a Hedonist, holding that the only good is pleasure.

Utilitarianism, although popular enough, and contributing the concept of "utility" to much productive economic thought, is vulernable to a number of grave objections, several of which were soon voiced:

  1. Utilitarianism as such does nothing to protect Individual Rights. Bentham himself is quite explicit about this, since he rejects the dominant British natural rights tradition that went back at least to John Locke and in Bentham's own lifetime had been embodied in the United States Constitution. Nevertheless, Bentham calls it all "Nonsense on stilts." This is the most notorious thing about Bentham's theory. An implicit criticism of it appears to occur in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), where we have the moral problem of whether a perfect society would be worth it if such a thing could be achieved at the cost of constantly torturing a single child. This was turned into a science fiction story by Ursula Le Guin. Dostoevsky, of course, was a Christian and would countenance no "ends justify the means" construction of morality.

    It also bothered John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill's father, James Mill (1773-1836), had been a personal friend of Bentham's, and John was raised in a culturally elevated and politicized atmosphere (he was speaking Classical Greek at three). Although he never broke with his father's ideas, Mill ironically became a historic advocate for individual rights. His books On Liberty (1859) and The Subjection of Women (1869) are classics. How to reconcile such rights with Bentham's "nonsense on stilts" was a challenge. Mill did it by making the object of the Priniciple of Utility, not individual actions (now called "Act Utilitarianism") but rules for action ("Rule Utilitarianism"). If individual rights produce the greatest good for the greatest number, then as rules they are to be preferred over anything else. Unfortunately, if individual rights simply have greater utility, they lose their immediacy and much of their moral force. More importantly, there is no obvious moral reason why rules rather than actions should be judged by their utility. If, in specific circumstances, one judges that breaking a rule would result in greater utility, there is no good reason why this should not be acceptable or desirable. Mill's construction works only if there is an independent moral basis for the rules. There isn't; and Mill makes things worse by suggesting -- as with the "Noble Lies" of Plato's Republic -- that we simply lie about the derivation of moral rules and teach them as deontological duties, i.e. goods-in-themselves. This is neither practical nor noble.

    Nevertheless, Mill produced some of the clearest statements and principles of political liberty:  "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others" [On Liberty, 1859]. This may not be quite right, both because of the ambiguity of "harm" (it is "harm" if what you say makes me feel bad) and the possibility of abridging the will of others for paternalistic purposes (which prevents "harm"), but it is in the right ball park. It is not unlike Thomas Jefferson saying, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" [Notes on Virginia, 1782]. As we otherwise do gather from Jefferson, we are free to do whatever does not involve such theft or violence to others. A better principle is no easy thing.

    The problem of justification bedevils Utilitarianism in general. British natural rights ethics had often appealed to the self-evidence or the intuitive certainty ("Intuitionism") of natural rights. Bentham ridicules this, perhaps with justification, but then he has little to offer for the Principle of Utility apart from its intuitive certainty. Intuitionism is rejected, to be replaced by.....Intuitionism.

  2. Bentham's Hedonism is a separate issue. I would call this the problem of Quantity vs. Quality. To Bentham pleasure is pretty much pleasure, and his characteristic statement is that "Pushpen [apparently a kind of board game] is as good as poetry." Mill didn't like this aspect of the theory very much either and held that pleasures do differ in quality as well as quantity. However, Hedonism cannot be maintained on those terms. Plato himself thought that Hedonism could be refuted with a single observation:  If there are bad pleasures, then pleasure cannot be the sole standard of value. Indeed. If Citizen Kane is more worthy than Debbie Does Dallas, there is something more than just the intensity of pleasure going on. This is the case. However, a Utilitarianism is certainly possible without Bentham's Hedonism. G.E. (George Edward) Moore (1873-1958) developed something of the sort, a teleological theory of maximizing the good, where the good actually cannot be defined. This does not avoid other objections to Utilitarianism.

  3. The Principle of Utility contains another problem related to its goal, what I would call Quantity vs. Quantity. Thus, there are two things quantified in the principle, the greatest good for the greatest number. What if we could get a great deal of good, for a not very great number, or just a little good but for a very large number? People would certainly have their preferences (usually an egalitarian folly that general poverty is better than great disparities of wealth), but the Principle of Utility itself provides no means of deciding. This is an ambiguity or incompleteness that indicates, among other things, the poverty of the principle.

  4. In terms of Friesian ethics, one of the gravest objections against Utilitarianism is going to be its Moralism. By the Principle of Utility, everything is a moral issue. Choosing my socks in the morning, which ones will produce the greatest good for the greatest number? This is an absurd consideration. When I decide what to have for breakfast, must I try and decide what items will produce the greatest good for the greatest number? Of course not. I decide what I like. What's worse, how can I know what will provide pleasure to others? This is always a matter of serious difficulty when buying birthday or Christmas presents, even for people I know rather well. How can I conduct myself to produce the "greatest" pleasure for countless strangers whom I do not know at all? Surely I cannot -- gifts of money, which might cover anything, tend to be regarded, properly, as too impersonal, reflecting carelessness and a lack of consideration. On the other hand, this is a dangerous temptation to busybodies and the domineering. We all know people who are just sure that we will like what they like. On a personal level, this is annoying. On a political level, it is the path to a dangerous paternalism. Thus, I pick my socks or choose my breakfast mainly to please myself, or those whom I know well and have some personal connection to my socks or my breakfast -- after all, someone else may be eating my breakfast with me, and a woman may certainly think of what pleases a lover in choosing the right stockings. Thus, Bentham, like Kant in his first formulation of the Moral Law ("Act always so that the maxim of your action can be universalized without contradiction"), posits a principle that is too general and leaves out terms that would distinguish moral issues from non-moral issues.

  5. Finally, Bentham's career as a political reformer indicates the ultimate problem with Utility:  It is a Political, not a Moral, principle. The politician or the legislator is properly to be concerned with what produces the greatest good (if not the greatest pleasure) for the greatest number. It is there, indeed, that we have moral discussions about "disparities of wealth" and so forth. Bentham and Mill themselves were advocates of liberal economics -- though Mill in his old age may have begun drifting towards socialism. There is no doubt now that market economies produce the greatest wealth for the greatest number. While we continue to see complaints about "inequalities" in the "distribution of income," it has always been obvious that the richest individuals, from John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates, become that way by providing inexpensive products to a mass market -- i.e. by providing products to others. On the other hand, "consumer protection" advocates and political critics of "consumerism" and other "corporate" sins, curiously always manage to make consumer products more expensive. Henry Ford sold Model T's for $300 in 1920, which would be about $3000 in 1999 dollars. There is no new car today that can be got for anything like that. Even the revived Volkswagen Beetle started at $18,000. The high prices are certainly due to high labor costs, safety measures like airbags, which many people don't even want, and de facto import restrictions that limit the penetration of less expensive cars in the American market. Few businesses in the United States are the target of such vitriol as Wal-Mart, which has simply followed Sears and K-Mart (which have now merged) as the number one retailer in the country. Wal-Mart succeeds by offering low prices, like other successful retailers before it. Most critics would not shop at Wal-Mart anyway, which means what they want is to prevent others from shopping there. And this means wanting others to pay higher prices. Would we be surprised then if the critics don't want others to buy what they like? Indeed, a market economy is what allows people to get what they want, since anything can be offered on the market and will succeed as long as there are buyers. A market economy always allows anyone to get rich, by thinking of some new product that people are going to like and offering it.

    We know what happens with the alternative, i.e. a political provison of goods, which involves a political decision about what is worthy and what will be provided. Most of what people would like is condemned as vulgar and unnecessary, but even necessities becomes scarce because political payoffs, to labor, managers, or simply the connected, make any real efficiency impossible. Politics is the land of rent-seekers, whose only concern is getting their cut of the action. Thus, a paternalistic state, which denies consumers frivolities, is rarely able to provide much of the necessities that cannot be so dismissed. Sponges, for cleaning, were never available in the Soviet Union, because they were never regarded by the appropriate bureaucrat as necessary. At the same time, produce rotted in railroad cars because the transport system was not efficient enough to get it to market in a timely fashion. Similarly, as we see in the recent Canadian movie, The Barbarian Invasions (2003), the socialized Canadian medical system, where everyone is paid by the government, is riddled with irrationalities and inefficiencies. Fortunately, most Canadians live within 30 miles of the United States, where diagnostic tests and procedures can be obtained for which there are waits of months in Canada. Americans now like buying drugs in Canada, where there is official price fixing. If this gets bad enough, drug companies, which need to recover their costs, can simply limit supplies sent to Canada. Then Canadians themselves will want to prohibit foreigners from buying drugs there. Many Americans have forgotten the old American saying, "You get what you pay for." Or the rather newer saying, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (TANSTAAFL).

Jeremy Bentham, one of the strangest individuals in the history of philosophy, thus leaves a confused heritage. Like Taoism, he makes for poor morals but much better political economy. This is a valuable contribution, but the matter is so confused that it has been difficult to draw the appropiate distinctions. In John Stuart Mill we see a vigorous development in many of the right directions, but with the whole still compromised by the paradoxes and improprieties of the original theory. The value of the tradition, therefore, can only be appreciated with grave provisions and with some robust theory to cover the deficiencies.

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